Into the West: Collisions of Times Past, Present and Future in Kelly v. Onyema

Baraka Cares in the West Ward.
South Orange Avenue in Newark's West Ward.
South Orange Avenue in Newark’s West Ward.

 

NEWARK – An African-American community organizer here once fought the Irish who dominated the ward politically out of the South Orange Avenue beehives and backrooms of their local taverns, wearing the blues and reds of their local and county public safety professions, their power organized under the aegis of Essex County Sheriff John Cryan. The organizer became a pioneering councilman of the post-1967 era, and proved no less aggressive in resistance to the leaders of his own race when he felt City Hall bucked the interests of the residents of the West Ward.

A cop and Marine Corps veteran, he had sufficient grassroots backing in his neighborhood to routinely speak his mind. From inside City Hall, he fought city hall. When the head of the engineering department lowballed services in the west, the councilman moved to reduce his annual salary to a dollar – and obtained the funding he wanted. The county party detoured him to Trenton in 1985, bypassing Assemblyman Mike Adubato – brother of late North Ward political leader Steve Adubato – to plant the councilman in the senate seat.

The new senator never lost that local granular grounded-ness, though. Even after he finally gave up the west ward seat in 1998, the old-timers still thought of him as “The Councilman,” and even now, in the aftermath of the corruption meltdown of West Ward Councilman Joe McCallum, the young men intent on a new vision for the West and running for the storied and now sullied local seat of power, encounter residents on the campaign trail who invoke – with a sense of pride and celebration of times past, the name “Ronald L. Rice.”

Those encounters remind them of the impact of one person and the primacy of this particular council seat. They suggest a comparative vacancy created by McCallum’s troubles, and ultimately create a pathway for these men to make their own West Ward destiny. Each one stands in the way of the other, however, and will not get to the West Ward council seat without first weathering the trials the other presents, not in the name of earlier West Ward eras, but in the here and now of Newark.

The coming contest on May 10th, 2022 promises the appearance of other candidates, some of whom have already entered the fray, among them former South Ward Councilman Oscar James II. But two men have fixed the attention of the political establishment both in and out of the city, as their street paths crisscross on the campaign trail with a sense of purpose, organization and urgency, putting them ultimately on an inevitable collision course. They are “DoItAll” Kelly and Chigozie Onyema, men of accomplishment, gravity and goodwill, each with his own Newark story. Each too labors on the West Ward trail in the larger context of Newark political power, their contest at the very fulcrum of how much influence Mayor Ras Baraka will wield in his third term. Baraka must run for reelection himself citywide, but few see a candidate with sufficient force to credibly challenge Newark’s political powerhouse next year, putting that much more emphasis on the West Ward showdown. If the mayor has five out of the nine votes now with the retiring jammed-up McCallum, the loss of the West Ward seat could see the mayor’s power slip to four.

Maybe he could pick it up elsewhere, with another seat perhaps (the east?), but Team Baraka wants a reinvigorated ally in the west, so they recruited their old and fiercely loyal friend, former Lords of the Underground hip-hop star and community nonprofit founder Kelly, whose history with the Barakas goes back to their early community organizing days.

Baraka
Mayor Baraka

 

Onyema also supported Ras Baraka, notably in 2014, when the educator-poet successfully won the mayoralty. A New York University-trained attorney – a community organizer and policymaker (a standout at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice) – Onyema took a job as general counsel for Mayor Baraka’s Newark Parking Authority. Then he amplified his government credentials by going to work as assistant commissioner for the state Department of Community Affairs with Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver.

In 2022 rebuilding and retightening mode, Team Baraka sized up Onyema and Kelly as potential West Ward replacements for the self-derailed and disgraced McCallum. They picked Kelly, who had actually run unsuccessfully against Team Baraka in 2018 for an at-large seat.

Undeterred, Onyema forged ahead anyway with his own candidacy.

Baraka himself had run against the power.

He would do the same.

