(Reuters) - Voters in Newark will pick a new mayor on Tuesday to fill a post held by popular Democrat Cory Booker and steer New Jersey’s largest city as it struggles with an uptick in violent crime, unemployment and a possible state takeover of its finances.
Booker, who served for seven years as mayor and used his national profile to help attract billions of dollars in investment to Newark, about 12 miles from New York City, is now a U.S. Senator. He won a special election last October to succeed Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died in office.
Former City Council President Luis Quintana has held the interim mayorship.
The two Democratic candidates vying for the job are Shavar Jeffries, 39, a former assistant attorney general and a civil rights lawyer, and Ras Baraka, 44, a high school principal, city councilman and the son of the late activist and poet Amiri Baraka.
In this heavily liberal city, a Democrat is virtually guaranteed victory.
The candidates have touted their Newark roots in an election seen as a referendum on the staying power of gains made by Booker, including large-scale investment from Wall Street and Silicon Valley, most visibly a $100 million matching grant for school reform from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The new mayor will also have to tackle the city’s most vexing issues, including a 13 percent unemployment rate among its 277,000 residents and the highest murder rate in more than two decades.
Baraka has called for the implementation of a plan known as Operation Ceasefire that compels gang members to end their affiliation and receive job training and education. Jeffries said crime prevention should include both enforcement, reintegration and treatment programs for low-level offenders and drug users.
Jeffries and Baraka have both made education reforms a centerpiece of their campaign, voicing careful support for the controversial “One Newark” school reorganization plan that calls for the consolidation, closure or relocation of one-quarter of the city’s schools.
Newark also faces the threat of a state takeover of its finances after showing an “extraordinary level of fiscal distress,” according to a letter sent to city officials from Tom Neff, a state financial officer.
A shortfall in tax revenue could leave the city some $93 million short in its operational budget for 2014. Some $30 million of that deficit was racked up in Booker’s last year in office.
Editing by Edith Honan