Wednesday, July 30, 2008


During his last political hurrah in 2002, Newark (N.J.) Mayor Sharpe James taunted up-and-coming challenger Cory Booker with the sort of insult that had become a hallmark of his reign.

"You have to learn to be an African-American," James (pictured at right) told Booker before roaring crowds, "and we don't have time to train you."

Thank goodness Booker never studied the Political Science of Sharpe. James, 72, on Tuesday was sentenced to 27 months in prison and a $100,000 fine for rigging a lucrative deal to sell land to his mistress.

For anyone who followed Sharpe and New Jersey politics in recent years, this was no big surprise: James joins a list of more than 100 state public officials who have been convicted of corruption related to their office in the past five years.

Despite Newark's slide into decay and virtual lawlessness, James won 12 consecutive elections — for council, mayor and state senator — before deciding, amid a heated campaign against Booker and a federal investigation, not to seek re-election in 2006.

James took a lot more than he put back into the city. Booker's win may have finally started the healing process (his first failed attempt to unseat James was chronicled in the brilliant, award-winning documentary "Street Fight." Do check it out.)

Despite this poor record of service and the conviction to prove it, some residents have still resigned themselves to defending a crook. It is here when I feel sorry and frustrated at some of my brothers and sisters, who should know better about these sorts of things.

Norman Simpson, a bondsman who has known James for 50 years, said the former mayor would have been acquitted if the jury had been made up of only Newark residents. “It wasn’t a jury of his peers."

True. A jury of James' peers would have been a 12-person team of felons and crooks and thiefs.

But even in the face of overwhelming evidence and little proof that James had ever done anything positive for the city, more than 100 people mounted one last campaign to save James from his rightful spot in a prison cell.

(Sigh). I've always believed that, in many ways, people get the government that they deserve. And what does that say for Newark?

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