By Melissa Marie Johnson
By now, we all have heard or been impacted by On July 31, Condé Nast Traveler magazine ranking of Newark the world’s “unfriendliest” city. Presently, Newark has been in the news for other reasons, as well! The city’s political temperature has heightened, as Mayor Cory Booker’s senate primary campaign gathers steam and Newarkers shifted focus to hiring his replacement. Such was evident at the August 7th mayoral town hall forum at First Avenue Elementary School, where questions were posed about crime and other concerns by an endless line of Newarkers, waiting for the microphone, to the tune of “Why don’t we have enough police?” “Why are there no jobs in the city?” and “What are you going to do about our failing school system?” The candidates appeared booted for duty. They included Shavar Jeffries, former State Assistant Attorney General and professor of Law at Seton Hall University, Ras Baraka, South Ward Councilman and principal of Central High School, and Anibal Ramos, Jr., North Ward Councilman,Acting Council President and Director of Department of Economic Development, Training & Employment.
Conversely, candidates did not convincingly answer questions posed by the audience. One issue they agreed on unequivocally was the need for local control of the city’s school system. The school system has been under state control for almost two decades. The candidates also agreed that Booker’s economic development agenda be encouraged and expanded beyond the business district. But how to this could be achieved, was not mentioned. Additionally, they didn’t outline in a convincing way what they would do to reduce the waves of crime in the city. Jefferies insisted that that he would work relentlessly against crime as it has “scared investors away in the past.” Baraka believed the phenomena “wouldn’t stop people from coming to the city.” Ramos didn’t mention anything definitive about crime, but promised to bring his “managerial experience and skills to City Hall.”
Now it should be made clear that, town hall forums and debates are not the same thing. A town hall meeting offers the people a chance to express their opinions and ask questions of public officials. A political debate, on the other hand, affords candidates the opportunity to explain their ideas and plans to the electorate so that voters can make informed decisions and choices. Interestingly, the setting that evening did not promote this kind of interaction – in fact it failed miserably. The moderators failed at controlling the jeering crowd by not enforcing the ground rules for appropriate behavior that would allow each candidate to be heard. There were desperate attempts to redirect the crowd on ill-functioning microphones and it appeared that certain candidates’ supporters were merely present, to bully opponents by shouting offences and drowning out factual statements –some statements ear-worthy. Candidates could have made statements of no value and their supporters would have swelled in cheer with raise placards. Most of the Newarkers statements, via microphone were inaudible as well, as candidates, at times, leaned forward and grimace-faced, cocked an ear towards the questioner.
“Is this a debate or popularity contest?” was a question I overhead an audience member ask her friend at the end of the debate. It was neither. Obviously, she wasn’t the only one who felt that way, as there was an uncertainty within the room and no one, including reporters, audience members and the candidates themselves appeared satisfied or convinced any headway had been made. Reflecting on the nature of the debate and kind of behavior the audience exhibited, one may ask and justifiably so, if the travel magazine’s ranking had any credence.
With that political mood, one wonders what the future holds for Newark on its slight incline. Newark’s tremendous industrial and population growth in the 19th century and early 20th century made the city the crown jewel of New Jersey and a microcosm of an American city. Now that the primaries are behind us, and a new reality become apparent. It is now time that we begin to seriously create the framework for effective debate require, detail, depth and objectivity. Every Newarker should stand for nothing less.
With a uncertain political climate upon us, many wonder whether Newark can be the economic colossus and the shining American city it once was. In other words, one may ask, Newark can you be thus?