As he came to the crescendo of a 61-minute address that already had the nearly capacity crowd at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on its feet more than a dozen times, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wiped his brow and made one final appeal.
“This means we are in this together,” he preached. “And your success is inextricably bound to my own. So, we are going forward together, even if I have to pull you with us. And we won’t go back, because there is too much ground to cover. … And I won’t go back, because I know what the future holds. I have seen it.”
Those in attendance Tuesday night for his fourth State of the City address may have seen it, too: Ras Baraka appears destined for higher office.
In a state that has fallen in and out of love with the prospects of candidates who crashed and burned while pursuing higher office (Gov. Chris Christie as president and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop as governor, for instance), Baraka’s future has been void of such speculation.
In a city where his predecessor, Cory Booker, was talked about as a senator, governor, vice president and president seemingly from the day he took office, it’s fair to say Baraka has accomplished more in Newark than the now-junior U.S. senator.
In a time where an electorate overwhelmingly voted for Gov. Phil Murphy on the promise of fixing our schools, our roads, our ties to special interests and our credit troubles on the backs of taxpayers, perhaps it’s time to recognize Baraka actually has done all that and more in Newark — after inheriting a situation that was far worse.
Baraka said it best at the start of his speech.
“While I like to use these speeches to go over what we anticipate doing in the coming years, I’d like to first briefly lay out what we have already done,” he said. “Not what we promise to do, but what we have actually accomplished in a very difficult period in a short four years.”
He followed with a speech that was every bit as powerful as any speech Booker, considered one of best orators in state history, has delivered.
He followed with a speech that held the room as well as any effort Christie, once considered one of the best politicians in state history, ever gave.
He sang and quoted scripture.
He praised his predecessors and numerous city residents.
He played to the crowd’s desire to see Newark return to the prominence it once held.
But, most of all, he stuck to the facts — on crime, on education, on employment, on housing, on community activism and spirit — that made his case for him.
It’s time to acknowledge what a gifted (and accomplished) politician this former longtime educator and lifelong resident of the city has become.
He is running for re-election as mayor this year. A victory nearly everyone views as a certainty.
But any other mayor, in any other city, who has half the resume of success Baraka has, would be viewed as a cinch for a higher office.
And few of them, if any, can deliver the same type of speech.
State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark), who once served as a city council member and deputy mayor in Newark, and once sought the job Baraka now holds, said he was blown away by Baraka’s efforts on stage.
“Tonight is the best I’ve ever seen him, because he was able to articulate what was in his heart,” Rice said afterward. “I’ve watched him grow up and I’m so proud of him.”
Rice said Baraka has scored a lot of touchdowns, referring to what is becoming Baraka’s signature line about getting projects and ideas actually implemented rather than just discussed.
“Unfortunately, it’s not known to most folks, because success in Newark is still not talked about,” Rice said.
Rice said outsiders may not know as much about Baraka because his power base is not made up of those with cash and influence over the media.
“Ras always has been grassroots,” Rice said. “People here relate to Ras from where we come from, our street side.”
So, when will others notice?
Rice thinks those days are coming.
“Ras does not get the kind of national attention that Cory got because of his circle of influence, but the media is starting to pay attention to his leadership,” he said. “Anytime you can turn on 101.5 in the morning and hear people say, ‘You need to take a page from Ras Baraka,’ to me, that’s inspiring.
“They are started to see something there and what he’s trying to do.”
It’s only a matter of time before more people on the national scene take notice.
Read more from ROI-NJ on the State of the City: