Sometimes we encounter a unique voice, even in politics, one which we might not be expecting, but to which we should pay attention, and even more, give our support.
On Saturday I was one of a small group of DC-area education bloggers who had a unique experience. We were invited guests for a political fundraiser in the Langston Hughes room of the original Busboys and Poets, at 14th and V Streets NW, followed by a sitdown with the candidate.
It might have seem an unusual setting. After all, this was a candidate for mayor of a city several hours away. Why should we be interested?
I did say we were educational bloggers. This candidate has not only served as vice-mayor and a city councilman in the city in question. He has also been a teacher, an administrator, and principal of a high school. He is on leave from the last position while he runs for mayor.
The city is Newark NJ.
The candidate is Ras Baraka.
Let me start with this - I have never met a candidate for relatively high public office with as thorough and detailed an understanding of the role of and issues related to public education.
I want this community to have an understanding of why I feel that way, in the hopes that I can persuade you that his election might be one of the most significant achievements not only for those of us commited to public education, but to all who view themselves as Progressives, who want to see a more Progressive approach to public policy and governance in our nation.
Please keep reading.
First some background. Ras Baraka was born in 1970. He is the son of the playwright Amiri Baraka (born LeRoi Jones) and the poet Amina Baraka, was raised in Newark, has a degree in political science from Howard University and a masters in Education Supervision from St. Peters University in Jersey City. He began his educational career as a middle school English teacher, became an administrator at several different schools in the district, and has been the very successful principal of Central High School, from which he is on leave of absence to run for Mayor after serving in that position from 2007-2013.
He has been a city councilman and Deputy Mayor of Newark.
As you will discover when you first go to his campaign website, the theme of his campaign is Believe in Newark.
He is an accomplished politican and legislator, and has the respect of his peers. He was originally an appointed deputy mayor, and was elected by the City Council to fill an unexpired term on that body. As mayor he would have the support of the Council for the various initiatives he wants to pursue.
He has a track record. Let me quote two paragraphs about him from the website:
As South Ward Councilman Baraka’s many accomplishments include; legislation recognizing violence as a public health issue, the Homestead/Abandoned Properties ordinance and an ordinance requiring early closures for retail stores and restaurants to curb loitering. Additionally, under his leadership the South Ward police substation was re-opened, the Bergen Lyons Clinton Special Improvement District was created, Key Foods Supermarket opened in the South Ward providing jobs for Newark residents, and over 1.2 million dollars has been awarded to non-profit organizations. Baraka has also supported initiatives geared towards youth development such as South Ward READS and the South Ward Youth Development Center and he created the Senior Citizen’s Committee, a group of committed residents addressing issues for seniors.It is worth noting that among his supporters is Richard Codey, one of the most important people in New Jersey politics and Governor - before NJ had an elected Lt. Gov, whenever there was a vacancy in the office of Governor, the President of the State Senate became acting governor. Codey is the longest serving legislator in the history of the state, having been elected to the Assembly in 1974, and continuing his unbroken service since with his election to the State Senate in 1982. While President of the State Senate Codey served briefly as Acting Governor after Christine Todd Whitman left to direct the EPA, and served for the better part of two years after the resignation of Jim McGreevey in November of 2004 until the swearing in of Jon Corzine in January of 2006.
A community organizer for over 20 years, he energetically ran his first campaign for mayor in 1994, at the age of 24, after returning home from Howard University. On September 27, 2002 He was appointed Deputy Mayor where he served until 2005, when Newark Municipal Council voted for Baraka to fulfill the unexpired term of the late Councilman Donald Tucker as South Ward Councilman. Baraka established Newark’s Committee on Violence, served as a key organizer for the Newark Ceasefire Peace Initiative in 2004, and is a founding member and served as chairman of the historic 1st National Hip Hop Political Convention.
But these are details you can read online. I encourage you to explore the website.
But now my personal impressions of Ras Baraka.
He began his remarks by by saying he hoped to have a place like Busboys in Newark, for which the DC crowd gave him applause.
He made clear that his vision is about more than just his city - that the issues in Newark are not just germane to Newark, and did not begin in Newark. We need to pick up with progressive people all over the country because what is happening in Newark is happening across the country.
