Booker’s vote at Newark City Hall brings forth inopportune reminder of divided city politics

NEWARK – They had an alliance once and a friendship born of street battles fought together as the city’s new political tide.

But West Ward Councilman Ronald C. Rice tonight sees Mayor Cory Booker as an emblem of an old guard establishment he thought they had sworn to defeat.

“I never thought the guy I suppported would ever take a dump on the democratic process,” said Rice (pictured). “Whatever differences we ever had, I never thought he would throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Booker’s actions tonight at the Newark City Councill meeting and the resulting violent backlash came, inopportunely for the mayor, amid ongoing buzz concerning his potential for a statewide 2013 run at incumbent Gov. Chris Christie.

He plans to make an announcement about his plans by the middle of next month.

Many Democrats see the national-sized Booker – the only New Jersey Democrat with a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention – as the sole candidate who can compete against Christie. 

But “he gets nowhere with a divided Newark,” said Rice, a much buzzed about Booker successor as the city’s chief executive. “These kinds of actions divide Newark.”

For their part, Booker’s allies see the councilman on the rebound from a pancaked 10th District Congressional bid in the arms of his own hellish compromise: the octopus embrace of former Mayor Sharpe James and company, hardly the refuge of someone proclaiming good soldier reformer credit.

Booker appeared at tonight’s City Council meeting to cast a vote in favor of Shanique Davis Speight to fill the at-large council seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. (D-10).

A Central Ward school board member and ally of North Ward Democratic leader Steve Adubato’s, Speight had the support of the Latino members of the City Council: North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, At-Large Councilman Luis Quintana, At-Large Councilman Carlos Gonzalez and East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador.

“She’s a woman,” argued Adubato, pointing out that she’s now the only woman on the council until the city holds a special election next year.

Central Ward Councilman Darrin Sharif, South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka, At-Large Councilwoman Mildred Crump and Rice were said to oppose Speight.

Sources told PolitickerNJ.com they support John Sharpe James, son of former Mayor James – on grounds that he received the most votes in a 2010 losing efffort for an at-large council seat.

The elder James went to several recent council meetings. Booker allies are aware of palpable anti-administration organizing, with James and Baraka the main South Ward-based ringleaders. 

Alert to a James family return to City Hall and in attendance tonight just days after Payne vacated his at-large council seat and within a 30-day window to fill the vacancy, Booker rose and cast his vote for Speight.

“The way the rule works is if there is a candidate and there is a tie, the mayor can be tiebreaker,” said Booker’s Chief of Staff Mo Butler. “We did our research; we looked up the statute.”

But Rice didn’t attend the council meeting, and as such did not contribute to a 4-4 deadlock – by statute the only way the mayor could assert his tiebreaking function, Rice argued.

“They’re wrong on legal grounds,” said the councilman, son of state Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-28). “They don’t have a leg to stand on. The statute is the mayor can only vote if there’s a 4-4 tie. I stayed away from the council meeting. I had some intel they were going to try something like this, and I stayed away from it. I thought if it came to a tiebreaker by not being there even if we couldn’t agree on a candidate it would give us more time to deliberate.”

Booker voted anyway in “a slap at democracy,” Rice said, though Butler poitned out that case precedent doesn’t favor elected offficials intentionally ducking a meeting to avoid the creation of a tie.

As reported by the Star-Ledger, the mayor’s vote prompted a rush of the council by residents attending the council meeting, and the arrest of labor leader Rahaman Muhammad, who allegedly caused Speight to stumble backwards.

“She hurt herself,” said Ramos. “No one did anything intentional but that was an atmosphere we cannot support. It’s unfortunate things disintegrated the way they did.”

The North Ward councilman, a likely 2014 candidate for mayor, described Speight as a solid and qualified candidate for the vacant seat.

For Rice, the damage ran insidiously deeper.

“I’m not suprised the mayor came in to play Solomon at the end because the mayor wants to be governor and wants to stay on the good side of the Adubatos of the world,” he said.

“He likes to talk about ‘Street Fight,'” he added of the documentary about their 2002 citywide run against the entrenched powers of Sharpe James. “He ought to go watch ‘Street Fight.’ Ms. Speight never asked me for my support, although I represent one fifth of this city as councilman of the West Ward. John James sent a letter to council members requesting support. Even the way she went about it smacks of machinism. I am appalled the mayor chose to go against his better angels.”

A Machiavellian move at City Hall – very likely – but Butler reminded Rice the object of the young idealists’ fervor in “Street Fight” was named James.

Still, the sound of cops and citizens clashing at City Hall was hardly the solemn drum roll Booker’s allies wanted leading up to the mayor’s announcement about his future plans, as a poll landed showing incumbent Gov. Chris Christie’s approval rating at 65%.

"He’s obviously working very, very hard at it. I mean he’s traveling all over the country as chairman of the [Republican Governors Association] and I think at this point he has as good a chance or better than anybody else. His name is household word all across the country, and I think he would make a great president."
—former U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton (R-3), on Gov. Chris Christie