Yesterday’s verdict case against former mayor Sharpe James drew mixed reaction around Newark despite clear distaste for James outside the city. Onlookers scratch their heads at the apparent grief experienced by the very citizens that James profited from.
Star Ledger: A day Newarkers will remember
Cornell Williamson, 27, a lifelong Newark resident, said he had followed the trial closely and felt let down by James, the only mayor he had known.
“I looked up to him, but now I’m disappointed,” said Williamson, who was having breakfast with two friends in a corner booth.
In a culture that celebrates the hubris of Elliot Spitzer’s downfall, and gawks at the former Newark mayor’s getting crapped on by a pigeon, how is it that some might be sad about the verdict?
The answer lies in Newark’s history, which James dominated for two decades. Sharpe James was one of the first black leaders in Newark that was elected following the 1967 riots in the city — an event that was caused, according to the Kerner commission, because “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” In the years following those events that took the lives of 26 men and women, Newark suffered at the hands of state disinvestment. Highways were made to slice through the city’s neighborhoods, and housing policies that favored suburban communities accelerated the trend of exodus from Newark.
In short, the state had largely turned its back on the city.
It was against this backdrop that Sharpe James served as the city’s most enthusiastic supporter, over the course of 37 years in office, the Mayor built a political machine through which he was able to wield massive influence in New Jersey state politics. James brought the New Jersey Performing Arts Center to the city, doled out jobs to those who would seek his favor in hard times, replaced dilapidated housing projects with low income housing, and brokered the deal that brought the NJ Devils and the Prudential Arena to Newark.
James gave hope to Newarkers when many had dismissed the city as lost. The extent to which Newarkers suspect “outsiders” — a political tactic James used against current mayor Cory Booker — can probably be attributed to the perception of James as local folk hero, fighting for Newark against the largely white and affluent New Jersey state establishment. Newark Historian Dr. Clement Price put it well when he discussed James’ legacy with the New York Times last July:
“Newark represented the nadir of urban America, and to the extent that it became a more optimistic city, that is something that no other mayor of his generation can claim,” said Dr. Price, who has lived in and studied Newark for more than 20 years. “He is beloved by a coterie of citizens, and they might perceive his troubles as a way of disparaging Newark generally and black mayors more specifically.”
Some interviews on the street published in the papers over the last couple of weeks had citizens wondering what was so criminal about James using his influence to benefit his friends — isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work?
While many people still think of James as a hero for the people, the guilty verdict delivered by a jury of his peers may do much to dismantle that perception. The case brought out the strange culture of backroom dealing that, despite their excuses for the mayor, should make Newarkers uncomfortable.
Sharpe James saw Newark through some tough times, and was a tireless cheerleader for the city, but government was never meant to be run this way. Newark is undergoing a transformative change, seeing a drastic drop in crime and renewed economic interest. It’s time to put away old ways of apologizing for cronyism, evolve our political discussion away from racialism, call for accountability from our leaders, and stop thinking of potential partners in the city’s success as “outsiders.”
James’ approach to governing the city created a culture of secrecy, suspicion and fear that was more about him than the city. It was that very cult of personality that led to his larger-than-life attitude and his ultimate undoing. Perhaps the real legacy of Sharpe James will be a warning of what can happen if we don’t demand more from our elected officials.