The Forgotten Newark Election: VBM-Reimagined, and Forgotten


The leaders of the town really didn’t want people to vote in school board elections, so they pushed them to April where they could go unnoticed.

Even then, too many people paid attention.

Gadflies prevailed on others to take notice of strange goings on afoot like privatization.

There was still too much ruckus.

The Newark School Board elections used to be a great – or at least significant – staging area for local rebel Ras Baraka – principal of Central High School and a public education advocate – to push back against City Hall, which at that time had strong ties to the North Ward, whose political disciples ran the charter school network otherwise known as the North Ward Center, and enjoyed strong working connections to Republican Governor Chris Christie.

After Christie became the governor-elect in 2009, in fact, he went to the North Ward to celebrate.

As long as a Christie-charter education-dominant state ran the local board, the April school board elections remained useful, and even a politically weaponized necessity through most of the Christie years. It was a battleground, in fact, for the soul of the city, in addition to being the heart of the Baraka revolution. But when vouchers and charter schools advocate Cory Booker moved up to the U.S. Senate and South Ward Councilman Baraka became mayor, people looked around and wondered why the hell they kept warring with one another when everyone basically had gotten what he wanted politically in the end.

Booker became senator and Baraka became mayor.

Newark got a super (see below) from Newark.

Did they really want to turn the blowtorches on in April for school board seats?

The answer was an emphatic internal “no,” and so they bound together to make something called the unity slate, which aligned into one camp the competing interests of the three main factions interested in Newark schools: Baraka’s public education acolytes, the North Ward guys affiliated with Councilman Anibal Ramos, and the charter school diehards.

Let ‘em all in.

No one would get his or her hair mussed in the process.

So the monied power structure rooted in city hall rigorously enforced its non-aggression pact, ensuring the uniform membership of three each from those factions to compose the nine-member board. It was like three productions of Shakespeare’s King Lear going on at once, only in the Newark version the three offspring of each camp were actually loyal to the individual king in question – and respectful of his power.

Roger Leon, the first superintendent selected in 22 years by the Newark Public Schools Board of Education threw himself a 50th birthday party at Robert Treat Hotel in Newark. It was attended by some of the members of the Newark Public Schools Board of Education and Essex County Freeholder Len Luciano.
Superintendent Roger Leon


It was already a non-event. Even the superintendent of schools last year felt sufficiently politically bulletproof to throw himself a Nebuchadnezzar-sized birthday party just ahead of the April 16th election with the outcome already secure. That was a year ago, with turnout among Newark’s 150,000 voter eligible residents limping in at 7,124 or less than six percent.

Then the COVID-19 crisis of 2020 hit the city – and hit it hard.

Nearly everything else had been done by design to make the elections essentially disappear.

Now there was something equivalent to a meteor slamming into the city.

In COVID-19 survival mode, Governor Phil Murphy moved the elections date and made them a wholly vote-by-mail (VBM) endeavor.

The little election cycle that couldn’t even reach the knees of Newark (all the lawmakers in LD28 and LD29 back the establishment ticket) had shrunk to even smaller status.

All Primary
Joe Divinceno, Durkin and Kevin McCabe.

Still, all was not lost, according to Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin, who on Tuesday told InsiderNJ that Newarkers had cast 3,510 ballots ahead of the Tuesday, May 12th deadline.

That puts the city on pace roughly to match last year’s participation.

“I suspect the number will double in these last seven days,” said Durkin.

That’s with no press, no money, and every voter in town in possession of a VBM with pre-paid postage.

Maybe it’s because everyone’s too bogged down with the effort of trying to stay alive, trying to stay employed, and trying to stay fed, clothed and sheltered.

Maybe too, those who care – or those who don’t – see the outcome as largely inevitable.

Oh, and if all that weren’t enough, the unity ticket is bracketed together, one (Hasani Council, who’s

North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, right, and Sammy Gonzalez.

affiliated with Baraka or the South and the son of Recreation Director Patrick Council), two (Josephine Garcia, who’s with the North and Councilman Anibal Ramos) and three (Flohisha Hill, who’s with the charters).

And if that weren’t enough in this nearly wiped out cycle, Hill and Garcia are incumbents.

“I don’t think you’re going to beat an incumbent in this environment,” an insider said complacently to InsiderNJ when asked to ponder the dynamics of the local elections cycle.

Still, Ronnie Kellam, Sheila Montague, and Phillip Wilson have all stepped up to run for three of the seats in play, one of them open – to examine those issues relevant to the 40,000 students in the Newark schools.

“The students in our district should have the same resources such as technology and other educational opportunities as other districts throughout the state,” Wilson said in an interview here. “No child should be denied access to their teachers nor should they fall behind in their education due to a lack of technology. My plan will be to ensure ALL Students will have access to the most up-to-date technology i.e. chrome books and E-Textbooks. Most textbooks are expensive compared to purchasing the book in electronic form.”

It’s indicative of the kind of desperate detail otherwise lacking in an election blotted out not only by years of elections-resistance, but a pandemic.

The Ironbound’s Priscilla Garces ran last year as an independent candidate who lost to the 2019 version of the three-prong unity ticket.

This year, she just wants to get her ballot in and counted.

“We have to change the way we vote,” Garces, legally blind, told InsiderNJ earlier today. “Voting should be more accessible to people with disabilities. This election is more elusive than ever, too, because everyone is so focused on the health situation.”


For his part, state Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28) of the city’s West Ward has been working the phones throughout the pandemic in part to figure out if New Jersey can open polling places in time for the Murphy-rescheduled July 7th primary elections. A Vietnam veteran who once saw the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a hotel in the 1960s, who spent a lifetime running in, running and never running from elections, Rice worries about the impact of VBM elections on populations already mostly disengaged from the process.

“We have lines around the block for liquor stores in this pandemic,” said Rice. “Can’t we figure out a way to protect people’s right to vote at the polls? We can’t get lazy about this.”

Who does he pick to win next week?

“The team endorsed by the mayor will wind up being victorious,” said the veteran senator, which incidentally is the team Rice endorsed.

It’s the team everyone endorsed.

“One thing about the board members is they don’t really communicate with state lawmakers,” said the senator. “They deal directly with the local folks. I think everybody’s on the same page here. I think the mayor has done a good job working with the members of the board. I support the mayor. I support the superintendent. He’s a product of Newark schools. He understands the direction we need to go in, and I am also supportive of folks who right now are not working. I am sure there are people out there who wanted to be candidates for the school board, but COVID-19 never gave them the opportunity.”

But as he frets about the impact of the VBM election on the fragile psyche of an electorate largely acclimated – like much of New Jersey – to giving up on elections, and on the primary two months from now, Rice more immediately sizes up the May 12th election, not in Newark, but on the other side of the state, in Atlantic City, a referendum that would replace the mayor and council with a commission and appointed manager, scrapping democracy as that black and diverse city knows it, in favor of what Rice sees as casino rule, setting up a precedent there to further encroach on an already vastly diminished voting base – ultimately in his home town of Newark, which has until next Tuesday to vote in its own forgotten local school board election.

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