Steve Adubato, Sr., the immensely engrossing and intellectually captivating political leader, teacher and patriarch who influenced the process to help the children of Newark through his founding of the North Ward Center, and never lost his purpose in politics, has died.
He was 87.
The feverishly local man who threw himself headlong into school board races, and who loved being an American because of the ideas embedded in the country, defined himself publicly by his twin passions: education and politics.
A former public schoool teacher, Mr. Adubato forged the North Ward Democratic Oranization into a major player in Newark City politics and statewide, and maintained his political hegemony while building service institutions to help people in his community, including the Blue Ribbon Award-winning North Ward Academy.
Mr. Adubato was the father of Emmy Award-winning television host Steve Adubato, Jr., and daughters Michelle, CEO of the North Ward Center, and School Principal Theresa. His wife Fran is a political force in her own right.
“My father was a special person,” said Steve Adubato, Jr. “A One of a kind leader who made a difference. So many knew him for being a political player in our state but he wanted people to respect him more for how he used political influence to help the people of Newark…the city he cared for so much. My father was tough, brutally candid about what he believed but cared so much for children and others in our urban communities that just needed a little help to make their lives better. New Jersey will never see another Steve Adubato Sr. He lived his life his way on his terms. He left a very powerful impact in the lives of so many. I am so proud to be his son.”
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr. was one of those politcians – along with state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz, Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, Jr. and DiVincenzo Chief-of-Staff Phil Alagia – especially shaped by Mr. Adubato. DiVincenzo and his fellow North Warder were not only close political allies but friends.
“I have known Steve for well over 40 years,” DiVincenzo said in a statement this morning. “He was a mentor for me when I worked at The North Ward Center and when I entered government. Some people may not have liked Steve’s aggressive style, but he was a forward thinker and a tireless advocate for the City of Newark and its residents.
“Known as the city’s ‘Second Mayor,’ Steve was a major influence in calming relations and stabilizing the
city after the riots and had the foresight to create The North Ward Center, which for generations has provided recreation and education programs to children, kept senior citizens engaged in their community and supported working class adults with workforce training to lift themselves into a better life,” DiVincenzo added. “Those were his lifelong ambitions – to improve the city which he loved dearly and help all those who lived here. Today is a sad day because we have lost a visionary, a father, a leader and, most of all, a very dear friend.”
Senator Ruiz issued a statement on the death of her mentor.
“Steve Adubato believed in Newark and more importantly, he believed in people,” said the senator. “The legacy that he built from The North Ward Center impacted all of our families. From the early childhood development program, to Robert Treat Acadmey to Casa Israel. His vision invested in residents from the very young to the elderly to everyone in between. It was in one of those very classrooms that I nurtured my own love of education and understood the power it could have on children. Anyone who had an opportunity to spend time with the him could share stories of laughter, banter and passionate fighting. Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, you couldn’t deny his political acumen. While physically he may be missed his everlasting impression will never be forgotten.”
Assemblyman Caputo was also a close friend of the late Mr. Adubato.
“We had our differences, but I probably learned more from him than anyone about politics and life,” Caputo said. “He was an icon in our community who did so much to serve the people through social programs. He was a legend.”
Essex County clerk Chris Dukin, son of the late Democratic Chairman Ray Durkin, had close ties to the late North Ward Center political leader.
“I was saddened to hear about the passing of my good friend and founder of the North Ward Center Steve Adubato Sr. My condolences to his wife Fran, his children Stephen Jr., Michelle, Theresa and the entire Adubato family,” said U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8). “Stephen dedicated his life to ensuring the children and residents of Newark had the best education and services possible. He loved his home town of Newark and his vision for the Newark community has positively impacted countless individuals and families by bolstering their quality of life.
“Stephen Adubato Sr., was a visionary leader. Newark has lost a legend and I have lost a good friend. He will be greatly missed by many,” Sires added.
A son of Newark who thrilled to the political duties of being an American, Mr. Adubato worked briefly in a factory in his youth. It didn’t take him long to figure out that he wanted to take his life in another direction. A graduate of Barringer High School and Seton Hall University, he also earned a master’s degree in political science. He attended Rutgers Law School and Seton Hall Law School but never became a lawyer.
