Cory Booker Loses Battle Over Council Seat

     (CN) – Newark Mayor Cory Booker cannot cast a deciding vote to fill a vacant City Council seat, a state appeals court ruled, in a case that reignites the Democrat’s rivalry with his predecessor, former Mayor Sharpe James.
     New Jersey Appellate Judge Clarkson Fisher wrote for a three-judge panel that a vote of 4-2 for Booker’s choice Shinque Speight, with two council members abstaining, did not allow the mayor to settle a “perceived tie.”
     Fisher’s ruling means Newark voters will decide who will occupy the seat, vacated by Donald Payne after he was elected to Congress last year.
     The dispute is rooted in Booker’s first run for mayor of Newark, more than a decade ago. Then-incumbent Mayor Sharpe James defeated then-Councilman Booker, who bounced back in 2006 to beat James’ preferred candidate, Deputy Mayor Ronald Rice.
     In the new tussle, James and council members who voted against Speight were backing the appointment of James’s son, John Sharpe James, to fill the vacant council seat. Rice is one of the abstaining council members.
     The four council members who voted for Speight at a chaotic Nov. 20 meeting maintained that two “no” votes and two abstentions created a deadlock.
     After Booker appeared to decide the vote, several people stormed the stage as police accompanied Speight to her swearing in, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.
     A local union leader seemed to lunge at Speight and her grade school-age son, the Star-Ledger reported. In response, police reportedly pepper-sprayed the union leader, residents and reporters.
     Booker, Speight, City Councilors Anibal Ramos, Augusto Amador, Carlos Gonzalez, and Luis Quintana sought declaratory judgment confirming Speight’s appointment.
     Rice and John James advocates Ras Baraka, Mildred Crump and Darin Sharif mounted a legal challenge, and Superior Court Judge Dennis Carey ordered the council to vote again.
     A Newark Police Department SWAT team policed the crowded council chamber for the second meeting. Councilman Darrin Sharif joined Rice in abstaining, and Speight received four affirmative votes against two “no” votes.
     Judge Carey cited the City Council’s own rules in finding that an abstention was neither a “yes” nor a “no” vote, and that there was never a deadlock for Booker to break.
     In the July 5 order, the appellate panel agreed.
     “To fill a vacancy, at least five members were required to vote in favor of a nominee,” Fisher wrote. “Ms. Speight received only four affirmative votes. The only way that Ms. Speight could be validly seated to fill the vacancy left by Congressman Payne was through the recognition of a deadlock and, with such a tie, the affirmative vote of Mayor Booker. And the only conceivable way the council vote could be viewed as constituting a tie is if council members Rice and Sharif’s abstentions may be viewed as ‘no’ votes.”
     In cases requiring a fixed number of “yes” votes for a majority, “abstentions should be regarded as negative votes,” the 14-page opinion states.
     Booker and his co-plaintiffs claimed that that is contrary to state law.
     Fisher was not persuaded. He found “very little clarity or consistency” in cases involving local government abstentions, noting that the council’s own rules did not violate the state’s Municipal Vacancy Law.
     Booker and his allies claimed that Rice and Sharif abstained to prevent a tie. But Fisher said council members are not required by law to vote for or against an appointment.
     “If abstaining in this circumstance is manipulative or contrary to the people’s best interests, then it is the Legislature’s duty or the voters’ prerogative – not ours – to provide a remedy,” Fisher wrote.
     The film “Street Fight” documents Booker’s bitterly fought campaign against five-term Mayor Sharpe James in the 2002 election.
     During the campaign, James claimed among other things that Booker, a black Democrat, had taken donations from the KKK and the Taliban; he also branded his young archrival as a “faggot white boy” and a Republican, according to Salon.com.
     James later spent time in federal prison for fraud.
     Booker is the frontrunner in a primary race to fill the Senate seat vacated by the late Frank Lautenberg.
     Neither Booker nor Robert Pickett, an attorney for the defendant council members, immediately responded to requests for comment.

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