Tractor Beam Baraka: Like it or Not, Everything Now in Newark has 2018 Implications

Mayor Ras Baraka faces a reelection contest in Newark next year that will require some ginger-footed manuevering in the lead up, according to insiders. Baraka’s challenge includes pacifying – or playing one off the other, whichever one applies at any given time – the twin power bases of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo in the North Ward and former Mayor Sharpe James in the South.

Every move now carries the context of 2018.

Take the decision to replace Blonnie Watson in the Assembly, which the party power players made last week.

This is a grim conversation at this point, and sensitive.

Baraka wanted his longtime aide Tai Cooper or Councilman Pat Council to replace Watson, handpicked by DiVincenzo and DiVincenzo ally Leroy Jones, chairman of the Essex County Democratic Committee. But the county forces insisted on Shanique Speight, who political watchers may remember from that night of city hall bedlam years ago when they tried to swear her onto the council and triggered a riot.

Jones and DiVincenzo made the case that the mayor already has allies in the legislature in the form of the LD28 slate. But Baraka has people loyal to him whom he wants to reward. The legislature would be a perfect landing spot for the likes of Cooper, for example, a policy nerd who served as the mayor’s fiercely protective communications director back in 2014.

But Baraka pushing too hard means potentially alienating a county organization that he would prefer not to rattle. Granted, he’s a very tough out, and maybe unbeatable. Even the mayor’s critics acknowledge that he bleeds brick dust and everyone knows it. But there are mathematical possibilies that he and his allies must keep in mind and the most basic of them runs something like this: the North can win if the South is divided.

Councilmembers Anibal Ramos (North Ward), Augusto Amador (East Ward), Carlos Gonzalez (At-Large), and Luis Quintana (At-Large) all vote as a power block on the council, and all ultimately fold into that still force to be reckoned with otherwise known as the North Ward Democratic Committee.

Baraka doesn’t want Ramos running against him, especially if he can’t contain the always inflating James, a stout ally of Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins.

By the same token, the coutnywide DiVincenzo doesn’t want Baraka allis to cohere and challenge him.

So they do a dance – a dance that right now looks far from those safely choreographed moves they both crave.

Then there’s the former mayor. James’ time in the can on corruption charges means he can’t run for mayor again, but Chaneyfield Jenkins could run, and has oppossed Baraka’s agenda on key agenda in such a way as to suggest that she could take a 2018 shot.

In the April School Board elections, the plan was originally for Baraka to combine forces with Ramos in support of a unity ticket, in part to keep the North happy ahead of next year. Chaneyfield Jenkins will selectively back candidates in those same elections as a way of feeling out potential weak spots in a Baraka-Ramos force field.

But things appear to have rapidly fallen apart.

The mayor’s longest time backers digested with unhappiness the news that Speight – and not Cooper or Council – would get the party’s support for the legislative seat.

The more militant arm of the Baraka political machine supported punitive measures against Speight, including a city-engineered shut down her daycare facility. That counter punch infuriated Jones and DiVincenzo, who wanted to work with Baraka.

That peaceful sandbox vibe is now gone and all hands have emerged on both sides to try to hammer out an alternative strategy in time for the school board race.

Everyone knows that in the right chaotic atmosphere, DiVincenzo allies wouldn’t be opposed to Ramos jumping in next year, particularly if Chaneyfield Jenkins and James were sufficiently strong to divide Baraka on his home turf of the South Ward.

Well aware of the dangers of any kind of fracturing, Baraka has been maintaining sit down, hand holding sessions once a month with Sharpe James.

He needs the politics.

Always has. Always will.

A grassroots creation, the mayor’s never been a big fundraiser. That can change, of course, but it hasn’t to date. Around $330,000 sits in his account at the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), and that presumably serves as a starting point for the cash he’ll have to spread around to his citywide allies, people like Councilman Eddie Osborne and Pat Council.

A source told InsiderNJ that Councilwoman Mildred Crump and Gonzalez won’t likely run again in 2018.

The North Ward will swap in Sammy Gonzalez (husband of state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz) for Carlos Gonzalez, apparently with an eye to saving money on street signs.

The April School Board race will be a staging area for the bigger theater piece of the 2018 mayor’s race, as will every other conversation and encounter serve as a preface to that coming citywide contest.

But Baraka also knows – as does DiVincenzo – that regardless of money, there’s grassroots potential in a countywide effort against the sitting executive if they can’t repair what flared up last week in the Central Ward with Speight.

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