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NEWARK : A behind-the-scenes political maneuver by Newark Mayor Cory Booker to fill a vacant council seat with his choice led to a near-riot in city hall tonight, with dozens of residents rushing the council stage and police responding with pepper-spray.
After weeks of jockeying for Rep. Donald Payne's successor, Booker made an unprecedented personal appearance to cast the deciding vote with his council allies for Shanique Davis Speight, a longtime ally of power broker Stephen Adubato, over the angry objections of residents.
"In the absence of a quorum, I have an obligation to sit in," Booker said, though he was barely audible over the din.
The packed city council chamber was gearing up for a showdown over the appointment as well known figures including former Mayor Sharpe James, Amiri and Amina Baraka, former Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins and former Council President Donald Bradley came to back their choices.
Councilman Ras Baraka attempted to speak but was not recognized by Councilman Anibal Ramos, who was serving as acting president. Instead Ramos proceeded with the nomination of Speight.
Baraka, Councilwoman Mildred Crump, and Councilman Darrin Sharif walked off the dais in protest, and Booker came in cast the decisive vote, as laid out in state statute.
The move was planned by Booker's chief-of-staff, Modia Butler, to scuttle the appointment of James' son John Sharpe James, an avowed Booker opponent, in favor of Speight. Butler had the mayor at the ready in case of a tie or if there was no quorum.
"We did our research. We abided by the rules and guidelines. We didn't run afoul of anything," Butler said.
After the vote, residents stood chanting "Cory's gotta go!" as officials shouted over the confusion.
But when Speight was escorted by police to be sworn in, a group of residents, led by SEIU Local 617 President Rahaman Muhammad, stormed the dais and appeared to lunge toward Speight and her grade-school-age son.
Police restrained the group as they toppled a podium and residents were caught in the rush. When Muhammad would not give way, an officer doused him with pepper spray, along with residents, reporters and at least one other officer.
"This truly was an out-of-body experience," said Sharif. "The mayor, who goes all around the country to talk about democracy - literally in the back of the room, hiding in the shadows."
In the confusion, Speight was ushered out of the council chamber and sworn in by City Clerk Robert Marasco.
After weeks of jockeying for Payne's successor council members Sharif, Baraka, and Crump supported John Sharpe James. Council members Carlos Gonzalez, Anibal Ramos, and Luis Quintana and Augusto Amador backed Speight. West Ward Councilman Ron Rice was the only member not present, saying he was "boycotting" the meeting.
Baraka chided Booker for causing chaos over a political appointment.
"Of all the issues that have been a lot more pressing ... he comes down there and makes sure that he votes on an empty seat because it's a political move for him," Baraka said after the meeting.
Baraka, who said his mother Amina was sprayed, chided the officer for using a chemical agent in a crowded area.
"Some of the officers of course were doing their job and made sure that we were OK but the officer that sprayed the mace was totally irresponsible," he said.
Police Director Samuel DeMaio said there are no guidelines that prevent officers from using pepper spray indoors, adding that the use of a chemical agent might be warranted in a chaotic scenario like the one that unfolded at city hall tonight.
"From what I see right now at face value, in the situation that they had there with the crowd surging toward the council desk - the officer made a decision," he said.
Muhammad was charged with assaulting Marasco and Speight, resisting arrest and inciting a riot, according to DeMaio, who also said the officer who used the pepper spray will be subject to an internal review.
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