Once again the electoral politics affecting Newark is heaving change. A new crop of legislative officials is now slated to replace a crop of seasoned incumbents. Teresa Ruiz, Grace Spencer and Albert Coutino are the new Senator and Assemblywoman and Assemblyman representing the 29th Legislative District in New Jersey, which includes a substantial portion of Newark. Even before last Tuesday's election, gone were Senator Sharpe James who chose not to run and Assemblywoman Odaline Truitt who was defeated in the June primary. It took a sound thumping in Tuesday's general election to vanquish former Assemblyman William Payne who sought the Senate seat as an independent.
The future has not been so up in the air in a long time. What's next? Who will emerge as the dominant political forces going forward? How long will Black politics be relevant in Newark? All these questions and more have wafted quietly in the background of Newark's political scene for several years but are now raging naked on "front street."
In a matter of a few months the political fortunes of the Payne dynasty have been cut nearly in half. In May there were four family members holding five elective offices. Now there are just two members holding three offices. So what's next for the Paynes? Will they regroup and try to rebuild or will they reach an accommodation with reality and forge an alliance to protect their remaining holdings? And if so, with whom?
And what of the next generation political insurgents who were left languishing when Sharpe James departed Newark's political arena? Many rallied around Senator Rice in his primary victory, no doubt hoping it would provide sufficient momentum to jump-start a political movement destined to help them regain their status. Will Tuesday's hide tanning tame their enthusiasm? Will they finally stop dabbling with low risk political skirmishes and step up to the real battle? There are a lot of questions to which answers will no doubt reveal themselves in the coming days and weeks.
But here's what we know now. There is a major political transformation underway in Newark. Its face will be largely ethnic as Blacks yield leadership to Latinos, but its root will be economic as the business community seeks the best front-line political partner with which to execute their aggressive agenda. And so long as the community places its focus on the competition for power between Blacks and Latinos, both will be the losers in the economic sweepstakes that is poised to define a new Newark.
Because African American politicians in Newark have primarily viewed and played politics as an enterprise of individual empowerment, we are fast becoming defenseless in the emerging political climate. All the old horses are going or being sent out to pasture. They did not bother to train and ready a new breed. The competition is well heeled, well disciplined and well financed. Newark's next generation of African American political leaders have been held back too long by the old horses and just might be passed over all together.
But will it really matter? We believe it will not so long as Black politicians are unable and unwilling to translate their leadership into opportunity that breeds sustainable political power and creates institutions that transcend politics and strengthen community. Anything less is worthless-except to some individual politicians. By now we should have had our fill of their type of political selfishness.
We see a significant opportunity for Black political maturation on the horizon. True, Black politics is old. But is it mature? We think not. And the obvious very public dissolution that is now underway gives us all a chance to recognize and openly acknowledge that peril is at hand. We can act all grown up. We can accept collective blame. Then we can choose to work together. Yes. Right now we can move to close breaches, heal rifts, span gaps and rebuild badly damaged important relationships. If we refuse and adopt recalcitrance as methodology, we can chalk it all up.
A partnership with Latinos and others is the appropriate course of action. It does not mean giving up aspirations of the Black community. It can mean assuring them. A partnership with the business community is also essential. And a truly equitable relationship will not be possible so long as Blacks and Latinos are engaged in an intractable political struggle over little or nothing. But none of these critical arrangements can emerge if the Black community continues to prove incapable of hammering out the required internal agreements between its vital sectors.
Cory Booker has become a lightening rod of false focus. Truth is, he is a transitional figure. His role is significant and must be acknowledged. Pretending to discount and ignore his significance is folly. He is in place and a transition is taking place. What that transition means for Newark's Black community is murky because we have few collective goals that are driven by clear thinking. Yet our community can still define our future. It will not wait forever though. It is now being defined by events and circumstances not within our reach. This can change only if our behavior changes.
Black politicians have dominated the local scene for too long. And in many ways and for many people they have become irrelevant. Major players in many sectors view them as a nuisance factor. They tend to be engaged only when absolutely necessary or for purely ceremonial purposes. Serious political interaction regularly takes place around them and outside their realm of competency. Members of the African American clergy have even stepped into the void left by ineffective political organization in the Black community. And if you think carefully about it you will be hard pressed to find another community of people where the religious leaders are the political spokespersons. It is an outrage run amuck. But it is our community and if we want to be taken seriously and make real progress we must change it without further delay.
Sharpe James left office at 70 years old, Don Bradley at about 70, Bill Payne around 70. This is amazing. Young political aspirants in the African American community should be livid and determined to end the practice of generational stifling in Black local politics. The election of Grace Spencer as 29th District Assemblywoman is an encouraging sign. But just as soon as one can absorb the positive flavor of the Spencer victory, political talk fast forwards to the notion of a Newark mayoral bid by our good friend Cliff Minor in 2010. At that time Cliff will be around 70. Hard to believe young Newarkers will swallow our man Cliff for the top spot at 70 years old. We are having a hard enough time being taken seriously without behaving stupidly.
Things are changing-moving forward fast. It is no time to entrench ourselves in backwardness or turn aside progress. Forward is where we must go if we don't just plain want to disappear from the political spectrum. History does record people becoming extinct. Let's just grow up before we're gone.
Tuesday was but one more wakeup call. It signals the closing of an era. Perhaps there is still a chapter or two to be played out but by and large it is time to change the subject. We need a new script. It is important that it lean heavily on history but it must portray the present and envision the future. There is no reason that we should not all contribute to its authorship. No good reason. A perfect moment for unity has arrived. Will we take it?
November 7, 2007