Vouching for Newark

One of America's most-maligned cities gets set to elect pro-school choice leadership


Newark, N.J.—Anyone who saw the documentary Street Fight, about Newark's bruising 2002 mayoral election, might get uneasy as this crowd gathers. A political rally/cookout has been going on for about an hour next to a baseball diamond in the city's central ward. As volunteers for mayoral candidate Ronald L. Rice serve hamburgers, chicken and hot dogs, Princeton Prof. Cornel West and legendary radical poet Amiri Baraka (whose son Ras is an at-large councilman) shake hands and sign autographs. Then mayoral candidate Cory Booker arrives a block away, on the other side of the diamond, and starts meeting voters. A phalanx of Rice supporters in red, white and yellow T-shirts make their way over to Booker's team and start heckling.

"Newark is not for sale! Newark is not for sale!"

This was one of outgoing Mayor Sharpe James' slogans in 2002, when he defeated Booker by 3,500 votes to win his fifth term. It was a jab at Booker's out-of-state financial support, but it packed plenty of subliminal messaging—Booker was the tool of white Republicans, he wasn't really from Newark, he was a "wolf in sheep's clothing" (credit for that one goes to Rev. Jesse Jackson).

The hecklers start to get noticed—and then they get rebuffed. Some of the central ward revelers who were milling around and watching the baseball game start chanting back at them.

"Our children are not for sale! Our children are not for sale!"

The Rice backers sheepishly simmer down and glower as Booker finishes shaking hands and heads back to his white campaign car. Supporters of both candidates stay and argue a little longer, but Booker's team clearly came out ahead in this little tussle. And that made it a fitting metaphor for this election.

Today, voters in Newark are hitting the polls and, in all likelihood, propelling Cory Booker into the mayor's office. After his narrow 2002 defeat, Booker founded a nonprofit called Newark Now and started building the infrastructure for another run. Mayor James made every indication that he'd run again, too, filing for a sixth term and keeping up his campaign brain trust. But at the end of March he pulled out of the race and Rice, a state senator and deputy mayor, rushed in to fill the gap. James' late decision, coupled with Booker's aggressive campaigning, has turned the race into one long red carpet walk for the outsider. As the race wraps up Booker has a 40-point poll lead and more than $1.5 million to spend on election day; Rice has around $100,000.

"We showed some strength last time and it drew other people to our cause," Booker says. While he and Rice are both Democrats and this is a non-partisan election, it took four years for the city's most powerful figures to come around. "Now we really have a broad base of support around the state and around the city. People in the Democratic party establishment that opposed us last time are endorsing us this time."

Only one powerful interest group has shunned Booker and endorsed Rice. That's the city's teachers union, and that's because Booker is a vocal supporter of school choice. Four years ago that fact was used against him in ugly ways. He was called a Republican-in-disguise, a tool of white and Jewish schemers. Candidate Rice pulled that cudgel out of mothballs last month, saying Booker supported vouchers because he was the "New Jersey point-person of the far-right Christian wing of the Republican Party."

The attacks aren't working this year, and not because Booker has papered over his policy stances or personal beliefs. He's running with a slate of candidates—three for the at-large city council seats, four for each of the ward seats—who also support vouchers.

Some of Booker's candidates are established Newark politicos who have come into his fold. Oscar James II is a different story—a 24-year-old Villanova graduate who originally came to Booker to ask for a law school recommendation letter.

"He said, 'You can go to law school whenever you want,'" James says. "'But right now you can be part of a real change that will affect Newark for years to come.'"

James is running for the council seat in the city's south ward, and his campaign is shepherded by Oscar, Sr., who got out the ward's vote for Mayor James (no relation) in 2002. The James family had enough money to send Oscar II to a series of private schools that "challenged" him and turned him from an easily distracted student to a hard-charging non-profit volunteer and candidate.

"Most kids in Newark don't get one tenth of the education that I had," James says. "And not every kid will get all of what I had, but they deserve a chance."

The slate's central ward candidate, Dana Rone, is probably its most vocal advocate of school choice. She won a seat on the city's school board in 2000 as an unapologetic member of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), a pro-voucher group co-founded by Bret Schundler, the former mayor of Jersey City. Schundler was a conservative Republican who got creamed in two runs for governor, becoming persona non grata with Garden State liberals. That didn't stop Rone from winning a second term, in 2003, by a landslide.

"Vouchers have been pegged as something negative in the African-American community," Rone says. "When I explain them to people who are skeptical, I say: Look, you get vouchers. Medicare is a voucher. Social Security is a voucher. Welfare is a voucher. This is the same principle; it's the equalizer that can get your kids into good schools. And when you explain it like that, they understand and they support it."

No one on Booker's slate represents the school choice/anti-school choice divide like its candidate in the west ward. That's Ron Rice, Jr., the son of Booker's opponent, and a graduate of private schools. (Booker manages to needle Ron, Sr. for taking "his kids" out of the public school system in a way that doesn't seem to bother Ron, Jr.) Rice fell into Booker's orbit when he ran his first city council race, and he's stayed in the circle since then, even as his father took higher and more powerful roles in the James administration. "He and his father are like night and day," says Rev. Reginald Jackson, the executive director of Black Ministers of New Jersey and a school choice supporter.

Rice is a less vocal supporter of choice than Rone or James—he thinks vouchers are "one option" to consider. But they should have been considered long ago, he says, and weren't because of "the status quo politicians."

"There hasn't really been an honest discussion," he explains, taking a break from campaigning before lunch. "And that hasn't happened mainly because of the postulations of the Civil Rights generation, which sees no real institutional problems with the way public education works. But we do. Indeed, most of the people in the city of Newark who have the means to practice school choice do so. We should give more options to parents who don't have the means."