NEWARK — On the menu today in Newark was fried whiting, grits, home fries and a whole lot of political juice.
Former Newark Mayor Sharpe James and mayoral candidate Ras Baraka walked into Kings Family Restaurant to loud applause as about 200 people packed the South Ward establishment to hear James sing Baraka’s praises and endorse the South Ward councilman’s candidacy for mayor of Newark.
“I remember a young man who ran against me for mayor,” James said, referring to Baraka’s quixotic 1994 run against James, who at the time was a giant in state politics. Ten years later, James was still in office when he hired Baraka as deputy mayor.
“He saw a problem, he worked on the problem, he fixed the problem,” James said. “Ras Baraka did that.”
“Today I join with our extended family of the City of Newark,” James said. “Ras Baraka will bring us in a new direction.”
James ruled Newark from 1986 to 2006, when current U.S. Sen. Cory Booker took over as mayor. James was convicted of fraud and theft of honest services in 2008 and served 18 months in federal prison. The charge “theft of honest services” was significantly weakened by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010.
His endorsement comes as little surprise since James was among a group of elders who threw their support behind Baraka early in the race. James’ son, John Sharpe James is on Baraka’s slate as the South Ward council candidate.
Baraka, a former teacher and principal of Central High School, noted the historic nature of the endorsement.
“Twenty years ago if you had told me Sharpe James would be endorsing me for mayor, I would think that you were completely crazy,” Baraka said. “There’s nothing like an idea whose time has come.”
Whether Baraka said it knowingly or not, that line, often attributed to the late Rep. Donald Payne Sr., underscored a potential division in the South Ward, Baraka’s home base.
Payne’s brother William Payne and his son, the current 10th District Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. have both endorsed Baraka’s opponent, Shavar Jeffries. The Payne family, too, has a loyal following in the South Ward.
When asked about the potential schism, James said he was not concerned.
“William Payne is working as a deputy to Phil Alagia,” James said, referring to County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo’s chief of staff. “(The Paynes) had to follow orders from the county … their heart is not in it.”
A string of political leaders associated with the Essex County machine have endorsed Jeffries as well. Earlier this week, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz and Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin endorsed Jeffries. North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos is also one of Jeffries’ biggest supporters.
“We’re not ready to give our city to the county,” Baraka said to big cheers. “I don’t think there’s anybody left they can bring out to endorse.”
He added,”They’re organizing to protect one man. We’re organizing to protect 300,000 people.”