Newark activist embraces ‘Dr. Martin Luther King’s agenda’ in U.S. Senate bid

By: - January 15, 2024 7:00 am

Larry Hamm of the People’s Organization for Progress speaks out during a rally outside the Statehouse in Trenton on June 15, 2023. Ralliers called for more state funding for community-based violence intervention groups. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Larry Hamm is no Chris Christie fan.

“Christie can’t escape the fact that he helped to create this Frankenstein monster, Donald Trump,” said Hamm, one of New Jersey’s busiest social justice activists.

Still, when Christie dropped out of the White House race last week, Hamm was irked.

“He served a role being in there criticizing Trump,” he said. “I think he was pressured to get out. But if he was really the tough guy that he poses himself as, he should have stayed in there and criticized Trump all the way through the primaries.”

Such logic is why Hamm remains steadfast in his quest for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

In September, Hamm, 70, became the first Democrat to enter the race to replace indicted Sen. Bob Menendez, who hasn’t yet said whether he will run for reelection. In an increasingly crowded competition for the seat, political observers have largely discounted anyone other than Andy Kim and Tammy Murphy as the likeliest winner of New Jersey’s June Democratic primary.

Hamm is undaunted. Whatever his odds, he said, he will not bow out as Christie did. Just as Christie was a foil to Trump, Hamm regards his role as critical to driving attention to progressive policy priorities he deems vital to the working and middle classes.

“I am running to win,” Hamm said. “But also, I’m running to put forward the progressive agenda. The progressive agenda is not a new agenda. It was Dr. Martin Luther King’s agenda. It was Jesse Jackson’s agenda when he ran for President in 1984 and 1988, and it was Bernie Sanders’ agenda when he ran in 2016 and 2020.”

Topping that agenda: universal health care, a living wage for all, an end to war and excessive military spending, reparations for slavery, stronger voting and union rights, accountability for police brutality, affordable housing, climate change reversal, and the abolition of poverty, Hamm said.

Such goals are doable and shouldn’t be controversial, but too many candidates and elected officials lack the political will to achieve them because those goals don’t serve the nation’s wealthiest folks — and money controls politics, he said.

“We have a political system and a political process that’s fundamentally driven by money, and this is now at the exponential level since the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court that said money is free speech. This allows the billionaires — and soon we’ll have trillionaires — to essentially make the system work for them,” he said.

While other Democratic candidates in the Senate race have embraced some progressive issues, Hamm urged undecided voters to weigh what they’re silent on, such as the Israel-Hamas war. Neither Murphy nor Kim has called strongly for a cease-fire, something Hamm wholeheartedly urges, along with an end to U.S. military aid to Israel.

“Dr. King said our country, the United States of America, is ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.’ That was true in 1968, and it is true today,” Hamm said. “Genocide is being carried out before our very eyes. And if the United States government does not use the leverage that it has, we are going to be drawn into another forever war.”

Longtime activist

Hamm, a father of three who lives in Montclair, has long been a champion for people without the money or power to dictate public policy, starting his life of advocacy early.

He was just 18 in 1972 when he became the youngest elected delegate at the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. He was even younger when Newark’s then-Mayor Kenneth Gibson appointed him to the city’s school board in 1971.

“I wasn’t even old enough to vote,” Hamm said.

He organized student protests and sit-ins for civil rights and against apartheid in Newark, where he graduated from Arts High School, and Princeton University, where he graduated cum laude in 1978.

In 1982, he founded the People’s Organization for Progress, a Newark-based grassroots group that fights for social, racial, and economic injustice. The group holds weekly protests against police brutality in Newark, has marched to Trenton to advocate for police reforms, and frequently rallies outside the Statehouse on all sorts of issues.

Hamm ran for Senate in 2020, too, winning 12% of the vote in the Democratic primary against incumbent Sen. Cory Booker.

He’s concerned that the current race for Senate might fuel voter apathy and disgust, given how New Jersey’s Democratic machine has stampeded to support Murphy, a first-time candidate. But if he loses, he said he’ll support whoever wins, including Murphy. He’ll support President Biden, too, despite his concerns about Gaza, and work with advocates around the state to mobilize voters to the polls. There’s too much to lose if Republicans gain control of the Senate or Trump returns to the White House, he said.

“We’re going backwards in this country, and the majority of people don’t want to go backwards. The Trump movement is a minority movement and what they want to establish is minority rule,” Hamm said.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.