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Everybody in Newark politics has a story about Mr. Adubato. He is arguably the most powerful unelected person in the predominantly black and Hispanic city; certainly the most powerful white person. 

"Steve Adubato places people in political power and he has benefited from it," says the director of the non-profit La Casa de Don Pedro, Ray Ocasio. City Councilman Carlos Gonzalez has called him a “master of adjusting.” 

In the 1980’s Mr. Adubato supported a black candidate for the State Senate over his brother, an Italian. Today, Mr. Adubato is in the midst of a power struggle over the ethnicity of another Senate position. According to Councilman Carlos Gonzalez, Mr. Adubato has taken notice of the growing Hispanic population and has decided “it’s time for the Latinos to have a Senate seat.” 

Standing in his way is the establishment of black leadership, including some members of the politically powerful Payne family, who Gonzalez says perceive the position as a “black seat.” The post is now locked in a theatrical three-way race between Adubato’s favorite, Theresa Ruiz, one of the Paynes, and Luis Quintana, a Latino candidate who wants to break from Mr. Adubato’s political machine. The contest over the Senate seat is a window into the complex ways in which race interacts with politics in Newark. 

Ethnicity pervades the entire electoral process, from the way the three candidates have emerged to the way they are running their campaigns and even how successful some of them have been in their current offices. At each step in the process race plays many roles. At times it can be a driving force in politics, yet it is also tied to economics and demographics. Some politicians use race to polarize, others use it to build alliances. Here in Newark the only unquestioned fact is that there is no one way to understand the city’s racial politics.

A History of Change

It is hard to talk about Newark without looking back to the 1967 race riots. The civil unrest started because whites ruled politics, despite the fact that the city was becoming predominantly black. The years following the riots signaled a huge change for Newark, both demographically and politically. The riots accelerated “white flight” and transformed a city that was two-thirds white to the majority black city that we know today. As a consequence, in 1970 an African American candidate defeated the Italian incumbent in the mayoral race and the position has since been held only by black men. But this is not only a story of black power. Bob Curvin, one of the leaders of Newark’s civil rights movement, said “no group in a city like Newark ever wins a citywide election alone.” Even in this first mayoral election the African American candidate, Ken Gibson, emerged from a political coalition between the black and Puerto Rican communities. The two minorities understood the common interest they had in combining forces. As Ray Ocasio from La Casa de Don Pedro recalls, “blacks and Hispanics shared the same enemies: poverty and the old guard community—the Italians, the Jewish population, and the Irish.”

This alliance sustained a generation of black leadership, including two mayors that served for almost two decades each. Hispanics have always been part of the alliance but have had held far fewer official posts. There is a perception that Newark is a wholly “black city,” that Historian Megan French says "has been created by the media, but has also been created in the city, out of the legacy of black power.”

Today Hispanics are growing at a far greater rate than blacks in America in general and Newark in particular. The image of Newark as a black city is disintegrating. Some have seen this as a replication of the imbalanced system of the pre-riot era. Steve Adubato puts it frankly, “between the blacks and Hispanics, the blacks are the whites and the Hispanics are the blacks”.

This set the scene for major challenge, which occurred in 2002 when African American outsider Cory Booker mounted a campaign against Sharpe James. Though black himself, Booker sought to build a cross-racial coalition, a very similar strategy that led to the election of Ken Gibson back in 1970. Booker started with staffing. He put a number of non-African Americans in key positions; most notable was his Latino campaign manager. His trans-racial strategy had resonance with Hispanic voters. In all five Newark districts, the North, South, East, West and Central wards, Booker won a majority of the Hispanic votes but fared poorly among black voters. The North and East wards are predominantly Latino and Booker took them with a significant margin. Yet the other three wards, particularly the South and West, are the strongholds of the black establishment. Sharpe James defeated Booker soundly in each of these areas, and went on to take the election.

Booker ran again in 2006. Sharpe James pulled out of the race at the last minute and his replacement, Ron Rice Sr., was unable to muster the support that James received. Booker won the election by a nearly unprecedented margin of 72% to 24%.

The battle for the Senate seat is the result of this history. The traditionally black seat is geographically and demographically the locus for Newark’s racial struggles. It covers all of the Hispanic North and East wards as well as half of the South and Central wards. Only the west ward is not part of the district at all. All three of the candidates running for the 29th seat have emerged from this common history but each has taken radically different paths.

