Why not more discussion of Ras Baraka for governor? | Opinion

February 2, 2022 6:45 am

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka speaking at a campaign rally in Newark in October 2021. [Danielle Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

New Jersey is nirvana for political junkies. Speculation on future nominees for statewide office is the leading participation sport of the Trenton political chattering class

The Jan. 18 inauguration of Gov. Phil Murphy for his second term was a classic example. Throughout the Garden State, while ample analysis was devoted by the political media to the agenda of Murphy’s second term, there was an equal focus on the next gubernatorial race in 2025.

The consensus is Jack Ciattarelli will be the next GOP gubernatorial nominee. Ciattarelli is perhaps the most effective GOP statewide campaigner since Tom Kean Sr. Any assessment of his potential Democratic rivals must take into account how they match up against him.

On the Democratic side, New Jersey political futurologists have focused on pols like Rep. Mikie Sherrill and former state Senate President Steve Sweeney. Yet there is very little discussion about the Democrat who I think has by far the most potential as a candidate and as a governor: Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

There should be two prerequisites for consideration of an individual for the 2025 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. As to both these criteria, Ras Baraka is significantly more suitable than other prospective candidates.

One is executive experience, which Baraka has in great abundance as the most successful mayor in the modern history of Newark.

A new governor needs prior chief executive experience to overcome bureaucratic resistance, administer effectively, make appropriate appointments, and succeed on the intergovernmental front. Skeptics of a Baraka gubernatorial candidacy will reluctantly concede the Baraka chief executive experience advantage when confronted with the evidence.

Ras Baraka was the model for all American mayors on the environmental front with his success in replacing the lead pipes contaminating the drinking water of Newark. That alone would have qualified him as one of America’s most effective current mayors.

Yet as a mayor, Ras Baraka has achieved so much more. He has been innovative and thorough in his approach to housing issues in Newark. And even more remarkable has been Baraka’s success on an issue that proved to be a quagmire for other Newark mayors: public education.

Working closely with the newly appointed superintendent of schools, Roger Leon, Newark’s first since the city regained control of its schools from the state, Baraka has implemented outreach to all interested parties and served as a beacon of hope for a city school system striving to emerge from the disaster of years of state control.

The second criterion is electability. There are those who, while accepting Baraka’s triumphs as a mayor, express doubts about his gubernatorial electability. A considered and thoughtful examination of the post-2021 gubernatorial landscape, however, establishes Baraka is the most electable Democratic gubernatorial prospect.

The 2021 gubernatorial face-off ultimately was a regional and demographic contest. Democrat Murphy was the candidate of the urban and suburban counties, while Republican Ciattarelli carried the exurban and shore counties.

Ciattarelli didn’t perform badly in Bergen and Passaic counties. If he selects Republican state Sen. Holly Schepisi as his running mate in 2025 — Schepisi represents these two counties in the Legislature — his chances of carrying them will increase markedly. A Ciattarelli-Schepisi 2025 ticket would constitute a political supernova.

In order to prevail against a potential Ciattarelli-Schepisi ticket, the 2025 Democratic gubernatorial nominee would have to boost their margins in other counties Murphy carried in 2021. Yet the New Jersey political figure with the best chance of achieving such a gain, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, is largely ignored by insiders.

The key to victory for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2025 is to boost African American turnout, particularly among younger voters. In this era of GOP Trump racism, soon to be followed by GOP DeSantis racism, Democrats in New Jersey have little problem in carrying overwhelmingly the African American vote.

The problem, for Democrats in New Jersey and nationally, has been turnout of younger Black voters.  While older African American voters turn out in strong numbers, the falloff in turnout among younger African American voters is a challenge. The Center for Information and  Research on Civic Learning and Engagement says turnout for Black people ages 18 to 29 was 43% in 2020’s November election, compared to 61% for white youth.

Two reasons for this subpar turnout emerge from studies of this issue. The first is white candidates’ inability to communicate effectively with young African American audiences. The second is young African American voter perception that candidates are unconcerned with the issues that confront them in their-day-to-day existence.

If there is any Democrat who as a 2025 gubernatorial candidate would have the prospect of substantially attracting an increase in the turnout of young African American voters, it is Ras Baraka. Baraka has fully lived the African American experience in dealing as a mayor with the day-to-day issues confronting people of color.

The increase in African American turnout generated by a Baraka gubernatorial candidacy could enable him to comfortably prevail over Ciattarelli, even if the putative GOP candidate is able to add Bergen and Passaic counties to the Republican column.

Ras Baraka is the public official whom the Democratic powers should be actively recruiting to run. Perhaps they soon will.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Alan Steinberg
Alan Steinberg

Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.