Newark Mayoral Race a Study in Contrasts

Mayor Sharpe James, never one to avoid a spotlight, is sweating in the glare of his fifth run for mayor, a race against freshman Councilman Cory Booker many believe is too close to call.

In the weeks leading to Tuesday's election, James swung between gregarious and combative, trumpeting his record, then refusing to address allegations ranging from campaign mischief to whether he ever patronized an after-hours strip club.

Booker, an Ivy League lawyer who has only lived in the city since 1997, generally stuck to his campaign themes. He charged that James neglected much of the city in favor of the downtown, that children's health and education is suffering, and that it's time for change in the state's largest city.

James attempted to swat away the criticism. He said his tenure has been marked with development in all neighborhoods and major improvements such as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and a new ballpark, and insisted Booker's record in office is thin.

But he has failed to dispatch Booker, mainly because the challenger has been nearly able to match him dollar for dollar in raising $2.3 million in the first three months of the year, making it the most expensive race in city history.

That kind of money, and Booker's aptitude for attracting media attention, catapulted an election that is normally little noticed outside of Newark to one enmeshed in state and national politics.

James and Booker are both Democrats, but neither can run under a party banner because the city of 274,000 has a nonpartisan government. James, however, has nearly all party leaders, including Gov. James E. McGreevey, in his corner.

McGreevey spoke at the James campaign kickoff and appeared again with James on Wednesday to announce a deal to build a $355 million downtown arena for the New Jersey Nets and Devils professional basketball and hockey teams.

Booker said the announcement was short on detail and timed to benefit James. He campaigned the next day with a fellow Ivy Leaguer and Rhodes scholar, former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, one of the few New Jersey Democrats publicly aligned with him.

Asked Friday who will prevail, Booker said, "I don't make predictions. I didn't do it when I played football at Stanford, and I don't do it now."

Both James and Booker say they have confidence in the voters.

In the absence of a definitive poll, Rutgers-Newark political scientist Elizabeth Strom said, "It's probably still a tossup."

Despite 32 years as an elected official, James seems "like a man who's pressured," Strom said. "He does seem a little rattled. I have to say I've been a little bit surprised."

"Some of the things have been less than professional," she said, like erroneously claiming that former President Bill Clinton would be campaigning for him.

The expected closeness of the election, and tension between James and Booker supporters, led U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie to announce Friday that federal observers will be watching for problems at polling places and working with state authorities to intervene if necessary.

The candidates presented clear differences in style and background.

James, 66, an educator who grew up in the city, is also a state senator and a consistent booster of Newark. He seeks an unprecedented fifth mayoral term. He was a councilman for 16 years before becoming mayor in 1986.

Booker, 33, was raised in the northern New Jersey suburb of Harrington Park, and graduated from Stanford and Yale Law School. He beat an incumbent in 1998 to win his council seat, representing the troubled Central Ward.

He has maintained a high profile since then with a series of public protests that opponents derided as publicity gimmicks.

Neither has a significant edge in fund-raising, but differed greatly in the sources of campaign funds.

Through March, Booker got more than one-third of his money from New Yorkers, slightly more than he got from New Jerseyans, according to an analysis by The Star-Ledger of Newark. He held fund-raisers in Washington, D.C., and California.

By contrast, nearly one-third of the James money came from people who work for him, and more than 60 percent of the donations are from Newark residents, the newspaper said.

Neither had a clear edge on endorsements.

The Star-Ledger and The New York Times endorsed Booker, as did rank-and-file city firefighters.

Police and labor unions, however, gave their support to James, and he has been joined at appearances by the Rev. Al Sharpton, soul star Isaac Hayes and former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.