Kenneth A. Gibson, who became the first African American to serve as mayor of a major northeastern city when he ousted two-term Newark mayor Hugh Addonizio in 1970, died today. He was 86.
Gibson twice sought the Democratic nomination for governor and became a national political figure as the first black president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors six years later.
Born in Enterprise, Alabama in 1932, Gibson grew up in Newark’s Central Ward. He graduated from Central High School and the Newark College of Engineering, followed by a stint in the U.S. Army with the 65th Engineer Battalion.
Gibson had served as an engineer for the New Jersey Highway Department and as the Newark City engineer before becoming involved in local politics.
In 1966, Gibson mounted his first campaign for mayor against Addonizio, who gave up his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after fourteen years to run for Mayor – he reportedly said he wanted to be mayor because a guy could make a million dollars in that job.
Addonizio was facing a rematch with Leo Carlin, the incumbent he had defeated four years earlier. In a six-candidate field, Addonizio was forced into a runoff after winning 49.37% of the vote. Carlin finished second with 20%, edging out Gibson (17%) by 2,707 votes.
Addonizio faced a difficult second term. Newark was still recovering from the 1967 riots and he was under indictment for taking more than a million dollars in kickbacks from city contractors.
Gibson ran again in 1970 and finished first in the May municipal election with 42.7% of the vote, running 19,741 votes ahead of Addonizio (20%). North Ward councilman Anthony Imperiale came in third with 16%, followed by Newark Fire Director John Caufield (13%), former Republican State Sen. Alexander Matturri (5%), and former Assemblyman George Richardson (2%).
White candidates had received a combined 55.8% of the vote.
In the runoff election, Gibson defeated Addonizio by 11,553 votes, 56%-44%.
He was re-elected in 1974 defeating Imperiale, then a State Senator, by 7,368 votes, 54%-44%, in a six candidate field.
Gibson was unopposed for re-election in 1978.
In 1981, Gibson sought the Democratic nomination for governor and became the first major African American contender for statewide office. He was one of thirteen Democrats vying for the chance to succeed term-limited Gov. Brendan Byrne.
The winner of the Democratic primary was Rep. Jim Florio (D-Runnemede), who received 26% of the vote. Gibson finished third with 15%, just 3,448 votes behind Rep. Bob Roe (D-Wayne).
The following year, Gibson faced a tough challenge for re-election against City Council President Earl Harris.
Gibson and Harris were both under indictment for paying a former councilman more than $100,000 to hold two allegedly no-show jobs. Even in New Jersey, a contest between two indicted candidates is rare.
He outpolled Harris by 3,694 votes, 40.7% to 33.4%, in the May election.
Gibson won the June runoff by 2,914 votes, 52.6%-47.4%.
After the election, Gibson and Harris were acquitted on the charges against them.
He again sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1985 and again finished third in the Democratic primary.
The winner of that race was Essex County Executive Peter Shapiro, who won 31% of the vote and outpolled Senate Majority Leader John Russo (D-Toms River) by 14,416 votes. Gibson again finished third – he ran 1,534 votes and a half percent behind Russo. Former State Sen. Stephen Wiley (D-Morris Township) received 9% and former U.S. Attorney Robert Del Tufo win 6%.
Gibson’s time ran out in 1986 when he faced councilman Sharpe James. James beat Gibson by 6,565 votes, 55.6%-40.3%.
After twelve years out of politics, Gibson sought a comeback in 1998 as the Democratic nominee for Essex County Executive against Republican incumbent James Treffinger.
Treffinger defeated Gibson by 4,413 votes, 52%-48%.
“Mayor Ken Gibson was an incredible man. Newark wouldn’t be where it is today without his steady stewardship,” said U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who followed Gibson as mayor. “As the first African American mayor of a major city here in the Northeast, he was a big inspiration for me and countless others.”
“Ken Gibson is part of Newark’s history. He led the city during a difficult time, worked hard to find common ground among the city’s diverse population and his contributions laid the foundation for Newark’s recovery,” said Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo. “Ken was a true Newarker who influenced me as a public servant and, most importantly, he was a friend.”
Governor Phil Murphy said that Gibson gave Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver her start in public service.
“In the aftermath of the Newark Uprising, Mayor Gibson restored stability, promise, and pride to a city that needed all three,” said Murphy. “Mayor Gibson focused on issues of economic equality, fair housing, and public health. The striving Newark of today first began to take shape under Mayor Gibson, and the city’s future successes will, in no small part, find their foundations in his work. Our prayers go out to his wife, Camille, and the entire Gibson family.”