The city of Newark, New Jersey has been led exclusively by Democrat mayors for the past 81 years. The entrenched power of the Democratic Party is reflected in the near-unanimous support its candidates receive from Newark voters in political elections on every level. For example, in the 2009 gubernatorial race, Newark voters cast 90.2% of their ballots for Democrat Jon Corzine, vs. just 8.3% for Republican Chris Christie, the ultimate statewide winner. Similarly, in the 2004 presidential election Democrat John Kerry received 85.9% of the vote in Newark, far outpacing Republican George W. Bush’s 12.8%. And in the 2008 presidential election, Democrat Barack Obama captured 90.8% of the Newark vote, vs. 7.0% for Republican John McCain.
Newark’s importance as a city grew rapidly in the early 19th century, thanks in large part to Massachusetts transplant Seth Boyden’s innovations in the manufacture of leather. By 1870, Newark was producing almost 90% of the nation’s leather. Boyden helped grow Newark’s economy further when he discovered, in 1824, a way to produce malleable iron. Additional prosperity came to the city with the completion of the Morris Canal in 1831; the arrival of railroads in the mid-1830s; the production of the first commercially successful plastic—Celluloid —in the mid 19th century; and the massive expansion of the insurance industry between the 1840s and 1880s. From 1880 to 1920, Newark’s population swelled from about 136,500 to nearly 415,000.
As of 1922, Newark had 63 live theaters and 46 movie theaters, and its so-called “Four Corners”—where Market and Broad Streets intersected—was widely considered the busiest intersection in the country. In 1927 a prominent businessman observed: “Great is Newark’s vitality. It is the red blood in its veins—this basic strength that is going to carry it over whatever hurdles it may encounter, enable it to recover from whatever losses it may suffer and battle its way to still higher achievement industrially and financially, making it eventually perhaps the greatest industrial center in the world.”
In the Fifties and Sixties Newark’s African American population rose dramatically, in large part as a result of the massive wave of Southern black migrants relocating to Northern cities in pursuit of newly created job opportunities. Between 1950 and 1967, Newark’s black population rose from 70,000 to 220,000, making it a majority-black city. Not long thereafter, Newark educator Nathan Wright Jr. noted that “no typical American city has as yet experienced such a precipitous change from a white to a black majority.” Not surprisingly, this influx of black newcomers raised a number of significant racial issues.
Most notably, the city’s Democratic leadership launched major urban renewal initiatives during the 1960s—for instance, persuading the federal government to cover 100% of the costs associated with constructing new public housing projects. Eventually, Newark had a higher percentage of its residents living in public housing than any other city in the United States.
While these massive, costly undertakings were in progress, black militants in the city, eager to find any reason to rebel against the status quo, derided those urban renewal programs that displaced some black residential neighborhoods as “Negro removal” in disguise. The militants were angry, for example, about plans to build superhighways that would bisect the city’s black community. They likewise condemned a Newark proposal in early 1967 for the “clearance” of 150 acres of predominantly black “slum” land on which a medical school/hospital complex would be built. Activist Tom Hayden, a leading figure in the radical Students for a Democratic Society, later pondered: “The city’s vast programs for urban renewal, highways, downtown development, and most recently, a 150-acre Medical School in the heart of the ghetto seemed almost deliberately designed to squeeze out this rapidly growing Negro community that represents a majority of the population.”
In 1967 the rage of Newark’s black militants exploded in the form of devastating race riots, from which the city has never fully recovered. The incident precipitating the violence was the police beating of a black cabbie on the night of July 12, 1967. The rioting persisted for six days and resulted in 23 deaths, 725 injuries, nearly 1,500 arrests, $10 million in property damage, and the destruction of approximately 1,000 stores and business establishments.
