NEWARK — Ras Baraka, a councilman and fiery community activist who campaigned on the vow to "take back Newark" from outsiders, was elected mayor of New Jersey’s largest city in decisive fashion Tuesday night, declaring victory before the votes were even fully counted.
"We are the mayor!" he proclaimed, echoing his own campaign slogan.
With 150 of 162 precincts reporting, Baraka was swept into office, capturing 54 percent of the vote in the nonpartisan election — the first since Cory Booker decamped the city and set off for Washington. His opponent, Shavar Jeffries, who grew up in Newark after his teenage mother was murdered when he was just 10, followed with 46 percent.
In the contentious, high-stakes race marked by millions in independent expenditures that poured in from special interests pushing the agendas of both candidates, turnout was high on an election day that was remarkably free of rancor after weeks of angry street confrontations, mudslinging TV ads and the torching of a campaign bus.
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It ended not long after the polls closed. At a celebration at the Robert Treat Hotel near the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the mayor-elect took to the stage amid clusters of red, white and blue balloons, and a huge banner proclaiming "When I become mayor, we become mayor."
Flashing his fingers in a "V" for victory, Baraka shouted out, "We are the winners!"
The crowd cheered and clapped.
"When everybody didn’t believe, you believed," he said to the crowd. "Today is the day we say goodbye to the bosses."
Jeffries took the stage at the Golden Dome Athletic Center on the Rutgers-Newark campus at 10:20 tonight to concede the election.
"The time is now for us to move forward as one city, to move forward together." he said. "We ran a very spirited campaign."
Baraka, 45, a single father of three, will replace Mayor Luis Quintana, a city councilman who was temporarily handed the keys to the city after Booker — whose celebrity seemed to define Newark for more than a decade — won a special election last year to fill the seat of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and left for Washington.
Left behind are mounting problems for the new mayor that include a $93 million budget deficit that has led to threats of a financial takeover by the state, the city’s highest murder rate since 1990, and protests over the continued state control of Newark’s still-failing school system.
A major focal point of the election was the debate over the schools and state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson’s controversial "One Newark" school reorganization plan — which calls for the relocation and consolidation of one-quarter of the city’s schools and turning over some neighborhood schools to charter operators.
The race between two men, however, was often less about issues than over who was the "authentic" Newarker. While both live in the city’s South Ward, less than two miles from each other and know each other well, both launched personal attacks against each other throughout the campaign.
Baraka, a high-octane member of the council and long-time critic of Booker, sought to define Jeffries as a tool of the party "bosses" and moneyed interests, while touting himself as the progressive candidate of the people. At one point, Jeffries complained that thousands of dollars had been spent on advertisements by the Working Families Organization, a group backing Baraka, which accused him of being aligned with Gov. Chris Christie and suggesting he was a puppet of "scary white people."
Baraka said the Jeffries campaign had portrayed him as a thug and a gang member after trying to broker a gang truce in 2004,
"They say I’m a thug, why did they burn my bus?" referring to two Jeffries campaign workers who were charged with setting a fire on Baraka’s campaign bus.
Much of the money spent on the mayoral campaign was not raised by the candidates, but rather by groups making independent expenditures on their behalf. According to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, $2.6 million was spent on campaign ads, mailings and other support by seven groups that targeted the Newark election — the most independent spending every reported in a state local election. More than $1.7 million of that went to bolster Jeffries, with $945,000 spent in support of Baraka.
Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, said the outside groups — which do not all disclose where their money comes from — contributed to the no-holds barred nature of the Newark election.
"I’m not saying candidate-based advertising doesn’t get down-and-dirty. But when outside groups get involved — with their high level of anonymity —it takes off the constraints."
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, who had supported Jeffries, said people didn’t know Shavar.
"They got to know him over the past two months, it was just not enough," he said.
During the final hours of the election today, both campaigns aggressively pushed to get their base out and to the polls. Blaring sound trucks that slowly cruise the streets of Newark every election day, played hip-hop, salsa and rap soundtracks, while the amplified messages of the candidates echoed off buildings.
Throughout the city’s five wards, Jeffries’ fliers were handed out on street corners, brandished at busy intersections, and left on car windshields. Baraka’s get-out-the-vote crews were camped out at the busiest intersections, holding up signs and banners.
Both were active on social media, urging supporters to bolster the numbers.
Signs for both candidates plastered nearby poles and fences, while cars decorated with ballot position numbers honked as they drove by. Campaigns workers stood outside a school with fliers hoping to give their candidate the edge.
On West Market Street, Clarissa Andrade and Angelica Sanabria held their big orange Jeffries signs out to morning traffic — surrounded by a sea of blue Baraka workers.
Noemi Rodriguez said she decided to vote for Baraka after canvassers came to her home earlier this year. She complained to them about a tree near her home that was dangerous and falling apart. The next week it was fixed.
"There you just got my vote," she said.
State Troopers assigned were assigned to patrol the city throughout the day today, along with state monitors from the Attorney General’s office to deal with any voting-related legal issues, officials said.
About 30 deputy attorneys general were deployed to polling locations throughout the city, but they observed "nothing out of the ordinary," said spokesman Paul Loriquet.
Star-Ledger staff writers Seth Augenstein, Bill Wichert and Tom Wright-Piersanti contributed to this report.