For Kelly’s part, Baraka represented more than merely a political power center, but the progressive vitality of the city itself.

Former West Ward Councilman Ronald C. Rice, son of the elder Councilman Rice, compared and contrasted the fledgling candidacies of the two men within the peculiar dynamics of the ward he served for eight years. Most insiders describe Kelly as the favorite, largely because of his organic association with the popular incumbent mayor.

Moreover, “He [Kelly] has always been a community fixture and is well liked by mostly everyone,” said the younger Rice. “But the West Ward is also an upstart ward and acts like a maverick at times, unlike the South and Central. Don’t forget, my dad won the West Ward, the only ward he won, when he ran against Sharpe James for Mayor in 1998.  …I also had more votes than Mayor Cory Booker in the West Ward in 2010 as a candidate for re-election to the council [only Anibal Ramos and I have that honor).

“The West Ward values free thinkers, independent minded leaders and electeds that will check the mayor legislatively and publicly,” Rice added. “It is because of that that Chigozie has a shot. Going into his third term, the ward may want a legislative check on the mayor, not an outright anti-Baraka candidate [like my dad was with Sharpe towards the end of his term], but one that will hold the administration accountable, transparent and oppose when necessary [like I did with Booker]. Chigozie is an ideas guy like I am with real specifics on what he wants to do legislatively, but Dupre has the feel and touch of the people from years of being in the neighborhood [more like my dad].”

That tension between independence and the city’s current course, book smarts and street smarts, the Baraka mystique – potent enough to scare away citywide candidates of consequence and recruit a compelling hip-hop star to the ticket, and what it gains for the city in terms of real results – versus the evolution of new blood forged in the face of an iconic power base, a professional who excelled in conventional academic and professional environs, forms the foundation of this ward-wide clash.

Doitall Kelly
Doitall Kelly.

 

ALL 2022 ROADS LEAD TO SOUTH ORANGE AVENUE

“I’m born and raised in Newark, New Jersey,” legitimate private sector success story Kelly, sitting in

Doitall Kelly.
Kelly

Team Baraka’s headquarters downtown, told InsiderNJ. “I’m assigned to Newark. I could have went anywhere coming out of the Lords of the Underground, and I stayed here and formed a nonprofit. People are asking for me to be a voice; to use my resources and relationships in the ward help Team Baraka continue to push the city forward. Hip hop has always been involved in social ills and social injustices. Hip hop is now a pop culture. It’s a thing we need to do. With that said, it becomes an inspiration to young black males around the city. We don’t teach civics in school anymore. This gives them a way to get involved. Politics always gets a bad rap, especially from hip hop culture, but being involved is very important. This shows people it’s cool. A lot of people do things out of the classroom that go to the core of civics – beyond book smarts

Council President Grant
Council President Grant

– experience of actually doing things. The people of the West Ward deserve that, not just lip professing. They need a doer, and I have shown that is who I am, with a Shaw University HBCU education, relationships developed from world travels, and lyrics to the Lords of Underground hits that inspired millions worldwide, written right at 318 South 19th Street. I learned how to become a man in the West Ward. I didn’t come from somewhere else and move into the West Ward for political reasons. I am the West Ward. It’s personal for me

“I never asked to run for office – let me do the work,” added Kelly, whose local political education goes back to his days campaigning for former City Council President Ralph T. Grant.

Chigozie Onyema
Chigozie Onyema

 

In an underground coffee shop downtown not far from the Park Place address where Team Baraka possesses striking distance to all five wards, Onyema talked about his own vision for the west. The son of immigrants who came to Newark from Nigeria, Onyema, born in Newark’s West Ward, hails from Hill Manor. His family moved to neighboring Maplewood, where he received – in addition to his schooling – a damning lesson on the soft bigotry impacts of a local education tracking system. “I asked myself why these classrooms were based purely on racial designations, and I obtained a language to understand this world, to figure out why all these black students were getting a much different experience from this supposedly wonderful suburban school district,” Onyema recalled. With the help of a mentor teacher, he prepared himself for his first candidacy: a run for the school board ran in 2005, while he was a freshman at Essex County Community College. In that race, he learned the value of running for what he believes in, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the candidate, as his unsuccessful candidacy contributed to shifting the tracking system in a more equitable direction, forcing the denied tenure of the principal and the retirement of the superintendent.

