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Former Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson.

Trailblazer: Mayor Kenneth Gibson

The first African American mayor of a major northeastern city

By David Wildstein, January 20 2020 12:52 am

Kenneth Gibson (1932-2019)  became the first African American to serve as mayor of a major northeastern city when he ousted two-term incumbent Hugh Addonizio in 1970.

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 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%.

Gibson became a national political figure, becoming the first black president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors six years later.

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%.

Gibson died in 2019 at age 87.

This story was first published on January 21, 2019.

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