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Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. Photo: (Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe).

Should Baraka be worried that Newark voters don’t vote?

Newark Mayor will need a huge plurality out of home city if he runs for governor, but recent elections indicate turnout isn’t there

By David Wildstein, April 26 2023 5:49 pm

When Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson ran for governor in 1981, he came out of Newark with 21,967 votes.  That enabled him to carry Essex by a 40%-13% margin over Jim Florio, and helped propel him to a third-place statewide – just 3,448 votes out of second.

But that was more than 40 years ago, and circumstances have changed for another Newark mayor, Ras Baraka, as he considers a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2025.

Baraka has struggled to turn out votes in the state’s largest city in recent elections.  When he ran for re-election in the May 2022 non-partisan municipal election, just 10 % of Newark voters turned out to vote.  Despite his 83% landslide, 92% of voters in Baraka’s hometown didn’t vote for him.

When Gibson sought his third term in 1978, he received over 37,000 votes.  He won nearly 21,000 in 1982 in a serious race against Earl Harris, the city council president.  Four decades later, Baraka’s landside re-election netted him just 14,777 votes.

The latest data point came on Tuesday when voter turnout in a contested race for the Newark Board of Education was roughly 3.7%, just slightly better than the 2.9% turnout in April 2022  Turnout for the Newark City Council runoffs last year was a lethargic 2.9%.

“The Baraka camp says it can crank out the votes when it needs them, but the reason there’s skepticism is that every turnout operation relies on keeping voters in the regular practice of voting.,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University.  “It may be a tall order to say those other elections weren’t so important, but this is the one when we really need you.”

Newark’s voter turnout in the 2022 mid-term election was under 16%.

Even in 2014, when Baraka won an open seat mayoral race after Cory Booker left to join the United States Senate, turnout was already on a downward trajectory – roughly 45,000 votes were cast, about 30% of the total electorate.   The legendary “Street Fight” between Mayor Sharpe James and Booker generated over 53,000 votes.

Turnout numbers for another big city mayor running for governor in two years tell a different story.

With voter turnout at 26%, Steve Fulop received 27,562 votes in his bid for a third term as mayor of Jersey City in 2021.

Another challenge for Baraka is how Newark shapes up in a head-to-head with Jersey City.  In 2021, Jersey City produced 27% more votes than Newark; in 2020, Jersey City’s total votes were 9.6% more than Newark’s.

Last year, Maplewood, Millburn, and South Orange combined to produce almost a many general election votes as Newark did.

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