Booker Tries to Unseat Legislators, Dividing Party
by Dax-Devlon Ross
NEWARK, March 19 — The broom was an effective prop during Cory A. Booker’s electoral juggernaut last spring, when he won the mayor’s office by a landslide and swept his slate of candidates into the nine-seat Municipal Council. On election night, he and his allies pumped corn husk brooms over their heads to drive home the point that they were clearing away the old guard that had governed this city for decades.
Now, eight months after his inauguration, Mr. Booker is hoping to wave those brooms again, this time in a countywide effort to unseat a number of state legislators who he says are standing in the way of his ambitious agenda.
During two days of news conferences last week, Mr. Booker stood hand in hand with six legislative hopefuls seeking to capture two seats in the State Senate and four in the Assembly in the June 5 Democratic primary. In heavily Democratic Essex County, a victory in the primary is equivalent to victory in the general election.
“It’s time to bring in new ideas and energy, but more importantly, it’s time to bring in people who are willing to work together,” Mr. Booker said on Wednesday after introducing the 29th District ticket made up of two woman and a man, all in their 30s, who reflect the three main voting blocs in the city — African-American, Portuguese and Hispanic.
The primary will be an important barometer of Mr. Booker’s newfound political heft. But in supporting a slate of self-described reformers, some of them political neophytes, Mr. Booker is angering longtime enemies and those who have been his allies, including a family of elected officials whose power extends from Washington to the streets of the Central Ward.
Even some of his supporters are questioning the wisdom of challenging veteran incumbents for the sake of consolidating power.
Rahaman Muhammad, president of the city’s largest municipal union, said he was especially unhappy that Mr. Booker was seeking the defeat of State Senator Ronald L. Rice, a 22-year veteran who lost in a mayoral face-off against Mr. Booker last year. In Trenton, Mr. Muhammad said, seniority and experience can play an important role in helping solve some of the city’s problems.
“No one has given me a good reason why we should replace Ron Rice,” said Mr. Muhammad, who was a pivotal backer of Mr. Booker’s candidacy last year, but who said he would support Mr. Rice’s re-election in the 28th District. “Replacing someone who is your enemy sounds like old-school politics to me, and I want no part of that.”
Mr. Booker and his supporters say that Mr. Rice has been asking for trouble by refusing to cooperate on legislative matters crucial to Newark’s well-being and declining to return calls from City Hall employees. D. Bilal Beasley, the mayor’s anointed candidate, echoed the sentiments, saying that Mr. Rice was aloof and at times hostile.
“Ron Rice says he’s trying to reach out to the mayor, but at every opportunity he vilifies Cory,” said Mr. Beasley, a councilman in neighboring Irvington.
In an interview, Mr. Rice called Mr. Booker “an outright liar,” saying it was the mayor who refused to meet with him or return his calls. The mayor’s true objective, he insisted, was to become a regional power broker. “He just wants to take over other cities and governments.”
But to some political analysts , Mr. Booker, who is facing a huge budget gap and needs all the help he can get from Trenton, is being a pragmatist. David P. Rebovich, a political scientist at Rider University, said Newark’s current delegation may be adept at bringing home the bacon, but its propensity for old-school patronage has harmed Newark’s reputation in the Legislature.
“Cory Booker is saying the only way he can be a reform mayor is if the legislators from Newark are also reformers,” Mr. Rebovich said.
Backed by some of the county’s heaviest hitters — including Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and a formidable power broker in the North Ward, Steve N. Adubato Sr. — the pro-Booker slates in the 28th and 29th Districts stand a good chance at victory. But the fight is sure to be ugly, and it is already churning up the perennial theme of race here.
The contest for the State Senate seat in the 29th District held by Sharpe James, Newark’s former mayor, is already shaping up to be the most contentious. It is widely assumed that Mr. James, who has yet to announce his intentions, will probably step aside. Federal agents have been investigating Mr. James’s use of two city-issued credit cards to cover travel expenses for himself, his bodyguards and other city officials when he was mayor.
Assemblyman William D. Payne, the older brother of United States Representative Donald M. Payne, said he had long planned to run for the job, with the backing of the county’s Democratic establishment. The seat has been occupied by an African-American since 1972, and Mr. Payne, who is black, would like to keep it that way.
But Mr. Adubato, who runs a constellation of social service organizations in the city’s largely Hispanic North Ward, had other plans. Last month he gave his nod to Teresa Ruiz, 32, the county executive’s deputy chief of staff. If elected, Ms. Ruiz would be the first Hispanic in the State Senate.
“There are more Latinos than African-Americans in New Jersey, so it’s about time,” said Mr. Adubato, an Italian-American whose ability to deliver votes on Election Day is both admired and feared. He added that Mr. Payne could have been part of the ticket if he had agreed to remain in the Assembly.
Mr. Payne, who is running for the seat, condemned that calculation, saying there were other districts in the state that would be better suited to a Hispanic candidate. “Why on earth would you want to pit a Hispanic against a sitting black?” he asked. He pointed out that the 29th District, which includes a slice of neighboring Hillside, is 40 percent African-American and 37 percent Hispanic.
In what may be a taste of the battle ahead, Mr. Payne wrote to members of the Essex County Democratic committee in February warning that “significant entities in the district” were plotting to disenfranchise Newark’s black population. In what many saw as a veiled reference to Mr. Booker, Mr. Payne ended the letter by writing, “Ironically, the same individuals who were elected by us are overtly or covertly working to end African-American representation and return us to the plantation.”
Calling the letter “patently offensive,” Mr. Booker said he feared that Mr. Payne would run a racially divisive campaign. “This is going back to the same brand of politics that we thought we were getting beyond,” he said. “It’s venal and it appeals to the lowest common denominator.”
The Paynes are considered political royalty in Newark, holding seats not only in Congress but also in the State Legislature: Donald Payne Jr., the son of Donald M. Payne, sits on Newark’s Municipal Council and a cousin, Phil Thigpen, is the Essex County Democratic chairman. Yet it remains to be seen whether they can match the get-out-the-vote prowess of Mr. Adubato and his allies in an election without any statewide races.
During last week’s news conference announcing Ms. Ruiz’s candidacy, Mr. Booker became irked when reporters asked whether his opposition to veteran black officials was an affront to those who struggled in the civil rights era.
He took a deep breath and described the state of his city: “I’m dealing with crumbling infrastructure, exploding sewers and schools that on average are 80 years old. Right now, what I need is legislators who will help me with these problems.”