He says we need an equal an opposite force to stop the train that is destroying public institutions, to reverse what are the
- attacks on unions
- attacks on publc sector employees
- attacks on schools.
He said that we wanted development in our communities, but we also wanted the people to remain there. We not only want to develop buildings and businesses, but also people.
His next remarks of course caught my attention: Baraka described the national fight on public education as an attempt to prevent the millions and billions of dollars spent on education from being looted. He said
We need our schools to be reformed, but we should be involved in that reform. We are smart enough to reform our schools. We don't need to give them away.In general he strongly advocated for public institutions, unlike too many, including former mayor and now Senator Cory Booker (whose agenda Baraka often opposed):
If you are a public official, your job is strengthen the public sector.
The question should be what we can do to save public schools.He is strongly opposed to selling off public assets, like schools and hospitals.
Considering a mayor as chief executive of a city, he said he is amused by those in the media who want to ask what he feels about his city:
Do you go to CEOs of corporations and ask them what they feel about their corporations?He talked about having to take a stand, criticizing those who want to "balance" and compromise by quoting his mother telling hime "the only thing in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead possums" (and yes, I immediately thought of the parallel from Jim Hightower whose dead animals were skunks, IIRC).
He argued we have to push back with our own agenda, be aggressive3:
We do move forward because we have no choice. You move forward or you get flattenedby the steamroller that has been destroying public institutions.
Allow me to offer a few more quotes from his general remarks before pivoting specifically to education.
He argued for an Urban Marshall Plan, noting that the unemployment rate in Newark jas been two times the national average for the last 50 years, that more than 50% of the children in Newark live in deep-seated poverty...
The struggle for democracy in this country has never been finished.
Our local fights in some instances are more important than the national ones.He talked about infrastructure, educational opportunity, schools and said if you want to address that then we (the people of the cities and their elected public officials)_ want to support you.
There are issues of air and water pollution in the cities.
Too many are food deserts: he noted kids have access to an Uzi before they can get a gallon of milk.
As to his relations with Governor Christie, whom I remind people has control of the school districts of New Jersey's largest cities, all of which are heavily minority in population, and whether Baraka could work with the governor?
It's not about whether I can work with the Governor, it's about if the Governor can work with me.Since the small groups of us were educational bloggers, including the likes of Shaun Johnson who co-runs the At the Chalkface radio show; Guy Brandenburg. a retired DC teacher who found the data which demonstrated that Michelle Rhee had been quite untruthful about her success as a teacher in Baltimore' Sabrina Stevens, who has been at several Netroots Nation conventions, including being on a panel organized by Jeff Bryant; our "press" packet included a 12 page "Blueprint to Achieve Excellence in Newark's Schools." I cannot go through it in detail - I will save that for a subsequent post.
Trust me, it is thorough, it is thoughtful, it is detailed, and our conversations with the candidate made clear that this is something he knows thoroughly and in which he is fully invested - it is not just a policy paper prepared by staff. But then, his non-political work experience is as a public school educator.
Let me at least list a few key points.
Under The Role of the Mayor in Educating Our City we read the following points:
- Mobilize and Coordinate Educational Resources in Newark
- Maintain Strong, Safe, Neighborhood Schools
--Strengthen Pre-School Education and Pre-School Readiness
- Create Community-Based After School and Summer Learning Opportunities
- Support Adult Learning and Universal Literacy
- Build a Coalition of Traditional Public School and Charter School Parents
- Fight for Local Control of Our Schools and Fair Funding for Our Children
- Include Spanish Portuguese, and Creole Languages in All Initiatives
- Provide Incentives for Teachers to Choose Newark and Remain Here
While all of these points are fully fleshed out, he is especially forceful on the issue of local control. It is worth quoting parts of that statement, and the bolding is in the original:
I will lead a full-scale state and federal campaign to return local control. This campaign will include grassroots mobilizatioon, community education, and legal action.As an educator, Ras Baraka has a track record of successful change. As principal of Central High he was able to eliminate the gang culture, prioritized a focus on addressing the social-emotional needs of students and connecting those needs to learning made sure his teachers were trained on culturally responsible educational practices, worked on a successful bridge program for entering 9th graders to enable them to succeed in high school, and consider this:
- Support neighborhood schools and neighborhood cohesion by unifying existing efforts to stop the dismantling of public education. Support legal action to force a moratorium on school closures, other unproven reforms and sale of public school buildings.