The Making of a Candidate

The increase in the size of the Hispanic community of this historically black city has shaped what it means to be a Hispanic candidate in Newark and what it means for candidates to appeal to the Hispanic vote. The story of changing demographics is markedly different here than in other parts of the United States in two important ways. The first is the way in which Newark has held on so tightly to the memory of the civil rights era. Newark was one of the first cities in America to have black leadership and has had up until today a sense of being free from non-black influence and oppression. Many Newark residents are not ready to give that up. Yet the other result of Newark’s history is the way in which the Hispanic community has been able to claim the memory of black political enfranchisement as their own. 

The first council member at large of Hispanic decent, Luis Quintana, was elected in 1994 and has been in office since. His office, covered from wall to wall with campaign buttons, photos, and memorabilia from past political battles, tells a story of the ways in which Quintana has struggled with these issues. 

Quintana got his start in Newark Politics as a Council outsider, running against the mayor’s picks and loosing by a slim margin in 1990. His campaign materials often used themes and language that would appeal to Hispanic voters. When one councilmember resigned soon after the 1990 race, tradition should have dictated Quintana’s appointment. The council broke with precedent and instead chose a black woman, Mildred Crump, who is now the Council President. 

By the end the decade Quintana was no longer perceived as an outsider; in fact, he became part of the black establishment team, supported by Mr. Adubato. Other groups and individuals picked up communalistic rhetoric on behalf of the Hispanic community to get more Hispanic representation, and even aimed some of their critiques at him. 

What makes Newark politics so frustrating to the onlooker is the ways in which Quintana and countless others have switched back and forth between attacking the establishment and aligning with it. Much of it leads back to power and alliances, with Steve Adubato remaining behind the political establishment, regardless of who is at the helm. He has switched his allegiance from the black establishment to Hispanic candidates like Quintana, and more recently to a progressive trans-racial slate of candidates, hoping to capitalize on the changing demography and mood. 

People often imagine race as a strong part of personal identity, with ethnic feuds reaching back several generations and based on irreconcilable cultural differences. Yet what is so surprising about Newark’s politics is how quickly the racial alliances shift; how yesterday’s ally becomes today’s enemy. Every player has freely traded friend and foe. Megan French pinpointed this trend, “Those [racial] coalitions have never gone beyond a political purpose—they have never been used for building the community—so people get bogged down by the language of race. You can always rely on the language of race to create new alliances, and you can switch them up very easily because they are no deeper than political.” The reality of Newark politics, or politics in general, is that the quest for power propels the system. However, at every step in the game there is rhetoric of race. The overarching structure of the debate as a game between the Hispanics and the Italians, or the Blacks and Hispanics is more a matter of racial discourse than race as such.

The Race Constraints

As the struggle between Adubato and Quintana shows, the reality of Newark politics is that the quest for power propels the system. However, at every step in the game there is rhetoric of race. The overarching structure of the debate as a game between the Hispanics and the Italians, or the Blacks and Hispanics constrains political questions in a racial discourse. 

We imagine race as a strong part of personal identity, with ethnic feuds reaching back several generations and based on irreconcilable cultural differences. Yet what is so surprising about Newark’s politics is how quickly the racial alliances shift; how yesterday’s ally becomes today’s enemy. Every player, Quintana, Ramos, Corchado and Adubato has freely traded friend and foe. Megan French pinpointed this trend : “Those [racial] coalitions have never gone beyond a political purpose—they have never been used for building the community—so people get bogged down by the language of race. You can always rely on the language of race to create new alliances, and you can switch them up very easily because they are no deeper than political.”

Megan French is right, racial coalitions have not extended to community development. Over the last thirty years, community development has been undertaken by autonomous and territorially based community organizations. These organizations have never had an impetus to promote development on a city-wide basis. Each has instead carved out of the Newark landscape its own turf. On our first trip to Newark we noticed that in the Central ward many housing developments, trucks, and schools bear the logo of the New Community Center, the largest community development organization in the area. As soon as we crossed into the North ward, while the homes, trucks and schools were still there the logo had changed. Now everything had the red and blue trademark of La Casa de Don Pedro. Because Newark is racially segregated into territorial pockets, the result of this system is that development happens within racial groups and not between them. 

The Pan-Racial Strategy

In the past couple of years the media has praised Cory Booker for inventing a new strategy, for trying to combat racialism with interracial alliances. However, coalitions between territorially distinct racial groups are not new to Newark. In addition, there are striking similarities between Cory Booker and his predecessors, including his dependence on Steve Adubato’s political machine. 

