Montague Takes on Baraka’s City Hall in Uphill Newark Climb

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the relationship fell apart, but it did. Sheila Montague started as a Ras Baraka backer; well, as a backer of Newark, who supported the 2014 mayoral candidacy of the poet-educator.

She was a poet-educator, too, so it made sense that she would find something relatable in Ras World.

Now, eight years later, she doesn’t; and if Newark’s version of Lord Byron versus Bob Southey hardly transmits overtones of only a politic poetic interlude, Montague is running for mayor against an apparently popular – she would say intimidating – incumbent who seeks a third term in office amid local chatter of wider realms conquered.

Montague doesn’t like the administration, and sees it as something of a victory, on the other side of a lot of petition signature casualties, former Mayor Sharpe James among them, just to be on the May 10th ballot.

A former public school teacher who last taught Language Arts in Irvington, Montague says she first backed Baraka because of the high school principal’s commitment to public education. But she didn’t appreciate his subsequent in-office endorsement of a school board ticket that included charter school and privatization proponents. She thought that was a tad cynical; and as it turns out, Montague sees a cynical pattern in the administration. It wasn’t just education where she says Baraka willfully cut corners on progressive principles.

Baraka’s real politick allies see the mayor as somewhat of a Nixon in China type.

In this case, the mayor’s a progressive, yes; who’s unafraid to be pragmatic in the big city; big, at least by New Jersey standards.

But Montague resists.

She doesn’t applaud development in Newark, and certainly not the kind championed by this administration. She sees, in fact, unprecedented gentrification, and the persistent turning of her home into a city of haves and have nots. She advocates development, but wants Newarkers to enjoy those opportunities first.

She also sees a less than redoubtable administration when it comes to its efforts to curb police brutality.

The mayor installed a statue of George Floyd in front of City Hall.

But when it came time for him to assemble his council ticket in the East Ward, he picked Louis Weber, a former cop whose police report contained numerous excessive force complaints.

The mayor’s not really a progressive anymore, according to Montague, or maybe never really was, she suggests. He’s a progressive in name only, in her book, or maybe just a poet – someone who writes very well, speaks the words well, and plays the lyre of inspiration like Orpheus, but when it coms down to making that hard progressive political stand, he not only comes up confoundingly short, but actually transgresses what he says he stands for, according to the challenger.

She has other concerns, too, but that’s the substantive core of her argument.

Pragmaticism – with a twist of narcissism, in her judgement – has weighed down progressiveness to the point of sheer cynicism, she says.

Now, obviously, Baraka’s allies and others strongly disagree.

They point out that even with its flaws, the city inclusionary zoning ordinance takes legitimate steps toward resolving Newark’s affordable housing gap. They note the mayor’s ongoing devotion to the arts, including the newly opened arts communal hive in the heart of the South Ward, and his efforts to try to get a civilian complaint review board passed through a languorous New Jersey Legislature; not to mention his leadership role in reversing Newark’s lead-pipe crisis – developing long prior to his getting into office – and his on-the-ground stewardship of the city through COVID. The mayor is assessible and hands-on. They go on and on, in fact.

They point out that the proof, in part, is the absence of a legitimate challenger to the throne.

Naturally, Montague vociferously objects.

“Before I pulled out petitions to run, I had been doing the groundwork years before now,” she told InsiderNJ.

She has a history in the community going back to growing up on Irvine Turner Boulevard, her teaching days, and her basketball playing and coaching at Malcolm X Shabazz, a record that includes two citywide championships.

She’s lost students to gun violence.

She feels this, and lives it.

Montague disagrees with the premise of a noncompetitive season, but feels strongly that the cynical part of the mayor’s agenda is fueled by political survivability at this point more than progressive viability, again, going back to the school board fusion tickets he backed. “He never adequately communicated his change; he’s like a chameleon,” Montague complained about the mayor’s metamorphosis, in her view, from starry eyed poet to brass knuckle boss.

“He’s very good with his words,” the challenger confessed. “But his words don’t match what’s going on. Take a look at the business district on Bergen Street, were the only business flourishing is the funeral business.”

Aside from the cynical political moves to maintain citywide control, Montague says Baraka doesn’t bring in broad enough swathes of people; and that Baraka disciples occupying the same inner sanctum wear multiple hats – with accompanying multiple paychecks. “It’s a very small click of individuals,” she said.

As part of her platform, the challenger says she would push back harder against the privatization of Newark. She says it’s time for a woman to lead the city after generations of male dominion. She gets strong, positive feedback on the streets, she notes. She promises to end the intimidation factor, which has merely fed the cynicism around the city’s politics. She wants to put an end to the concept of “Team Baraka,” and supplant it with “Team Newark,” which happens to be Montague’s slogan.

It’s not easy to run against City Hall.

Everyone knows that.

But everyone knows it, with an even harder edge, in Newark.

And so Montague takes some pride in her run against Baraka, a fellow poet, turned bare knuckle political brawler on the mean streets of the hometown they share.

She was aware of Baraka as a young poet – years ago. Does she at least like his writing? She didn’t comment. “Poetry,” Montague said, in a general sense – “It’s art. It’s fine wine savored. I wouldn’t compare our poetry. I love my poetry.”

 

 

 

 

 

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