Shavar Jeffries was born in Newark, N.J., in 1975, the son of a 19-year-old mother who was unprepared to take care of him. He spent the first nine years of his life shuttling between different relatives. Then his mother came back into his life and moved him to California.
Shortly after they moved to Los Angeles, there was a problem with the lock to their apartment door. Shavar’s mom called the locksmith and soon began a relationship with him. One evening the locksmith was looking over her phone bill and found a number he didn’t like. He smacked her in the head and sent her hurtling across the room. The beatings continued from then on.
Once his mother picked up Shavar from Little League wearing big sunglasses, her eyes blackened underneath. Another day she tried to bar the locksmith from their apartment, but he kicked through the door. She moved to Burbank and got restraining orders, but on Nov. 25, 1985, the locksmith stalked her workplace and killed her with a sawed-off shotgun.
Shavar was brought back to Newark and lived for a few months with his father. But one day he came home and his father had vanished, without leaving a note. By this time, he was numb; he just figured this was the way life is. His grandparents took him in, and he spent the rest of his childhood with them, living on a street called Harding Terrace in the South Ward of Newark.
William Spear, who grew up on Harding Terrace a few years later, describes the street the way Jane Jacobs describes Greenwich Village in the 1950s: There were eyes everywhere. “You couldn’t cut class, because the neighbors would see you and call you on it,” Mr. Spear recalls. The neighbors couldn’t and can’t stop the worst violence — Mr. Spear’s brother was killed in 2012 when a street fight sent bullets flying through a block party — but they could keep some kids in line.
Shavar’s grandparents brought stability to his life. He became active with the Boys and Girls Club. He did well in grade school, won a scholarship to Seton Hall Prep, then won scholarships to Duke and Columbia Law School, got a prestigious clerkship and began a legal career.
And then, having escaped Newark, he moved back to the crime-ridden South Ward. He has worked as a civil rights lawyer. He was the founding board president of a charter school in the Knowledge Is Power Program called Team Academy. He became an associate law professor at Seton Hall and took a leave from that to serve as assistant attorney general. In 2010, he ran for the Newark school board and became its president.
Now Mr. Jeffries is running for mayor of Newark against City Councilman Ras Baraka. The race has taken on a familiar shape: regular vs. reformer.
Mr. Baraka has the support of most of the major unions and political organizations. Over the years, he has combined a confrontational 1970s style of racial rhetoric with a transactional, machine-like style of politics. Mr. Baraka is well known in Newark, and it shows. There are Baraka signs everywhere there.
Mr. Jeffries is the outsider and the reformer, promising to end the favor trading in government and modernize the institutions. Three months ago, it looked as though he had no shot of winning. And, according to close observers, he has not organized a particularly effective campaign. But he is an eloquent speaker and has strong people skills. His candidacy has become something of a cause celebre among New York Democrats who fear Mr. Baraka would reverse the strides Newark has recently taken. Mr. Jeffries is still the underdog, but the election is much closer than it was.
The election May 13 will be decided on two issues, one cultural and one structural. Mr. Jeffries is being portrayed as a Duke- and Columbia-educated law professor, not somebody who is truly of and for Newark. There’s a veiled or not-so-veiled debate here over what it means to be authentically African-American.
Then there is the split, which we’re seeing in cities across the country, between those who represent the traditional political systems and those who want to change them. In Newark, as elsewhere, charter schools are the main flash point in this divide. Middle-class municipal workers, including members of the teachers’ unions, tend to be suspicious of charters. The poor, who favor school choice, and the affluent, who favor education reform generally, tend to support charters.
These contests aren’t left versus center; they are over whether urban government will change or stay the same. Over the years, public-sector jobs have provided steady income for millions of people nationwide. But city services have failed, leaving educational and human devastation in cities like Newark.
Reformers like Shavar Jeffries rise against all odds from the devastation. They threaten the old stability but offer a shot at improvement and change.
David Brooks is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.