NEWARK, N.J. - On one level, the race to succeed U.S. Sen. Cory Booker as mayor of New Jersey's largest city is a local political contest with the candidates debating issues familiar to urban America: intractable violent crime, a struggling school district challenged by charter schools, a perpetual battle to attract development and create jobs.
Behind the scenes, though, the May 13 nonpartisan election is shaping up as a battleground for a bigger prize: control of Essex County and, in turn, an edge in a possible Democratic primary for the next gubernatorial election.
On one side, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, State Sen. Richard Codey, and others are lining up behind Ras Baraka, a 45-year-old councilman, activist, and school principal.
On the other, Essex County Executive and Democratic power broker Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and his allies are supporting Shavar Jeffries, 39, a law professor, former Newark school board president, and former state assistant attorney general who graduated from Duke and Columbia Universities.
Fulop is believed to be considering a 2017 gubernatorial run, as is State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), whose chief political benefactor, South Jersey party leader George E. Norcross III, has been linked to consultants working for Jeffries' campaign.
Sweeney, who made his name working with Gov. Christie, a Republican, to enact pension and health-benefit changes, said he was not involved in the race, and Norcross has not endorsed a candidate. A spokesman for Norcross, a co-owner of The Inquirer, declined to comment.
As that power struggle plays out, the stakes for Newark, which receives $100 million a year in state aid, are high. The city recorded 111 homicides in 2013, the most in more than two decades. The unemployment rate is 11.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly five points higher than the state average. Twenty-eight percent of residents live below the poverty line.
The school district, under state control since 1995, is also in flux, as the state-appointed superintendent recently decided to stop attending board meetings after experiencing a backlash in response to her controversial reform plan.
Those issues have taken a backseat at times during the mayor's race. Last month, two Jeffries campaign workers were charged with arson after Baraka's campaign bus was set on fire and sugar was poured in the engine.
Jeffries fired both workers. A spokeswoman for the Essex County Prosecutor's Office said the fire was small and was put out relatively quickly. The Baraka campaign said the bus was still in operation.
Also last month, Jeffries' campaign manager reported that campaign laptops and other property had been stolen from his office.
In TV ads, Baraka's allies have painted Jeffries as a pawn of Christie and the superintendent. Jeffries has panned his opponent as a divisive, inflammatory figure who would scare investors.
Baraka, son of the admired yet controversial poet and activist Amiri Baraka, enjoys broad name recognition and is considered the front-runner. He says he would engage gangs and expand economic development to reduce crime and wants local control for the school system.
Elected to the City Council in 2010, Baraka frequently clashed with Booker, who brought investment to the city from celebrities such as Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg but who was criticized as a poor manager.
Now, as a mayoral candidate, the community organizer invokes Barack Obama's first campaign for the presidency and the civil rights movement as part of his populist message.
"Wall Street bankers and South Jersey money aren't supporting me. But you know who's supporting me? Newark is," Baraka declared at a debate last week in Newark's West Ward. "When I become mayor, we become mayor."
Yet Baraka also represents a return to the old guard to a certain extent, given the support of people such as Sharpe James, the longtime Newark mayor who went to prison for fraud.
Jeffries says tackling violent crime is the key to growing the city, and he criticizes the crime rate in the ward Baraka represents. A former state law enforcement official, Jeffries says the issue is personal: His mother was killed when he was a boy, and he was raised by his grandmother.
The campaign began in earnest over the summer when Booker announced he was running for Senate. Councilman Luis A. Quintana became mayor after Booker won in October, but he did not seek a full term.
Jeffries and his slate of council running mates had raised $1.3 million, while Baraka had raised about $800,000.
Essex is home to more registered Democrats than any other county in the state. It has accounted for 15 percent of statewide Democratic primary turnout in recent years, according to Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
"Joe DiVincenzo's future is hanging in the balance here," Murray said, adding that a Baraka victory could embolden someone like Codey to challenge DiVincenzo for control of Essex County.
County political leadership could affect an endorsement in the gubernatorial race. "That's why you have George Norcross and Steve Fulop playing in this sandbox here," Murray said.
DiVincenzo, who has not endorsed a candidate but is said to be backing Jeffries, did not respond to a message seeking comment. Some Democrats say that DiVincenzo is likely to cruise to reelection in the fall and argue that Newark's mayor wields little influence beyond the city.
Other Democrats suspect Fulop, a banker-turned-Marine who hosted former President Bill Clinton at a fund-raiser in December, supports Baraka because he would shake up the Essex establishment, thereby providing Fulop a bigger platform.
Jeffries, whose background more closely resembles Booker's, would have a better chance of running statewide than Baraka, one Newark Democrat said.
Fulop said that speculation had "zero validity" and was "for people who wear tin hats and believe aliens are coming tomorrow." He endorsed Baraka because Baraka has "unparalleled" credibility in the community and thinks he'll improve schools and public safety.
Newark residents say such changes are needed. "We need recreation for our young people; we need jobs for our young people," said Yvonne N. Prather, 58, a former municipal worker now on disability who says he has not decided on a candidate. "There's no such thing as a middle class. It's just the poor and working class in Newark."