The Political Fallout from the Newark Water Crisis


In politics and government, you have work horses and show horses. In the Newark water crisis, the work horses were Joe DiVincenzo and Jamel Holley. The show horse, or no-show horse if you will, was Cory Booker. All this is reflected in this post-crisis political appraisal:

Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo

Major Winner: Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo

On television on New Jersey News 12 Power and Politics and in my InsiderNJ column last week, “Newark and the Politics of Clean Water” (, I had emphasized that the only long term solution to the issue of drinking water contamination in Newark would be the replacement of the lead service lines. I had doubted, however that this solution would be implemented, given the fiscal and political obstacles.

Enter Joe DiVincenzo. His creativity, political courage, and decisiveness in fashioning the bonding package to finance the replacement of the lead service lines has earned him more than just the designation of the major winner of the Newark water crisis. Indeed, his actions in stepping up to the plate and meeting the challenge of such a major crisis have made a powerful case for him to be designated early as New Jersey’s 2019 Political Winner of the Year.

To be sure, the new bond package will only reduce the time for implementation of the replacement of the lead service lines from ten years to thirty months. And Newark residents have every right to express outrage at the fact that they will have to wait for those thirty months. Still, this bond package constitutes a major improvement.

Prior to this past week, Joe DiVincenzo had been stereotyped as a New Jersey political machine politician from Newark’s North Ward. The consensus among political insiders was that he would not stand for reelection. Now, his reelection is virtually guaranteed. Joe DiVincenzo has now established a national model for what local officials can do about serious health and environmental problems, given will and credibility. In doing so, Joe DiVincenzo has brought pride to New Jersey as well.

Assemblyman Jamel Holley praised NJ Democratic Party leadership in the assembly as he and his running mate Assemblywoman Annette Quijano coasted to victory in a low drama event amid high drama county discord. Holley added that he thinks Majority Leader Lou Greenwald should be governor one day.
Assemblyman Jamel Holley praised NJ Democratic Party leadership in the assembly as he and his running mate Assemblywoman Annette Quijano coasted to victory in a low drama event amid high drama county discord. Holley added that he thinks Majority Leader Lou Greenwald should be governor one day.

An emerging legislative star: Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-20th District)

Prior to the Newark crisis, Jamel Holley had already established a well-deserved reputation for independence, creative thinking, and industriousness. This reputation has been substantially enhanced by his activity during the Newark water crisis.

Jamel was ahead of virtually all his fellow legislators in focusing on the crisis and developing solutions. His advocacy of a State declaration of an emergency was based upon his well-founded view that it would help support any application under the Federal Emergency Management Act (FEMA) for emergency federal aid, noting that during the first stages of the Flint crisis, the federal government had provided assistance with filters and water delivery.

Jamel also reached out to Newark officials and citizenry and demonstrated an excellent willingness to listen and work with people on the ground. If a New Jersey cause has the support of a Jamel Holley, it will be most fortunate.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka says that state guidelines regarding investigations into police misconduct are antiquated and need to permit independent civilian investigation. NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal recently said he supports the current policy, which diminishes the ability of Newark's Civilian Complaint Review Board to perform civilian investigations into complaints against police.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka huddles in the aftermath of the 2018 midterm elections with Governor Phil Murphy.

Survivors: Governor Phil Murphy and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka

By his failure to declare an emergency, Phil Murphy failed to exercise the symbolic leadership expected from a governor in a time of crisis. And the article in this past Sunday’s New York Times, “Tainted Water, Ignored Warnings, and a Boss With a Criminal Past” ( thoroughly excoriated Baraka’s handlings of the clean water issue. As of Sunday night, it appeared that he was badly politically damaged, perhaps even subject to a recall effort.

The Essex County bond package assistance enables Baraka to politically survive, at least temporarily. Continuing Newark citizenry mistrust of Baraka, previously a very popular mayor, however, was generated by the crisis. It will not soon abate. Newark residents continue to feel angry at what they regard as Baraka’s early denial of a water danger.*

For Murphy, the outlook is a little brighter. He is being credited with helping to bring about the Essex loan package. And as noted in an excellent InsiderNJ column, “Source: Murphy’s Sense of Stagecraft Decidedly Different from Christie’s” (, Murphy is far more willing to share the credit for positive developments than Christie, who was obsessed with being the center of attention.

This was evident by Murphy’s well received, low key handling of the press conference announcing the Essex County bond package. It was quite a contrast from the days of the press conferences of Chris Christie, who always appeared to regard press conferences as opportunities for self-anointment. The contrast with Chris Christie should politically benefit Phil Murphy for some time.

2020 presidential election candidate Cory Booker is invited to participate in the Democratic National Committee's (DNC) first debate.
2020 presidential election candidate Cory Booker pictured earlier this year at a CNN Town Hall forum.

Major Loser: US Senator Cory Booker

When faced with a major crisis in his home city of El Paso, Beto O’Rourke departed the campaign trail and came home. By contrast, when faced with a major crisis in his home city of Newark, Cory Booker did not come home, but instead remained on the campaign trail. This signaled a lack of concern and sensitivity towards his fellow Newark residents. It will not go unnoticed by Democratic primary voters.

Booker has deservedly developed a reputation for being a dilettante public official more concerned with celebrity and drama (“I am Spartacus”) than substance. Cory’s failure to come home will only support that reputation.

A player on the 1977 New York Yankees offered this description of the then newly arrived Yankee, Reggie Jackson: “There isn’t enough mustard in the world to cover that hot dog.” It is remarkable what an apt description this is of both Cory Booker and Chris Christie.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.


*EDITOR”S NOTE: Baraka allies refute the notion that the mayor – who won last year in a landslide – is in any jeopardy politically.

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