West Ward Flashpoint: Kelly and Onyema Tangle

Demonstrating unfinished business in the aftermath of last week’s debate, the Newark West Ward campaigns of Dupre′ Kelly and Chigozie Onyema tangled a little over the mayor’s affections, and other issues, including community involvement and preparation for the job, reasserting their respective cases for elected office.

Onyema circulated a 2013 video of then-South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka heaping praise on the young attorney. Fast forward to 2022, though, and Baraka backs rapper/community activist Kelly for the vacant West Ward seat, not Onyema.

Kelly, left, and Onyema

“When you think about that, that was a young Ras Baraka, and he was in Onyema’s parents’ home at a fundraiser,” Kelly told InsiderNJ. “I think the young man is a good guy, and Mayor Baraka understood and utilized him for what he was good at; a great move by Mayor Baraka. He understands what moving forward means, and when it came time to choose his ally in the West Ward, he chose the right person, and that is me. He understands my engagement with the community. He understands that Onyema doesn’t have my experience. I’m 15 years older than this guy.”

While they stay away from swatting the mayor, the contenders vying for the West Ward seat note that a Team Baraka member, Former West Ward Councilman Joe McCallum, imploded on corruption charges; hence, on part, the need to go in another direction.

But Kelly draws what he says is a critical distinction.

Baraka selected Kelly as his ally in the West, as opposed to absorbing McCallum, a remnant of Rice World.

“This is the first time he selected someone to run on his ticket,” Kelly said. “He didn’t hand pick him. He had advisers and he went with it. This time, he didn’t want to go down that road. He chose the person who has already been here: Dupre Kelly.”

The candidate notes that his rivals generally express agreement with the mayor until it comes time to assert their own candidacies independent of the mayor. “All of them agree with Ras until it comes to him picking me because they want to be in that spot.”

Baraka’s good judgment didn’t go on vacation in this case, Kelly argued.

“I have been doing this before I decided to run – 15 years and for the last 12 years in particular,” h said of his community organizer, while also making the case for his professional background – a successful rap artist – as an asset not a deficit. “I picked the entertainment field because it was a dream of mine and I chased it. I’m the guy the community prayed for, and planted seeds for, come back, to plant more seeds. My nonprofit is battle tested and in the community with events like the drama squad, where we put on plays and skits warning about teen pregnancy, for example. We stood on the steps of City Hall and fought gangs. I’m 51 years old and I have been here longer than any of them, spending my own money.”

Kelly said he found a moment in last week’s debate particularly appalling, when Onyema questioned how distributing beds to people prepares a person for the job of local legislator. “When people are in pain, if you can meet them where they are, that is the kind of individual who should make policy,” Kelly said. “You have to prove to people you can do the work and that you’re sincere.”

Of Onyema, he said, “He’s a lawyer who hasn’t litigated. I don’t know how battle tested you are. I’m from here. Not to say someone who isn’t is out of contention, but this is who I am and what I’m from, alongside a great young man who is unpracticed in his own field.”

“Mayor’s Baraka’s remarks speak for itself. He didn’t call me a prolific fundraiser, he lifted up my clarity about the challenges facing the City of Newark and urban America. He was excited about how well I understood our history, our culture, our community, and our roots. And ultimately, that’s what this race is about.

“He gave these remarks in 2013, when I was 26, and frankly, nothing has changed. If anything, it drives home the point that I’ve been active and involved for a while. Mayor Baraka’s consistently called on me when he’s confronted serious challenges. He called on me to help lead his transition team in 2014, not Doitall. When he wanted to turn the parking authority into a redevelopment arm of the city, he called on me to lead the $40 million redevelopment of a former brownfield, not Doitall. When I talk to residents, they find it disappointing that the Mayor’s called on Doitall to serve at such a critical time in our city’s history.”

Regarding his debate comments about the bed and his work as an attorney, he offered the following rejoinders:

“All of us run for office because we understand how acute the pain is in our city. What sets us apart is our vision to address the pain, and our experience alleviating the pain in different contexts. No one in this race can match our vision, experience, and record of service.

“I decided early in my career that I would focus on transformative change, rather than litigating on behalf of individual clients. That’s why so much of my career has been focused on community organizing and public policy. It’s always why I’m running for office.

“My experience co-drafting the Ban the Box ordinance and working to get it passed in the city, then at the state level, translates to serving as a City Councilman more than cross-examining a witness, which I’ve done, of course. The real question is what in Doitall’s background translates to effectively serving the people of the West Ward.”



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