By Tori Pender
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka had a discussion about an array of topics from handling the COVID-19 pandemic, leadership and the lead water crisis with students on Nov. 30 at 11:30 a.m. in Lynch Adler Hall Room 202. The event was hosted by Micah Rasmussen, director of The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics and political science professor.
In New Jersey’s largest city, with an international airport and seaport, Baraka had to act quicker than the rest of the nation when dealing with the pandemic.
Baraka said, “When airports were taking Americans that were coming in from Wuhan exactly, Newark was one of the places they were landing.”
This required Baraka to act quicker compared to other cities and towns in New Jersey.
“We had to have a plan together, just in case. That nobody knew, the state didn’t have a plan, nobody had a plan. … At that time nobody knew what to do. We were forced to think about a lot of things that other communities didn’t have to think about initially,” said Baraka.
At the height of the pandemic, Newark’s infectivity rate was at 60% and according to Baraka as of Nov. 30, the current infectivity rate is 4%. Baraka had to get creative when dealing with skeptical communities when it came to vaccine promotion. Baraka started to stream on Facebook Live to help promote the vaccine and increase transparency on the city’s actions during the pandemic.
Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo opened the event and said, “I can’t think of a better way for our students to learn about the larger community than through direct dialogue with leaders such as the mayor.”
The Newark native is the 40th mayor of the city and was elected in 2014. Baraka said, “At the end of the day, you have to actually take these things that are high minded and put them into practice. So the work of actually trying to execute these things everyday is difficult, difficult work.”
As mayor, Baraka has lowered Newark’s crime rate to its lowest levels in five decades as well as addressed affordability while maintaining steady growth.
“To actually get there and try to transform something or make something take place, is hard work,” said Baraka. “If you think you can do it alone, it’s a mistake. … You need as much support, effort and collaboration as you possibly can get.”
Rasmussen described Baraka’s leadership style as “being on top of things” and “not turning a blind eye.”
Newark became known for its lead water crisis in 2016, when high levels of lead were discovered in the city’s schools.
Dell’Omo in his opening statement said, ‘Rider has followed your [Baraka] progress of removing the poisonous lead pipes from your community. We are so pleased to be able to salute you in person for accomplishing what no other mayor in the nation has managed to do in so short of time.”
According to Baraka, the State of New Jersey predicted it would take 10 years to remove and replace all of the lead pipes in Newark. Once a New Jersey Assembly bill was passed in January 2020, Baraka was able to remove all lead pipes on private properties after giving the owners a notice in advance.
Baraka took three years to replace all of the lead pipes in Newark, costing about $120 million on top of the down payment made to replace the pipes, to ensure that Newark residents would not have to pay a dime.
Baraka said, “It’s like you got a beehive in your backyard. You know you don’t want it to be there, might sting somebody one day. … So you’re debating whether you wanna move it. Because if you touch it, they’re all gonna come out. … and so you live with that, till someone gets stung. And now you feel more convicted to move the thing and that’s a lot of what’s happening. … I don’t wanna touch this problem cause then I own it. … At some point you got to get the courage, conviction and the plan to figure out how to move the beehive.”
In the Future
With the upcoming mayoral race, Baraka believes he still has a lot he can do to help improve Newark.
Baraka said, “I am not the 20 year guy. I never thought that I would be in there for 20 years, 25 years, like those guys before me who were mayors for very long time. … I do want to be able to get to a point where it is easier for the next person and not difficult where they feel like they have to start from scratch.”