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Calvin D. West, a legendary and beloved Newark political figure for parts of seven decades and the first African American to win citywide office, died this morning. He was 87.
West was elected to an at-large seat on the Newark City Council in 1966, running on a slate with Mayor Hugh Addonizio.
While Addonizio faced a runoff with former Mayor Leo Carlin – future mayor Kenneth Gibson came in third – West and his running mates won outright.
His sister, Larrie West Stalks, worked as a top political operative to Addonizio, where her job was to help the mayor with the Black vote. She later spent twenty years as the Essex County Register of Deeds and Mortgages.
West’s career as a councilman lasted just four years.
He ran again on Addonizio’s slate in 1970, but lost his seat to former Essex County Freeholder Earl Harris, who ran on a ticket headed by Gibson.
Gibson became the first African American mayor of a major northeastern city, but three of the four Addonizio-backed candidates for at-large council seats won.
Gibson allies won council seats in the South and Central wards, with Turner losing his bid for a third term to Rev. Dennis Westbrooks.
“We lost a great leader today with the passing of Calvin West. He mentored generations of young leaders, including myself, and was someone who I relied and depended on for advice, guidance and support,” said Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo. “Calvin was always looking out for the Newark, the community he loved, and his friends. I am deeply saddened and will miss Calvin’s friendship and insight.”
West later served as an aide and political advisor to Mayor Sharpe James, and worked in the Newark office of Governors James E. McGreevey, Richard Codey and Jon Corzine. He was an early supporter of Phil Murphy’s campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2017.
Murphy issued a statement this morning praising West.
“If anyone truly wanted to know Newark, they had to know Calvin West. For more than 60 years, he put his home city first and fought tirelessly for its people and neighborhoods. He garnered great respect across the state. I met Calvin long before I ran for governor, but when I did he gave me advice when few others cared and handed down some tough love when he thought it was needed — something he continued to do right up until his passing,” Murphy said. “He was a friend, and I will miss him. I know countless Newarkers will miss their friend, too.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney called West “a trailblazer who who dedicated his life to the causes that advanced the rights of others and improved the quality of life for the people of Newark and other urban communities in New Jersey.”
“He helped shape the modern history of Newark as a leader and a constant champion for the city’s progress. Calvin served his country, the State of New Jersey and the City of Newark with a selfless spirit, a kind heart and a helping hand,” Sweeney said. “Calvin will be missed, but he will be remembered with appreciation by all who knew him. I extend my condolences to his loved ones.”
Codey said that West rose to every challenge to help his community.
“The city he loved so dearly, and our entire state, is a better place because of Calvin. His legacy of service will live on in the countless people he has inspired,” the former governor said. “May God be with his family and friends at this difficult time.”
West first became involved in politics in 1954 as the founder of the Central Ward Young Democrats. He led that group for seven years and spent four years as the treasurer of the Essex County Young Democrats.
He worked as a correspondent for the Newark Evening News and the New Jersey Afro-American newspapers.
West was the vice chairman of the Newark Municipal Utilities Authority, a member of the Newark Senior Citizens Commission, and a member of the Newark Insurance Fund before running for city councilman at age 33.
He became the second African American to serve on the City council, following the re-election of Central Ward Councilman Irvine Turner.
In his early career, West was an auditor for the state Division of Local Government Services and the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission, and as director of the Carlton B. Norris Youth Association.
He later served as chief of staff to Orange mayor Joel Shain.
West attended Bloomfield College and Cooper Union College and later served in the U.S. Army.
“When the history of Newark, Essex County and the state of New Jersey is told, we will hear about a trailblazing man who paved the way for a generation of leaders,” said Senate President Pro-Tempore Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark). “Calvin West was a Democratic stalwart, a mentor to so many and a partner to anyone who needed the advice and counsel of an elder. Calvin was a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is person, and above all else, a lover of life. We will celebrate you and miss you.”
This story has been updated since the original publication.