As mayor of Newark, NJ, Sharpe James exploited his battered city's fears, isolation and wounded pride to win five terms in office. Yesterday, he was found guilty of picking its pocket as well.
The former mayor, along with his former mistress, Tamika Riley, was convicted of fraud and conspiracy charges in the sale of city land. James steered the sales to Riley at bargain prices, whereupon she turned around and sold the plots for a handsome profit--without redeveloping them as she was supposed to. As the Star-Ledger pointed out in an editorial, "It is clear that the deals he made with her and others cheated a city fighting its way back from riot and ruin."
James liked to present himself as Newark's greatest cheerleader. But this act always had an air of bread and circuses to it: hefty brunches for senior citizens, stunts like delivering his nominations on Newark Police bicycle, and a knack for living large in a city scarred by poverty.
He was especially deft at making political capital out of older Newarkers' sense of deprivation. When he got up before a crowd of senior citizens and told them how he remembered living in a Newark apartment without a flush toilet inside it, all could nod their heads at how far they had come. Only in a place like Newark, though, would change be measured by such a painfully diminished standard. James looked like a big mayor only because Newarkers' expectations were so sadly small.
James was also a bully. During the last mayoral election, when Corey Booker ran against Ron Rice, the city ran a brunch for senior citizens at the Robert Treat Hotel. The seniors were bused in by the score, but when James rose to address the gathering his goons evicted me, Damien Cave of the New York Times, the late Dith Pran of the Times, and a radio reporter for NPR. Clearly, James didn't want any witnesses when he used a city function to attack a mayoral candidate. I also watched James partisans shout down honest supporters of Corey Booker in a shameful way that had tough-looking women on the edge of tears.
Newarkers--living in a place battered by the deindustrialization, racism, bad government, corruption, and crime--could applaud James for proclaiming the renaissance of their city. But James forgot, as so many politicians do, that the cause he served--the revival of New Jersey's largest city-- was more important than his personal success. Once he made that mistake, it was easy to fall into sleazy land deals.
The conviction of James and Riley brings a measure of justice to city that has been let down too many times. Let's hope that these convictions convince Newark's elected officials of the importance of staying honest.