In 2002, the largest city in New Jersey was involved in an election that not only divided its constituents among racial, socioeconomic and geographical lines but which eventually led to the demise of a political machine reminiscent of Tammany Hall in its essence. On May 14th, 2002 Sharpe James, the incumbent Mayor for the city of Newark defeated the new-comer, city councilman Cory Booker, in a race to remain in power for the next four years and one that would light a fire under the defeated campaign.
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“Street Fight,” film by director Marshall Curry, was filmed in 2002 during the 35th Mayoral race for the city of Newark, New Jersey. The film centered around Cory Booker’s campaign to instill “change” into the city, a notion that was not always welcomed. Change, to Sharpe supporters, meant a deviation from the familiarity of Sharpe’s long-standing presence. Cory Booker defined his campaign around the notion of progress and innovation, of instilling in Newark a new sort of power deriving from the people themselves outwards and upwards to their elected officials. Booker took his platform to grass-roots levels, campaigning door-to-door day and night, creating seemingly real relationships with his neighbors, remaining on first-name bases with his constituents because Booker understood the power of “winning the campaign on the streets” not through the media as “elections are won and lost of the streets”.
Although both Booker and James are African American men, the issue of race became a prominent element in Sharpe James’ mudslinging campaign in race of “black politics” as Newark had been under Mayor James for 16 years and his reign was now being contested by a rising black politician. At one point, James accused Booker of being “a white republican,” an accusation made based on Cory Booker’s broad support base, ranging from low income African-Americans to influential Republican whites and Booker’s upbringing in an affluent suburban area of New Jersey. Booker’s distinguished academic and professional background seemed to work against him in this election around “black politics.” Booker attended Stanford as an undergrad and later became a lawyer after attending Yale Law School and was not considered “black enough” to understand the people of Newark. A very real moment from the documentary was an interview with a Booker supporter after the comment was publicized, who asked why it is that “as soon as we educate our black children, we call them white?” Ironically, the comment undermining Booker’s race, as a lighter-skinned African American, resonated more with Booker’s campaign than the other half of the comment. Black politics in urban cities, especially those with classic inner-city problems such as low employment, high crime, and low education rates spur reform-style black politics targeted at social welfare. Reform inhibits black politicians’ influence as what their constituencies look for are promises of a better future if they elect the candidate; stimulation of economic development as to create job opportunities in the inner-cities, better transportation, better school systems, more government support, security, etc. This is the approach that Cory Booker took against the established system imposed by Sharpe James. While James mainly targeted the black vote, Booker looked to create biracial electoral alliances even created a rainbow coalition of sorts, uniting groups from the different ethnic populations in the wards in support of his campaign, committing to a strong sense of incorporation. Black politics in this example was not just a divide between black and white, but of black and black, between black-democrat and black-democrat. Sharpe’s attempt to “racialize” the campaign was taken as a social commentary of not only the black community in the city but of as a people, and the divide of the black identity. This example of an internal conflict of the black community in Newark exemplifies a pattern of bias against the success of black politicians in urban politics.
Besides race, the fight spread to age and experience. As the incumbent, Sharpe James sold himself as the “experienced leader,” the one who has known and knows the needs and wants of Newark, new-comers need not apply. To Booker’s detriment, the fact that he is not a Newark native took away from his credibility as a member of the city, someone with invested interest in the community and the people; Sharpe James on the other hand is a Newark native, and capitalized on this by labeling Booker as a “carpetbagger,” a sort of political nomad only committed to taking from the city with no intentions of giving back. Descriptive representation calls for a an elected official to not only be a representation of their constituencies in their needs but also in race, gender, geographic origin, ethnicity (etc.) and Sharpe James exploited his childhood-poverty and “blackness” as a demonstration of his roots in Newark. This notion of change is challenging for a constituency to grasp and support as it implies an uncertain future.
