A Mayor for All the People: Kenneth Gibson’s Newark

By Oliver Quinn
Senior Counselor at Taft Communications, a strategic communications firm in Newark and Lawrenceville

A Mayor for all the People: Kenneth Gibson’s Newark describes the impact of Mayor Gibson’s historic tenure as the first black mayor of New Jersey’s largest city on the city and its people. Robert Holmes, a lawyer and clinical law professor and Richard Roper, a noted public policy consultant, edited the book. They interviewed and otherwise worked with the contributors to produce this compilation of essays presenting the reflections of men and women who lived and/or worked in Newark during those days of conflict
and opportunity.

This is not a scholarly history book or biography; this is a set of stories told by people who were the main characters in their own vignettes. Nor is it a salute to Mayor Gibson; the book contains a range of assessments of Gibson the mayor, and Gibson the man. Essays were written by supporters and adversaries; peers and subordinates; constituents and staffers. Some contributors present their own narratives more than discussing Mayor Gibson. Nevertheless, what emerges is a profile of a humble but strong leader; a “non politician” politician; an engineer who valued structure but was also visionary and willing to try new ways to achieve his goals.

One thing everyone agreed on is that Ken Gibson was dedicated to his city of Newark and determined to make it a better place for all people to live and work. Whether it was (or is) possible to truly be “a Mayor for all the people,” with the often-conflicting agendas that had to be reconciled to achieve that lofty goal, remains an unanswered question. Ken Gibson, like all “firsts,” was confronted with huge expectations: to bring racial peace to a city that recently experienced violent rebellion and was a hotbed of cultural and ethnic jousting for power; to restore economic stability and strength to a city that was experiencing a mass exodus of businesses and middle class residents. And he was to achieve all of this immediately!

Mayor for all the People offers many lessons on how political power works as seen through the eyes of practitioners, constituents, and observers. Mayor Gibson’s challenges were not unique to him or to Newark. Two elements of his governing strategy stood out to me: create nonprofit organizations outside of government to pursue his goals; and recruit and develop a young cadre of professionals to execute his plans.

Mayor Gibson gave many young people of color positions of responsibility in these organizations so they could learn, grow, and produce for Newark. I, myself, interned at the Mayor’s Education Task Force while I was a law student at Rutgers University. Several contributors to the book refer to this as “Gibson University.” These young foot soldiers in Mayor Gibson’s army created and administered entities that benefitted the city long after his tenure as mayor ended, including the Housing Development and Rehabilitation Corporation,

Newark Public Radio (WBGO), and the Newark Economic Development Authority. Much of the talent that was incubated in these agencies went on to hold important positions in local, state, and federal governments; in business and at universities; and many continued supporting Newark throughout their careers.

Ken Gibson might not have achieved his goal of being A Mayor for all the People, but the stories told in this seminal book demonstrate the resounding impact he had on many aspects of the human condition in Brick City. Urban studies researchers, practitioners, and those curious about the city’s history will benefit from the first-person experiences and perspectives presented in the book.