However, there is something different about Cory Booker. While in the city of Newark everyone is engaged in interracial alliances, not everybody is using them to combat racialism. In the past, the racial coalitions have been used to gain and maintain power over the whole city for the advantage of one community. Booker’s strategy backs some Hispanic candidates at the expense of black dominance to make politics more equitable. “If his coalition wins he will diminish the amount of black representation in the legislature,” said Bob Curvin, “politically this is a major risk.” 

It is a risk because there is security in racial distinctions. This security means both an assured access to resources and jobs as well as perception that the people in power share similar experiences. As Carlos Gonzalez stated, “there is a tendency for people of an ethnicity to vote for people of the same ethnicity” that stems from this security. Gonzalez added that the result is “in some cases you have people that are qualified to perform but they are not elected because they are not of the right color.” 

A real commitment to a post-racialist framework means giving up this security. In return it gives voters confidences that individuals will be elected solely based on merit. 

Power struggles between different racial or interracial alliances seem to be distant from regular citizens at first sight. However, the language of race, especially during election campaigns, reaches people, influences their attitudes and political views. After 40 years of using the notion of race as a defining factor in Newark’s politics the question that arises is whether citizens are now ready to accept pan-racial strategies that Cory Booker and Steve Adubato advocate for. So far Cory Booker fails to provide black population with the sense of security threatened by increasing amount of Hispanics working in the City Hall and influencing local policies. It seems that regular citizens are still not colorblind and tend to define social and political life in terms of race. Cory Booker needs to keep in mind that people will not back his idea of pan-racial politics unless he gives them the sense of equity and fair treatment.

 

References

 

Interviews

Dr Robert Curvin (July 31, 2007).

Ray Ocasio, Director of the Community Development Center ‘la Casa de Don Pedro’ in Newark (August 1st, 2007).

City of Newark Councilmember Carlos M. Gonzalez (August 6th, 2007).

City of Newark Councilmember Donald M. Payne (August 3rd, 2007).

City of Newark Councilmember Luis Quintana (August 6th, 2007).

City of Newark Councilmember Anibal Ramos Jr. (August 7th, 2007).

City of Newark Councilmember Ronald C. Rice (August 7th, 2007).

Megan French, Historian, Columbia University (August 6th, 2007).

Steve Adubato, (August 7th, 2006).

Donna Jackson, President of ‘Take back our Streets (August 6th, 2007).

Kai Campbell, Mayor Booker staff at the Department of Housing and economic development (July 31st, 2007). 

Articles

Brown, Kimberley; Mays, Jeffrey and Mueller Mark: Fierce race watched by nation, ends 53% to 46%, The Star Ledger, May 15, 2002. 

Jacobs, Andrew: In Newark, Newcomer’s allure Can’t Topple Local Favorite, The New York Times, May 16, 2002. 

Jacobs, Andrew: A Fierce Race Leaves Deep Bruises in Newark, The New York Times, May 15, 2002.

Jacobs, Andrew: Newark’s Mayor Battles Old Guard and Rumors, The New York Times, July 3, 2007. 

Jordan, George E.: North of Downtown, the wind shifts: political veteran Adubato sees an influx of Newarkers beyond the machine’s reach, The Star Ledger, May 16, 2002. 

Gebeloff, Robert: Newark’s voter pool sees a late surge, The Star Ledger, May 7, 2002. 

Hester, Tom, Three Democrats will run for one state Senate seat in November, The Star Ledger, August 6, 2007. 

Mays, Jeffery and Wang, Katie: For Booker, often-told tales turn into trouble: Mayor’s Newark stories disparage city, critics say, The Star Ledger, August 6, 2007. 

Perez, Miguel: We shall overcome, The Record, May 13, 1994. 

Rainey, Matt: Key moments in Sharpe James’ run for mayor, The Star Ledger, May 16, 2002. 

Smothers, Ronald: Brokering An Agenda in Newark; Political Survivor Adapts In Changing North Ward: Are You Listening to Me?, The New York Times, April 16, 2001.

Statistics, polls and facts

Newark Municipal Elections held May 14th 2002: Mayor Recapitulation sheet by wards. Office of the City Clerk, Newark, New Jersey.

Newark Municipal Elections held May 9th 2006: Results for Council Member at-large by wards. Office of the City Clerk, Newark, New Jersey.

US Census Bureau: 1960 New Jersey Census. Table 13, ‘Summary of population characteristics for the state, by the size of place, and for standard metropolitan statistical seras, urbanized areas, urban places and counties: 1960-continued’. http://www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/decennial/1960.htm 

Websites

Pizarro, Max: The Fathers of Newark, The Center of Gravity for New Jersey Politics, June 28, 2007. http://www.politicsnj.com/fathers-newark-10060 

 

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