Onyema
Onyema

“We were able to make some noise – our race was the catalyst for change,” Onyema said.

Now, all these years later, with a Howard University undergraduate education behind him in addition to the government work done at the city and state levels, he sees the needs of his native West Ward in stark contrast to the thriving Central and East, in part the lingering consequence of a foreclosure crisis. As he considers the latest scourge of violent crime, he doesn’t point the finger at the mayor, or any other leader. Neither does he believe a cult of personality can prevail. “The ward hasn’t experienced [significant] development in over a decade,” said the candidate. “Nine people were shot the other day in a shooting spree. The city is struggling. No one mayor transforms the city by himself. Better leadership asks better questions and pushes more thoughtful ideas. Having a thoughtful and progressive mayor is not enough.”

He applauds some of Baraka’s policies, including the mayor’s decision to back an inclusionary zoning ordinance, which requires affordable housing provisions from Newark developers, with an opt out clause provided the developer pays the city. That said, he would like to be part of a more aggressive effort to restore homes to the tax rolls in the predominantly residential West Ward. The city owns many foreclosed properties, which Newark should connect to prospective homeowners through a revolving loan fund. Generally, he wants to help oversee better organization of the municipal budget to ensure a robust West Ward voice.

Onyema says he feels the crestfallen spirits of people who have given up on politics. “Whether it’s Trump or McCallum, or gridlock in Washington, everybody’s experiencing this thing of politics as BS, but we try to demonstrate our integrity by the way we campaign,” said the candidate. “If I hold this office I hold it in trust. It belongs to you, which is why I am here to ask you questions about the ward. Folks are shocked when you actually show up at their door, because there is a genuine suspicion around politics. Then you begin to have real conversations. I was over on Ellery Avenue where a man lost his son to a rare form of cancer. He said to me, ‘You’re going to do what everyone else is doing.’ I said, ‘What are they doing?’ And he said, ‘Nothing.’ He’s part of the campaign now. We’re in conversations right now. The conversations we have at the door transfer and transform. They are part of the higher expression of democracy.”

Mayor Hatcher

He readily discusses his favorite books, including Ready for the Revolution by Stokely Carmichael, Howard Zinn’s histories, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and yes, the poetry of the late Amiri Baraka, Sr., father of Mayor Baraka; in addition to the work by mentors, including scholar Ron Walters and the late Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana, the first African-American mayor of a city with a population greater than 100,000. He also offers the expertise of having worked as the general counsel for the parking authority when the city built a $40 million parking facility adjacent to the municipal court. Ultimately, “Organizing in this world and bringing people together – that’s the lifeblood of democracy,” Onyema said. “The things we are fighting are phenomenally well-organized- entities like big oil companies, for example. They’re organized. We have to be well organized when I think about what we’re up against. The core lesson of all of it is that the world is not fixed. We can imagine something that speaks to our values.”

Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28) nixed 'Freeholder.'
Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28).

 

THE WATCHFUL WEST WARD EYE OF THE ELDER STATESMAN

The young men and their visions will joust in the streets of the city, where the elder Rice – still the 28th District senator – will watch and carefully consider the campaigns of both before he issues a formal endorsement. In a conversation with InsiderNJ this week, he immediately wanted to make one thing very clear.

“I support the mayor, of course,” said the senator.

That said, he wants to see specific qualities exhibited by the next councilman.

The councilman – or councilwoman, if another candidate emerges – will need to compel the at-large representatives to help the ward.