That Sharpe James’s urban regime ran Newark, New Jersey is beyond reasonable doubt. James’ hold over all aspects of Newark, as caught by the documentary, was nothing short of a modern-day political machine. Sharpe James’ use of ethnic identity to promote his image was of the essence of his control over Newark. James was “their guy,” a figure of dependence and reliability; he understood what it was like to be from Newark and pitched his campaign as the answer to a secure future, for Newark and for his machine as a true party boss would do. The most startling aspect of James’ reign was the consequences instilled in those city workers or business owners that were outward Booker supporters. Not only would businesses be shut down for putting up Booker signs, a woman faced being evacuated from her government-assisted housing for bearing a Cory Booker sign on her window, a local church threatened with fiscal consequences for the pastors negative comments on James, a city police officer was demoted to the most dangerous and criminal-ridden section of the city for being an active Booker supporter. Documentary cameras captured James’ police force taking down numerous Booker signs on election day after a federal order against this activity. The wily acts only persist, as when Cory Booker’s campaign headquarters gets burglarized, phones ripped out from their jacks and books with valuable information taken. These acts were not proven to have been committed under orders of James, but it is sensible to reason (and is implied) that they were acts from anti-Booker vandals, either under protection of the machine or through independent political sabotage. Political machines and urban regimes such as this arise from a need for security, based on an ethnic or racial connection which has worked phenomenally well in the inner cities where either immigrant or poor populations feel under or misrepresented and who become the political pawns of a system in return for a voice.
That sense of security Sharpe James created since he first took office in 1986 was created by a machine, enforced through coercion, but instilled by a supposed democratic system. If Sharpe James’ system is so corrupt then why would he get reelected as he eventually did in 2002? Corruption must first be had to be corrected, and it would be difficult to correct such a situation when those with correctional duties are a part of the problem. From tampering with voting machines to outright threats for bad publicity, even news reporters find themselves worried for their safety. Marshall Curry captures himself being a victim of James’ camps threats and physical intimidation, having Sharpe James’ security tamper with his camera and James himself make threatening comments toward Curry and only finding that reporters have had violent encounters in their own homes. James’ own Latino spokesperson turned against the incumbent after being personally attacked by James and joined Team Booker as campaign manager.
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Civic participation was captured at its epitome in “Street Fight.” Both camps gathered very strong and very dedicated followers. Sharpe James worked to retain his own constituency while repelling them from Booker’s “novice” attempts for reform, claiming Booker only put down Newark by basing his campaign off the failures of the city, a fault that would have been committed by the people themselves. Simultaneously, Cory Booker worked to create a name, an image, to put himself in the radar of the Newark populous so engulfed and paralyzed in James’ regime that they could not recognize a corrupt reality while living it. Probably the most impactful detail of Booker’s strategy was the level in which he submerged himself in his campaign. Booker was emerged in all aspects of his image, he even lived in project housing called Brick Towers, living among the voters and community whose support he sought. Those loyal James supporters that were interviewed repeated a theme of gentrification, of how things were much better than they were before, of how they were better off than they were before, unaware of the corruption taking place by those they looked toward for betterment. On Election Day both sides took the streets (literally) to personally support their choice for Mayor; Booker’s novice camp narrowly made it through the day with minimum support, reporting shortages in manual help at the ballots and with untrained help from the supporters who did show up. Sharpe James, on the other hand, enjoyed a large group of support, groups of enthusiastic volunteers which the film later gathered were not volunteers at all but employees of James’ camp brought to Newark for the day from Pennsylvania, a strategy seemingly inconspicuous but nevertheless contrary to the message of the campaign. A major cornerstone for the race was Bookers ability to remain relevant and a true competitor against such as an established force knowingly having to raise at least $15,000 daily to remain afloat. Sharpe James’ own media representative recognized that the election was one that he had not experienced before, both sides knew the importance of engaging the electorate directly, moving from strictly media-driven campaigns to more community-centered activities.
Through the midst of political mudslinging, threats and coercive measures, intimidation, deceit, theft, controversies (and these being the only stories captured on camera) the real story remained around Booker’s drive to replenish Newark with a new sense of identity, of hope for a better represented city, where the people would be heard as Booker proclaimed: “Newark is the frontier of the American dream”. Booker’s goal and campaign platform from the beginning was always focused on community outreach and unity, of cooperation to better housing, schools, make neighborhoods safer and create jobs but all from the community outward and not through trickling effects from the top downwards. And although Booker lost the 2002 nonpartisan race to James 53% to 47%, that result meant to Booker that he was that much closer to informing Newark of what he and they were capable of and what he would eventually do in 2006 as the 36th Mayor of Newark.
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