He would become a teacher in the Newark Public Schools Systems, where he became frustrated by the bureacuracy and politics that prevented children from receiving the best possible education.
He became increasingly political; or whatever innate force in him that understood and acted on politics began to make itself manifest on a broader canvas. His city itself was undergoing a major transformation, accelerated by the events connected to the Newark troubles of 1967. Having built up the North Ward Democratic Organization, Mr. Adubato played a pivotal role in the mayoral election of 1970, when his political organization threw its support behind Ken Gibson, who became the city’s first African American mayor. It was a significant political event, particularly in the aftermath of the troubles and meltdown of the Administration of Hugh Addonizio. Mr. Adubato received death threats because he broke from supporting a fellow Italian American and instead backed – with historic consequences – Mr. Gibson. 1970 was also the year when Mr. Adubato founded the North Ward Educational and Cultural Center in a storefront on Bloomfield Avenue.
Mr. Gibson’s election combined with the formation of the center, formed the socio-political basis of Mr. Adubato’s expansive work over the course of the coming four-plus decades, and the foundation for institutions including the North Ward Center Child Development Center, Forest Hill Child Development Center, Casa Israel Adult Medical Day Center, and the award-winning Robert Treat Academy, which serves children grades kindergarten through eight, and maintains two campuses, one in the North and one in the Central Ward of Newark.
Mr. Adubato’s opening of the Central Ward Jackie Robinson Campus of the Academy in 2009 – a year after Barack Obama’s historic presidential election – was another major moment for the political leader, who was proud to expand into the Central Ward. He revelled in the accomplishment, and always took immense pride in the fact that his status as a boss – he never ran from the word – actually delivered real services to real people in need. Through the years, his only son observed his father closely, and made him the foundational star of his his book Lessons in Leadership.
It was that 1970 election that made an impression of courage.
“It all culminated for me one day when I was coming home from school and had forgotten my key,” Adubato, Jr. writes. “I remember I went to climb into the window of our house and, as I approached, I saw a series of holes in the glass. At first, it wasn’t clear to me what I was looking at but I soon realized the holes – bullet holes – were right where my father’s chair was located where he sat to watch TV. I ran to a neighbor’s house for help tracking my mother down, and for the remainder of the 1970 election, my two sisters and I were shipped out of our home to live with relatives in a town nearby. All the while, my father continued to fight and campaign against a corrupt Mafia-supported Italian American mayor whom everyone else in the neighborhood supported because ‘at least he was one of our own.’”
Adubato, Sr. would put together a political lifetime of such decisions, shouldering the consequences and always moving forward, often irritating and even hurting those around him with a very tough style. “He consistently got results,” Adubato, Jr.
If he was brusque at times, he also contributed significantly to the theatricality and gallows fun of New Jersey’s political cutlure. At the head of a room in Belmar once, he intentionally messed up Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald’s matinee idol hair. His political events contained attention paid to every minute detail. The angle of a picture on a wall carried a political message. A word spoken at the head of a room could signal the end of a political career. The political leader who started on the block in Newark in 1970, in 2009 played parlor room host to general election combatants Chris Christie and Jon Corzine amid a packed room of pols from both parties; and when Christie won, the governor-elect chose the North Ward and the side of Mr. Adubato to take his victory lap.
But if politicians intent on their own political careers, or eventually devoured by corruption or ambition or too facile a sense of their fellow human beings, came and went, Mr. Adubato forged a life out of an essential and unbending commitment to his community. What has been lost in the way of rigor and a life of the mind made real because of a deep sense of pragmatism anchored by a fundamental understanding of human need, in these years since he faded from the scene cannot be overstated; and yet what Mr. Adubato left behind cannot soon be surpassed, and cannot be argued with, and should serve as a courageous example of a way that a routed political culture might begin anew.
“The sun has set on one the most prolific political figures of modern time,” said Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman LeRoy Jones in a statement with his wife Jacqueline. “Steve Adubato was the epitome of political genius. He was that quintessential strategist that for over generations built a
dominant political empire in Newark’s North Ward, a foundation which stands proudly and secure today as when he set the first cornerstone years ago.