Candidates Collide at Newark West Ward Debate

NEWARK – If Joe McCallum’s political demise didn’t turn Newark’s West Ward into the Wild West, at the very least the former West Ward councilman unwittingly made politics here more interesting, as six candidates scramble to fill the void created by McCallum’s corruption implosion.

Kelly, left, and Onyema

Vying in the May 10th Election, they had a forum to make themselves seen and heard this past Thursday night when the Ivy Hill Neighborhood Association, in partnership United Vailsburg Services Association (UVSA), sponsored a debate, which prompted some feisty, testy and impassioned exchanges.

Insiders see rapper and community activist Dupre Kelly as the favorite to succeed McCallum, in part by virtue of his affiliation with Mayor Ras Baraka, who’s popular in the west. Pictures of Baraka and Kelly adorn many key intersections in the neighborhood reminders of the dominance of Team Baraka. But attorney Chigozie Onyema has caught people’s attention with his organizing and fundraising, and is trying to force Kelly into a one on one amid the barrage of the other four.

Confirming convention wisdom about the race, Kelly was the main target at Thursday’s forum in the

Doitall Kelly.

UVSA Teen Center, as Middy Baraka, chief of staff to his brother the mayor, sat in the front row at the forum.

“I was born and raised here,” Kelly told the crowd. “It’s the truth I was raised by a single mother and went to school here. I’ve already been doing the work for 25 years. I ran for office because the unheard asked me to do so because of the work I’m already doing.”

The cracked-up McCallum “wasn’t selected by the mayor. He was elected by the people. The mayor asked me to be a part of his team. He saw what I was already doing. Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric. They haven’t done the work.”

But for Onyema, the presence of McCallum on Baraka’s ticket in the past gave him the opening he needed to make his case for independent leadership. “We don’t want the next four years to look like the last eight years,”


he said. “It’s up to us. I am the only person who served at every level of government. We’ve been left by ourselves for eight years. I choose to spend mine [his life] fighting injustice. …It’s not enough for a handful of developers to shape our city, or for a handful of political bosses to pick our next West Ward councilperson. The mayor is doing a good job. We need someone who holds the mayor accountable. Caring is about preparing yourself for leadership.”

Despite those differences among them, “We all have a shared understanding about who is the least qualified. A better ward is possible; it’s not inevitable. We’re going to have to fight for it on May 10th.”

Oscar James II, a born-and-raised developer and former councilman, said, “Every day as we come home… this is not the West Ward where my daughter can


live; where children can live. We deserve better; we deserve a safe and clean West Ward. …We deserve a West Ward where we deserve a response for the high taxes we pay.”

Lavita Johnson, assistant manager in the city’s office of people’s assembly and a former cop, said “It’s time to rebuild, restore, and renew.”

“The old West Ward Councilman is already out,” she added. “It’s time to elect a new one. Enough is enough, playing politics in the West Ward.”

Michelle Middleton, a lobbyist and former New York City Police Officer, swatted at Kelly a few times early, while protesting Newark’s xenophobic tendencies.


“This is not just naming people and throwing soliloquies,” said Middleton.

“She’s an implant,” Kelly shot back.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from,” Middleton said. “Why would we have that kind of ignorant thinking? This kind of attitude we don’t need. I’m a Newarker [who has lived in the ward for 17 years].”

Community activist Lyndon Brown – 30 years a a district

Lyndon Brown
Lyndon Brown

leader, 40 years a block association president, said, “I didn’t take the elevator, I took the stairs.”

Brown wants a more people-centered, grassroots approach to the city’s problems.

“I was robbed last week,” he said.

Inevitably the questions returned to Kelly.


“We need to expand our programs,” said the frontrunner, who wants to implement an area board for new development projects in the city, so that the community can weigh in before projects get to the planning and zoning board stages.

Middleton, making a point about affordable housing, said she sympathizes with the people of Ukraine, but will make Newark residents her first priority amid the influx of refuges from war-torn Europe.

Onyema wants a strategic plan to help the West Ward corridors, including Community Development Block Grant money to improve building facades.


Co-moderators Deborah Gregory, President of the Newark NAACP, and Dr. Uche Onyeani DC.


Kelly and Onyema shadowed each other at times, both men emphasizing strong, healthy block associations as a critical democratic function in the ward, and identifying code enforcement as the city service most desperately in need of attention.

They did differ on one key point in a ward beset by shootings, killings and abandoned, devastated buildings. Kelly said the ward needs more police. Onyema said, “public safety is so much more than policing,” and called for “deeper, stronger economic investment.”

Brown identified potholes as an ongoing problem in the ward, and Middleton identified garbage collection, promising to set up a tribunal to hold the city’s garbage collection executive accountable.

Middleton took some swings in her closing statement. “Get rid of the rhetoric. This is about getting your hands dirty. The word ‘work’ is used so loosely and so unethically. It doesn’t mean being put on someone’s ticket or having a career resuscitated by the community of the West Ward.”

Good overall energy dominated the room, and the sense of the fate of Newark’s West Ward at stake. Onyema said no one doubted the desire of everyone for a better ward, and at the end, he and Kelly embraced, but in the harder-edged exchanges, the forum also hinted at the May 10th contest’s intensification.

“Our goal was to organize and plan a professional debate forum that would focus on issues impacting the West Ward,” said Dr. Uche Onyeani, DC., who o-moderated the event with Deborah Gregory, President of the Newark NAACP. “I am proud to say we achieved that. The candidates heard what was most important to our residents and our residents heard and, I believe, got a much better understanding of each candidate’s thought process and ideas to move the West Ward forward.


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