The forces of Ras Baraka built the Newark mayor’s 2022 reelection effort around making sure they defeated Chigozie Onyema, the mayor’s ally turned political target, a consequence perhaps of his having expressed an interest in elected office.
The corruption meltdown of West Ward Councilman Joe McCallum – a Baraka ally – created a potential opening for someone with guts and an organization to catch Baraka napping and snag a council seat.
Onyema saw the play and acted on it.
But the mayor and his politically mindful brother Middy knew the importance of the West, both as a stay against any sign of weakness in one of Baraka’s key three wards (and in a five ward city, the mayor needs at least three of the five), and as assurance that the mayor could maintain a 5-4 upper-hand on the city council.
They also knew the potential for Onyema to break out of the West if he won, and conceivably become a larger political problem.
An attorney who had started as a West Ward leader for Baraka as early as 2014, only Onyema showed the potential to rival (or to supplant at some point) Baraka citywide in terms of grassroots political, professional and historical preparation. If he secured a West Ward council seat, he could become a threat; in somewhat the same way Baraka became a citywide threat on the strength of his 2010 South Ward victory over Councilman Oscar James II.
Of course, it’s a little different.
Shavar Jeffries, who lost the mayor’s race to Baraka in 2014, once noted the primacy of political family icons in Newark, and Baraka – as a second generation torchbearer of that literary and political history blazed by his father, the late Amiri Baraka – had an organizational edge supplied by origin derivations connected to the name his father forged.
While Onyema’s progressive politics bore far greater resemblance to Baraka’s than to Jeffries’, like the
latter, Onyema had to build a political organization essentially from scratch (again, somewhat different; Jeffreis had the potent North Ward Organization with him and the county – Onyema didn’t), or out of the plantings undertaken as a Baraka loyalist, a significant challenge from the beginning. In addition, and this was critical: because he and Baraka share progressive political views and Onyema generally approves of the direction of Newark at this time, he would have to differentiate his attack line to distinguish his West Ward opponent from the mayor.
In other words, he would have to define the race as him against Dupre “DoItAll” Kelly, and also, about the train wreck administered to the ward by the hapless McCallum.
The Barakas were waiting for him.
From the beginning, they smothered Kelly’s candidacy in Baraka iconography.
Not a poster of their handpicked candidate rose in the West Ward, not a letter in his name, without the Taoism of Baraka’s accompanying image and identification.
As much as Onyema tried to make it about Kelly and McCallum, Baraka made the West about the mayor.
It wasn’t, “Vote for Kelly,” so much as, “Vote for the Mayor’s Agenda – that other guy threatens that agenda.”
Onyema again had the frustrating job of trying to message the ward’s need for independent leadership while basically approving of Baraka’s leadership direction for the city, and the Barakas tried to confine him in that maze of paradox for the duration of the May 10th contest and the June 14th runoff. In a bit of cruel irony, Baraka allowed his old conquered foe, former Councilman Oscar James, sitting in detention on the city development front, to lay the groundwork for an attack of Onyema as a “socialist,” presumably to at last get into the mayor’s good graces. By the end of the runoff, the mayor’s closest allies dismissed the “socialist” Onyema as a way of trying to underscore eight pragmatic years in executive office as Baraka’s strongpoint, against any coming statewide rival misapplication of the old unreconstructed bullhorn bulldog version of Baraka who railed against capitalism.
Onyema vanquished, and North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos contained to a 4-5 ratio on the city
council, Baraka could operate from a strong point locally as he undertook a more careful consideration of the statewide terrain. One rival (and sources saw Onyema as a genuine threat for the mayoralty at some point) down and the other checked also gave the mayor’s team a chance to influence the next mayor. His longest-standing ally on the governing body, Central Ward Councilwoman Lamonica McIver (picturd, top), easily defeated her opponent to avoid a 2022 runoff. She had the makings of council president, or – eventually, depending on Baraka’s timeline, a timeline finely tuned by Baraka last Tuesday – mayor.