Even more importantly, “He cannot be a rubber stamp and must respectfully draw the line,” said Rice. “He cannot merely be a social media presence. He has got to be basic and grassroots. He needs to get together and make use of those contacts and connections, for the people of the ward. Too often, we don’t  get together unless I call and I call.

“Kelly is independent,” he added of the Team Baraka pick. “We helped raise him. Anyway, why would you not want to support the mayor? We all support the mayor. That’s not the issue. But the councilman has to always make clear, as a matter of principle: ‘You’re not going to dictate to me.’ That’s what all lawmakers must keep at the forefront: don’t subordinate yourself to the administration; to any administration.”

McCallum cut his government teeth in the office of the younger Councilman Rice. Then he cracked up on federal wire fraud charges when he tried to assume the council seat, surviving two run-off elections only to lose the battle with himself.

“I supported him when he worked for my son,” said Senator Rice. “I supported Ras and I said, ‘We’re going to support McCallum for councilman, because wherever the mayor is, I’ll have a [relationship with the] councilman. Unfortunately other folks influenced him. He developed relationships. This is someone who came from the grassroots, but he developed business relationships, he got caught up in stuff he shouldn’t have, and in the end, I suspect he was just a victim.”

Locked in his own fights at the state level, facing the prospect of a new senate president with whom he has already publicly routinely feuded, Rice said the next councilman must restore public trust and integrity to the office. He must put the community first. “The ward needs stability,” said Rice. “The commercial corridors look like crap. That’s because they [city officials] don’t hold them accountable. Most business owners don’t live in town. People are hanging out on the corners. Trucks are parked all over the place. The laws on the books prevent that. I know. I wrote the laws. They just need to be enforced, and to that end, the councilman needs to go out there personally.”

Mayor Baraka
Mayor Baraka and the West Ward: Perfect Together?

 

Oscar James
Oscar James II

Other candidates in the developing West Ward contest may include at least one quality female candidate who has yet to formally announce. The citywide import of this single ward race to Mayor Baraka may cause him to put the bulk of his campaign resources behind Kelly to avoid a runoff. Even as the rest of Baraka’s ticket romped in 2014 and 2018, McCallum faced runoffs in both those elections (again, insiders point to the west’s independent streak showing itself). That outcome this time would trouble Team Baraka, who wants to avoid a redux of the 2010 Charles Bell/Darrin Sharif Central Ward race, when Sharif upset Bell and embarrassed then-Mayor Cory Booker.

A holdover from the Sharpe James era, Bell was never a natural fit for Booker, though. In fact, he beat Booker’s candidate, Eddie Osborne, to snag the Central Ward seat in 2008.

Kelly gives the impression of Baraka snugness.

“Our mayor has loved this city more than a lot of people,” he told InsiderNJ. “In the early nineties, when I was in the Lords of the Underground, he would tell me, ‘We’re going to be on the steps of City Hall. Could you come out and open the mic for me?’ We didn’t have social media back then. ‘Just mention we’re going to be on this block in front of City Hall.’ I would do it. We go way back, to the nineties, even though I ran independently in 2018.”

That word again.

“Independently.”

If Onyema wins, Baraka would have – conceivably – the South and Central (if Councilwoman Lamonica McIver wins reelection) and two at-large seats. North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos would have four: (his own, the North, in addition to two at-large seats and the East). A four-four tie, with Onyema the empowered tiebreaker. It isn’t that simple, and again, other seats may be in play. Team Baraka has not yet selected an East Ward successor to retiring Councilman Augusto Amador, for example. That said, the candidate will likely bear the imprimatur of Ramos.

But Kelly also wants to be clear.

Although he’s running on Team Baraka, “I have never been a rubber stamp. I have never been a lock and step for the sake of lock and step. The mayor trusts in what I bring to the team. We will support each other but only if it is the best thing for our city. Newark has always been in these silos. We can’t get things done because we’re always independent. Look, we’re going to bang it out but when speak in front of the cameras we will come together with the best possible decision for the city. Independence in and of itself doesn’t get it done. Together we have to do it: residents, nonprofits, business owners. We will be in the same boat we’re always in, otherwise. If my opponent wants to be independent, he will probably just be over there somewhere. You can’t just push by yourself unless you’re Hercules. And I don’t think he’s Hercules. I’ve never been paid by City Hall. My family doesn’t work for them. I have no interest in City Hall other than wanting to push this city forward. I love how Mayor Ras Barak loves this city.