In addition to the race problem, Newark also was dealing with political corruption. The city’s politics have been plagued by Mob influence for generations. According to the City Journal, for instance, the bootlegger Abner “Longy” Zwillman, who smuggled through Newark nearly 40% of all the liquor sold on the East Coast during Prohibition, “bought off enough local officials to take control of the city’s politics from the late 1920s until his death in 1959.” In 1962, Angelo “Ray” DeCarlo, a capo in New York’s Genovese crime family, helped fix the Newark mayoral election for Democrat Hugh Addonizio. “Federal investigations into Addonizio’s sleazy administration later revealed that almost every aspect of Newark’s government operated like a racket,” writes Manhattan Institute scholar Steven Malanga. “Officials fattened the cost of contracts by 10 percent for kickbacks, and city government even used the same bought-and-paid-for auditors as the mob did. Every Newark citizen and firm paid a corruption tax.” Partly because of this, Newark at that time had the most expensive government of any midsize American city—spending almost twice as much per citizen as the average urban area. By 1967, Newark’s property tax rate was $7.75 per $100 of assessed value, the highest in America. As the Newark Star-Ledger notes: “If taxed at that rate today, an average home in New Jersey—valued at $350,000—would owe more than $27,000 a year in property taxes.”
Lawlessness in high places, in conjunction with escalating costs and a volatile racial atmosphere, made Newark an increasingly undesirable place to live. “Fearful and without faith in Newark’s blatantly crooked government,” writes Steven Malanga, “the middle class fled. The city’s population shrank to just 270,000 mostly low-income residents—a 40 percent decline.” Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, manufacturers and entrepreneurs in Newark picked up their roots and sought out other locations that were less expensive, more business-friendly, and less socially combustible. Between 1950 and 1960, the city’s white population fell from 363,000 to 265,000.
Political corruption continued unabated after Addonizio’s tenure in office ended in 1970. His successor was Kenneth Gibson, the city’s first black mayor. Upon his election, Gibson boldly proclaimed: “Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first.” Amiri Baraka—the black nationalist, anti-Semitic poet/playwright, and self-avowed Marxist-Leninist—played a key role in galvanizing black voters to support Gibson at the polls. “We will nationalize the city’s institutions, as if it were liberated territory in Zimbabwe or Angola,” Baraka declared at the time.
Contrary to the expectations held by Baraka and his fellow Sixties radicals, black governance actually had a negative impact on nonwhites and poor people in Newark. It quickly became apparent that leftist Democratic policies were just as ineffective when implemented by blacks, as when implemented by whites. The city continued to hemmorhage industrial jobs under Gibson’s watch, causing employment rates to decline and the welfare rolls to swell. As more and more factories were abandoned, the number of taxable properties in the city decreased, cutting sharply into the city’s income and bringing it to the threshold of bankruptcy several times. Neighborhood programs and services—including trash collection—were cut repeatedly throughout the ’70s. Indeed, massive, stinking piles of uncollected garbage became dismaying hallmarks of Newark during the decade.
Gibson’s mayoral administration was also affected by significant corruption. In 1982 investigators jailed numerous city officials who had broken the law on his watch. Gibson himself faced state charges of having conspired to create a no-show job specifically for a former Newark official but was acquitted in 1982. By 1986, with Gibson still at the helm, the city’s unemployment rate was nearly 50% higher than it had been at the start of his mayoralty. A Manhattan Institute report states that by the end of Gibson’s tenure in office, “failed government policies and middle-class flight had weakened much of Newark, except for a few corporate-supported blocks downtown and a few enclaves….”
Every Newark mayor since Gibson has likewise been African American. His successor in 1986 was Democrat Sharpe James, who went on to hold office for two decades. Conditions in James’s own neighborhood, the South Ward, were particularly grim—replete with decrepit, crime-infested public housing projects and hundreds of vacant lots.
