- Associated Press - Sunday, May 18, 2014

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - The newly elected mayor of Newark said it will take a lot of outside-the-box thinking to confront the substantial challenges he’s facing as he takes the helm of New Jersey’s largest city.

Ras Baraka swept into office Tuesday with more than 50 percent of the vote, defeating former Assistant Attorney General Shavar Jeffries.

The 45-year-old councilman and former principal of Newark’s Central High School will immediately have to address a budget deficit and several missed fiscal reporting deadlines that have prompted state officials to threaten a takeover of the city’s finances. While Baraka said he doesn’t downplay the state’s position, he doesn’t see a takeover as imminent.

“They have the authority to do it, so I don’t take it lightly,” he said last week as he sat in a restaurant in the South Ward, the heart of his power base. “Newark is in a financial crisis, but so is the state of New Jersey. I don’t really believe that the state wants to do it. It would be counterintuitive, in my estimation, to take on more problems when you have some of your own.”

Baraka said Newark must immediately start searching for new revenue streams in a city that is perpetually cash-strapped. One way would be to audit how revenues such as parking, payroll taxes and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) are collected, a system he said isn’t as efficient as it could be.

Then there is the idea of revisiting the longstanding contract with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for Newark’s port, which is part of the massive system that is the largest on the East Coast.

Baraka said the agreement should be revisited in light of an anticipated increase in port business when larger container ships begin heading to Newark in the next few years because of the expansion of the Panama Canal.

He will also have to address rising crime at a time when the city has scant funding for new police officers. Baraka has long advocated, even during his years as a city councilman and community activist, that the level of violence in Newark and other American cities should be declared a public health emergency, which would bring new resources to bear in the war on crime.

“We have to be creative with our strategies and think outside the box,” he said. “What we haven’t been doing is using code enforcement, economic development to try and get private investment in some of those distressed areas; things like cleaning up lots, citing violations for absentee landlords, garbage, lighting on the streets. Pay attention to the physical atmosphere. And put police on the street.”

Baraka said unlike predecessor Cory Booker, who promoted Newark by cultivating relationships with the rich and famous, he wants to focus on developing the city from within so it becomes a destination.

“You can go out and cheerlead and try to get as many people as you can based on your persona, and maybe that will work,” he said. “But if you focus on expanding the college community you have, the manufacturing base that exists, the medical community that exists, and help them grow and market that, when people begin to see that they’re going to show up.”

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Associated Press writer David Porter contributed to this story.