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Former Newark Mayor Sharpe James. (Photo: Harold Edwards).

Sharpe James hasn’t ruled out bid for Ron Rice’s Senate seat

Former mayor and senator has not made a decision about attempt to return to the legislature

By David Wildstein, August 22 2022 2:34 pm

Former Newark Mayor Sharpe James has not ruled out a bid for State Senate in the 28th district, where a special election will be held in November to replace longtime incumbent Ronald L. Rice (D-Newark), he told the New Jersey Globe on Monday.

James served in the State Senate for nearly nine years before retiring in 2007 in the next-door 29th district, but 2011 legislative redistricting moved his home in Newark’s South Ward into the 28th.

Rice is resigning from the Senate at the end of the month for health reasons, triggering a November 8 special election to fill the remaining thirteen months of his term.

James could compete for the Democratic nomination at a special convention next month or could file petitions with the Secretary of State to run as an independent for the November 8 election.   The filing deadline for independent candidates is September 6.

The 86-year-old James served as a city councilman for sixteen years and then as mayor of Newark, the state’s largest city, for 20 years.

Earlier this year, James attempted to run for an at-large city council seat, but a Superior Court Judge ruled that a prior criminal conviction prohibited his ability to hold public office.

But James argued that the order barring him from holding office was invalidated by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that overturned honest services convictions of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and Enron CEO Kenneth Lay.

At his sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge William Martini noted that Newark didn’t lose any money as a result of James pulling strings to help a woman, Tamika Riley, buy unkempt and empty properties from the city and then resell them a profit.  Martini, in a stiff rebuke to then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, said that James didn’t personally profit by the deal.  His crime, Martini said, was not disclosing his relationship with Riley.

Allies of Mayor Ras Baraka had sought to block James’ comeback bid, largely out of fear that he could win one of the four at-large seats.

This time, it would not be city clerk Kenneth Louis challenging his petitions, but rather the Murphy administration – and it’s not entirely clear that they would wade into such a fight.  Ultimately, the New Jersey State Senate is the judge of its own elections.

James and Rice have enjoyed a fitful relationship over the last four decades.

A former Newark police officer, Rice was elected to the city council in 1982 after defeating incumbent Michael Bottone in a runoff.  James was re-elected to a fourth term that year, moving from a South Ward seat to an at-large one.

With Rice’s support, James defeated Newark’s four-term mayor, Kenneth Gibson, in the May 1986 non-partisan municipal election.  James had backed Rice for council president but the vote went to East Ward Councilman Henry Martinez.

Following the death of State Sen. John Caufield (D-Newark) in August 1986, James supported Rice for the open Senate seat.  So did North Ward Democratic leader Stephen Adubato, Sr., who eschewed his own brother, Assemblyman Michael Adubato (D-Newark) because he believed the best interests of the district was to elect a Black senator.

Rice defeated West Ward Democratic Chairman Daniel O’Flaherty by a vote of 89 to 28.  O’Flaherty was an aide to Caufield, whose widow, Anne, backed him.

The two Newark Democrats fought from time to time, and Rice challenged James in  the 1998 mayoral election.  James won by a 56%-27% margin, with City Councilwoman Mildred Crump finishing third with 17%.

James joined Rice in the Senate in 1999 following the death of State Sen. Wynona M. Lipman (D-Newark).

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