“No disrespect to our past leadership, but it’s going to take everybody – no superheroes – residents business owners, our educational system – revitalizing the mindset,” added the candidate. “It’s a funny built ward, almost attached to every other part of the city, and to South Orange, Irvington and to the North and Central – almost everybody. I would be crazy to say the West Ward needs to do this independently by themselves.”

The towering figure of the West Ward, who prides himself on integrity forged from the connections he has with the residents not political insiders, nonetheless has isolated himself, and in so doing, not connected the Weet Ward to its greatest potential, said Kelly. “I love this man,” said the candidate. “I love Senator Ron Rice. When I knock on doors, they talk about Ron Rice still, to this day. …But the independence of Ron Rice’s power was not collective. We want to change that with Team Baraka. Everybody’s involved in the development. The great Ron Rice was independent. He was great but the ward has lagged. Ron Rice is a great, great political guy. But if you’re not teaming up, you can’t foster change in certain areas. He [is] powerfully independent.”

Into the West.
Into the West.

 

TO THE MAY 10th FRONTIER

The residential streets of Newark’s West Ward echo with the political fortunes of Cryan and Giblin and Durkin, the transitions of local power, the fall of a mayor, the fallout from the 1967 troubles, the fall of another mayor, and the compounded financial crisis of the new millennium. In the words of InsiderNJ reporter Bob Hennelly: During the tenure of President Baraka Obama’s rescue of the global economy he fattened up America’s Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo but let the Main Streets and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevards sink into zombie home despair and disrepair. Years after the end of the Great Recession they till cast shadow on these communities.

Amid too many dormant signs since the door-to-door heyday of the Rice era, a keen political rivalry between two up and comers may entice the ward to look into itself and engage the process anew. Kelly has the favor of a popular activist mayor. Onyema has raised $80,000. Unofficial Newark totals from the November general election show the west with more energy than other words, perhaps the consequence of the coming contest: 139 of 139 total districts. Turnout in the city: 26,272 Phil Murphy received 24,246 Jack Ciattarelli received 1,876 Plurality for Murphy: 22,219; East Ward (23/23 districts): Turnout: 3,217 PM: 2,116 JC: 1,073 Plurality: 1,043; North Ward (32/32 districts) Turnout: 6,244 PM: 5,203 JC: 1,006 Plurality: 4,197; West Ward (37/37) Turnout: 6,526 PM: 6,191 JC: 308 Plurality: 5,883; Central Ward Turnout: 6,600 PM: 6,197 JC: 353 Plurality: 5,844; South Ward (40/40) Turnout: 6,741 PM: 6,499 JC: 204 Plurality: 6,295.

“The numbers are in part the consequence of us all being out there, I suspect, knocking on doors,” Onyema said. “We have generated a bit of excitement since starting this campaign four months prior to the governor’s race. I would also credit the Murphy Team. We bumped into them often. The West Ward is awake and recognizes a real race coming up. We will see a big turnout.”

To paraphrase Rice’s words, the commercial corridor here in the West Ward does not enchant. New Jersey’s cities – even the best of them, like Newark – still shriek neglect. But if the meaner features of the west leave the impression of much work left undone and a new age unfolding, the men running for the council seat offer vitality, each in his own way, and each with the passion of his respective constructive life’s work out front, in defiance of cynicism, in times treading at the edge of anarchy, colliding in a contest their friends fear will turn personal and ugly, each mutually resistant to complacency, independently aware that among all contests, a city council election gets closest to the will of the people.

The office of Senator Rice.
Outside the office of Senator Rice.

 

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