Ras Baraka talks race, politics, and Newark’s progress | Moran

Ras Baraka became mayor of Newark four years ago, and here’s what has happened since.

Crime is way down, setting records, even as cops have pulled back on the number of arrests and frisks. Kids are doing much better in school, with test scores up and drop-outs down. Wall Street in January issued its first “positive” outlook for the city’s finances in more than eight years. And private investors are pouring money into new building projects at a pace the city has never witnessed.

Those are the big items, but the list goes on.

Granted, all that started under Cory Booker. But Baraka has built on those successes more effectively than anyone expected. After a militant campaign in 2014 marked by street protests and bullhorns, he’s turned into a civic peacemaker.

“The mayor made the transition from running for something to running something more quickly and more adeptly than almost any elected official I’ve ever seen,” says Chris Cerf, the former school superintendent.

An example: During the campaign, Baraka was the arch-enemy of the charter school movement, saying their expansion should be frozen, while belittling the measurable gains of charter students. Once in office, though, he took a second look, talked to all sides, and made peace. In each of the last three school board elections, the two sides have joined hands to support a unity slate.

Nancy Cantor, the popular chancellor of Rutgers-Newark, has worked with Baraka to develop innovative policies on crime, affordable housing, and jobs for locals. His style, she says, is to bring all parties to the table, roll up the sleeves, and find pragmatic answers. And it’s working, she says.

A few examples: On crime, he has formed civilian “street teams” that work with gangs after a shooting to defuse tensions, replicating a model that has worked well in other cities. To promote affordable housing, he is pushing to require developers to set aside 20 percent of units as affordable in return for zoning variances or subsidies.

“We work with him a lot,” Cantor says. “He comes to us and says, ‘Look I really want Newark to grow, but I want people here to grow with it. What can we do?’

“I’ve never seen a city where the leadership is so willing to sit at the table and ask, ‘What can you bring?’ I’ve seen him sit in room with people I know he can’t stand. I’m always in awe.”

If you want more of that sentiment, call just about anyone in Newark these days.

“He is collaborative to the max,” says John Schreiber, who runs the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. “He’s a practical progressive, and that’s what I…

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