On the mayor’s mindDec 30, 2020 11:42AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Newark Mayor Jerry Clifton loved Newark before he became mayor. Before he became a city council member. Before he moved there.
“Being a native Delawarean, I have always loved Newark,” he said. “It’s a town that has a lot of character. It’s a town that’s really progressive. You almost have to live there to understand it. There’s a hometown feeling unlike any other town in Delaware.”
And he does understand it, and he wants to improve it.
One plank in Clifton’s campaign to become mayor was promoting diversity, and one of his first prominent actions early in 2019 was working with the NAACP to celebrate diversity with a reunion of the School Hill community, a traditionally Black neighborhood centered on a New London Road school, now the George Wilson Community Center, named for the city’s first Black council member.
He networked and got the Marriott up the street to donate the refreshments. The city didn’t charge for using the community center (“it was theirs before it was ours”), and a good time was had by all.
“I want to bring together and recognize communities that aren’t being recognized – not just Black and white. Latino. Asian. LGBT.”
Another promotion of diversity will be in updating the faded welcoming mural on the Cleveland Avenue railroad bridge. He formed the committee for the update and is co-chairing it.
Life outside the mayor’s office
Clifton is 69 and was born in Wilmington in the now-yuppified Trolley Square. His first politicking occurred when he was 9, passing out flyers for presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon.
He served five years of active duty in the Army and had a career with the Delaware National Guard. After leaving Wilmington, he moved to Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, and New Castle before moving to Newark on Aug. 17, 1992. He ran for city council three years later, losing by three votes. He won as a write-in candidate two years later and served multiple terms until 2014, when vision problems prevented him from reading all the material he needed to get through, and he resigned in mid-term. Three operations later, he was back on council, then moving up to mayor.
As a council member, he figured he devoted 15 to 20 hours a week to the $7,000 job. As mayor he devotes 28 to 30 hours to the $8,400 job.
Clifton recalled advice from mentor Terry Spence, a veteran speaker of the house in the Delaware Legislature. “As long as you vote the way the majority of the people in your district want, you can never be wrong. It just may be against your judgment.”
“Jerry was born to be a politician,” Spence said, citing “his personality, his family values, his attitude and his willingness to help anyone.”
Nixon and Spence were Republicans, and so was Clifton then, even serving on the state committee. He’s now a Democrat because “what I feel is more important is better represented by Democrats.” City council, though, is nonpartisan.
Clifton and his wife, Linda, a University of Delaware retiree, have four children and nine grandchildren. Jason is a political observer in Manhattan, and his father expects him someday to serve in government. Daughters Jennifer and Beth live in New Castle County. Son Wesley lives in a special-needs group home in Newark.
Wesley make his father realize “how much more government could be doing for special-needs population, in terms of shelter and workshops.” Clifton, who attends Catholic services at St. Thomas More Oratory, then paraphrased Mathew 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
The city’s biggest issues
“Jerry gives the city 110%,” said Newark resident Rob Walters, adding that Clifton is both a friend and a client of Worldwide Travel, his travel agency in Avondale. “He’s dedicated. Committed. Fair. And he always puts the health and welfare of our residents and businesses first.”
When asked about the city’s biggest issues, Clifton first cited the budget of about $97 million to $98 million, which, like so many things, has been torn asunder by the coronavirus. He feels the solution is tapping into the city’s $24 million in reserves, rather than considering higher taxes that unemployed and under-employed residents cannot afford.
He was much more interested in talking about quality of life and “ties that bind” small communities and eventually his city of 33,000. He ticked off the picnics and parades, the Easter egg hunts and other holiday events that build such ties. And then he expressed regret that the pandemic has forced the cancellation of so many events.
He expressed concern about the inefficiency of Unicity bus routes, which is one of the ways that he espouses for enabling residents to live car-free. Walkability scores vary widely across the city’s 9 square miles, according to WalkScore.com. Some random addresses generated a high of 85 out of 100 for walking and a low of 6, with City Hall itself at 62.
He wants his legacy to be in diversity. “Not just in government, but how we do business and to make this a more diverse place.
Newark, according to U.S. Census analysis of race, is 78% white, 9% Black and 8% Asian. Other key stats: 12% are foreign-born; 7% have Hispanic origin; 4% have a disability; 25% live in poverty; and 53% of those 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Some stats, like that one about education, are skewed by being the location of the main University of Delaware campus. The city and the university have a complex relationship, and Clifton is encouraged by “better than ever communication between them. UD supports our initiatives, and we’re supporting theirs. And the real winners are the residents of Newark.”
The city and university students have a complex relationship as well. Clifton expects the character of the city to change with the private sector building upscale apartments that students and their families increasingly want. As for the students, he wants them to know “Newark loves you. We welcome you.” But citing the 2019 Unruly Gathering audience, “bad behavior is not tolerated.”
The interview ended with a question about how Clifton wanted to be remembered.
A park like the one named for Mayor Norma Handloff? A street, like Elwood Roy Way, named for a community leader? A building, like so many on the UD campus? A trail, like the one named for parks and recreation director James F. Hall? A statue? “History has to be the final judge,” he said. “I hope that history is kind. Whatever some future council decided to do would be quite nice. Darn sure I would never want a statue.”