- Advocate with the elected School Board, community coalitions, and advocacy groups for full-fundng of the School Funding Reform Act, implementation of the Amistad Legislation, and funding for repair and renovation of or existing public school buildings and construction of new school buildings.
Developed an extended day program that included both additional academic lcasses and interventions for students who needed them, as well as enrichment activities like yoga, dram and dance, and art.Perhaps one can now understand how during his tenure, in a community where more than 50% of the students live in severe poverty, he and his staff saw an increase in the high school graduation rate from 50% to 80%.
One questions I asked him was about ensuring that students had access to medical services, including if possible vision, hearing and dental, in the school, so that they would not have to miss half or whole days for basic medical services. In fact, this is already somewhat happening through the service of Jewish Renaissance Medical Center, which also the first faith-based Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in the United States.
If you get the sense of my excitement about Ras Baraka, you are not mistaken. He is as knowledgeable about public education as any public official with whom I have ever spoken, perhaps because he is a professional educator. He is also rooted in what works in his community, with a demonstrated track record of success, in bringing his community together.
Most of all, he is proudly progressive in his approach.
We need more proud progressives in public office.
We need more elected officials willing to take on the status quo.
We need more public officials willing to boldly proclaim our need for a different approach.
We do not have enough officials willing to stand for the ordinary working folks, for unions, for public institutions.
Newark has a non-partisan primary.
There are now only two candidates in the race.
Polling suggests that Baraka is in the lead, but he can certainly use all the support he can get. That includes contributions, that includes advocacy, that includes where possible volunteering.
It does not hurt that organized labor is strongly supporting him. As you can see from this list of endorsements, he has the support of major unions and important politicians who know him and the work he has already done. As I learned in an email just after midnight, he has been endorsed by the Newark Teachers Union, which has over 4,500 teachers and other educational employees. Let me quote several paragraphs from the announcement:
NEWARK, New Jersey - "Ras Baraka is an accomplished educator with a strong sense of community who will make a great mayor for Newark,"said Newark Teachers Union (NTU) President Joseph Del Grosso announcing the local's endorsement of the former teacher and his education plan. "Baraka has been a visionary leader and we support hisplan to move Newark Public Schools and the city forward in a thoughtful and coordinated manner."and this:
Del Grosso pointed to Baraka's innovative record of championing vital services such as extended day childcare and dentistry as Principal of Central High School to address critical student needs in addition to improving academics. "Baraka's collaboration with community to support education is what we need and his plan is based on years of experience working with students and families."
With NTU's endorsement, the union's Broad Street offices will serve as AFL-CIO headquarters for the campaign, according to Essex-West Hudson Center Labor Council President Thomas P. Giblin. Many unions are supporting the candidate and current Councilman because they recognize that Baraka has a comprehensive bottom-up strategy towards economic growth and focus on creating living wage jobs. "Baraka strongly supported Newark's new earned sick day ordinance, voting to approve one of the best bills in the nation and a model that we are working to replicate statewide," said Giblin.This year we have seen an increasing number of progressive candidates winning important elections, whether to city councils in New York and Seattle, Mayor de Blasio in New York, the school board in Bridgeport CT. I have followed all of these contests with interest, especially as control of public schools is important to me.
The AFL-CIO operation means union workers on the ground to support Baraka's bid and community outreach through NJ Workers Voices.
I in no way demean the progressive credentials of any of them when I say that Ras Baraka is already a successful progressive public official from his service on city council, someone who can bring ALL of his city, including the business community, together along progressive principles to serve the citizens of this too-long suffering city.
Go to the website and learn more. Perhaps volunteer. Please consider donating.
I strongly urge the Daily Kos community to reach out and support his candidacy in any way you can. This is a candidate who can and should win, and who will advance the principles for which so many of us here labor and advocate.