Above all else, James’s administration was infamous for its corruption. In 1996, for instance, Newark’s police commissioner pled guilty to stealing money that had been intended to finance local undercover narcotics investigations. The following year, the mayor’s chief of staff, Jackie Mattison, was convicted of taking bribes to help steer city contracts to a particular insurance broker. And during his final term in office, James himself sold a number of the city’s publicly owned vacant lots to his friends and supporters—for pennies on the dollar. One of the buyers was James’s mistress, Tamika Riley, who between 2001 and 2005 spent a grand total of $46,000 to purchase nine tracts of land from the city, which in each instance she promptly turned around and sold for a large profit. All told, Ms. Riley collected $665,000 from these sales. For his involvement in this scam, James in 2008 was convicted on five counts of fraud and conspiracy charges; he subsequently spent 27 months in prison and was fined $100,000. Prosecutors dropped additional charges that James had billed the city for a host of personal expenses including meals, pornography, and body lotions, when they concluded that convictions for these items would not add any time to his prison sentence.
To be sure, Mayor James’s ethical shortcomings were no anomaly in Newark politics. Since 1962, every mayor of Newark except Cory Booker—who served from 2006 until 2013—has been indicted for crimes committed while in office.
Newark’s political, fiscal, and academic woes are exacerbated by the fact that it is currently the second most highly taxed city in the United States. One study in 2013 estimated that the average three-person family with $50,000 in annual income owed $8,327 per year in local school and property taxes alone.
High taxes invariably discourage local business development, which in turn affects employment and personal incomes. Thus it is not surprising that Newark’s unemployment rate is approximately two-thirds higher than that of New Jersey as a whole, and more than twice the national average. Per capita income in Newark is just $17,161 per year (38% below the national average and less than half the New Jersey average), and median household income is $34,387 (about 36% below the national average). The poverty rate citywide is 31%, and the child-advocacy organization New Jersey Kids Count estimates that about a quarter of Newark children under age 5 live in “extreme poverty.”
Not only must so many of Newark’s youngsters contend with the challenge of living in squalor, but they are further victimized by a disastrously ineffective public education system. That system spends more than $23,000 on each K-12 pupil in its jurisdiction, but in tests that were administered to elementary through junior-high-school students in 2013, just 19% of Newark’s third-graders registered scores indicating that they were “proficient” in English; the corresponding figure in math was 21%. The numbers were similar for students in grades 4 through 8 as well.
According to the New Jersey Department of Education, the dropout rate for Newark’s high-school students is nearly 40%. Among those who do manage to graduate, only about 3-in-10 are able to pass a state proficiency exam indicating that they are qualified for college-level work. Dan Gaby, executive director of the education-reform group E3, puts these numbers in perspective by estimating that Newark taxpayers spend approximately $1.3 million on the education-related expenses of each qualified student who earns a diploma from one of the city’s high schools. These disgraceful numbers have not caused the Newark Teachers Union, strongly allied with Democratic Party politics, to budge even slightly from its steadfast opposition to school voucher programs that would enable Newark children from low-income families to escape the cesspool of failure that their local public education system has become.
Compounding the academic decline in Newark is the fact that the city’s school district has been mismanaged into a state of financial chaos. At the start of the 2013-14 school year, the district faced a projected budget shortfall of $57 million.
Perhaps the biggest drain on Newark’s quality of life, however, is the city’s high rate of violent crime—including a murder rate that is roughly 7.2 times the national average and a robbery rate of 6.2 times the national average. Newark’s criminal element has long understood that it can break the law with virtual impunity. As of 2007, the county prosecutor’s office responsible for Newark had the worst conviction rate of any county in New Jersey—in part because, as the City Journal notes, it has been “a haven for political appointees who aren’t necessarily qualified investigators or prosecutors.” In addition, Newark’s local judges have cultivated a reputation for setting low bail and thereby permitting dangerous criminals to walk the streets while awaiting trial.
In September 2011, the combination of high taxes and intolerable crime rates led a large group of angry residents of Newark’s East Ward to stage a protest demonstration at city hall. Many others, meanwhile, have protested with their feet. Newark’s population, which stood at 429,760 in 1940, is just 307,000 as of 2021.
This piece was posted in May 2014.
Cory Booker’s Battle for Newark
By Steven Malanga