Newark Mayor Ras Baraka Peter Foley for The Wall Street Journal

Ras J. Baraka, Newark Mayor

  • Son of Newark poet Amiri Baraka
  • Former public school principal, deputy mayor in Newark
  • Author of a poetry collection called “Black Girls Learn Love Hard”
  • Won a nonpartisan election in May with 54% of the vote

NEWARK—He has called out New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for being “out there running for president.” He uses vivid language to describe his dislike for Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson, saying students’ civil rights are “being trampled on.”

And he participates in poetry slams, writing original works—one of which he performed at Newark City Hall on Tuesday.

Since taking office July 1, Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka has carved a far different path from his predecessor, Cory Booker, now a U.S. senator who was an ally of Ms. Anderson and Mr. Christie. Mr. Baraka has brought an activist’s style and language to the office, using its bully pulpit to challenge the perceptions of Mr. Booker’s work on development, education and relations with Trenton.

“We want to be independent,” Mr. Baraka a Democrat, said in an interview. “We want the people to feel proud about their city and not feel like we need someone to come in and save us.”

Mr. Baraka, 44 years old, grew up in Newark in a famous local family. His father was Amiri Baraka, one of the city’s best known literary figures.

He went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., before returning as a deputy mayor, a councilman in the crime-afflicted South Ward and a high school principal. Mr. Baraka was known for more radical street politics and community organizing. He was a founding member of a national hip-hop political convention.

Much of Mr. Baraka’s work has been focused on the role of state government and other outside forces in Newark’s affairs.

The biggest fight he has waged involves the city’s schools. Mr. Baraka’s target for criticism: Ms. Anderson, who was installed by Mr. Christie to run the state-controlled school district in 2011.

Ms. Anderson has won praise for increasing graduation rates, putting talented staff in classrooms and boosting preschool enrollment. She was supported by Mr. Booker, and Newark’s schools are often viewed as a laboratory for the national debate over charter schools and a union’s role in education.

Mr. Baraka said Ms. Anderson has been dictatorial and hasn’t listened to the community. He called again for Ms. Anderson’s dismissal after the school district failed to create permanent classroom schedules for some students for weeks this fall.

“If she was in anyone else’s city, they would have thrown her out a long time ago,” he said.

Ms. Anderson said Mr. Baraka tried to exaggerate the school system’s problems and not acknowledge accomplishments. She said Mr. Baraka wanted to maintain the “status quo,” and that her policies had helped him in his job as a principal at a Newark high school.

“When your ideological perspective is anti-charter, anti-choice and very focused on adult interests over kids, it’s pretty difficult to find common ground,” she said of Mr. Baraka.

Several business leaders and others in the community said they supported Ms. Anderson and disliked that she had become a political piñata. Privately, people close to Mr. Christie say the governor has occasionally become frustrated with her communication skills but will continue to support her.

Messrs. Christie and Baraka have met privately at least twice, including at the State House Thursday. Mr. Baraka said it was a “great meeting.” Mr. Christie’s office had no comment on the meeting but said it works with “all willing partners.”

Asked about the relationship with Mr. Baraka, a spokesman to Mr. Christie said the governor hoped to build a good relationship.

Mr. Christie has visited Newark once since Mr. Baraka took office; the mayor didn’t appear with him. Before Mr. Baraka took office, Mr. Christie had appeared in Newark more than any New Jersey city, trying to burnish his credentials in big cities on development, education and crime.

For his part, Mr. Booker said maintaining good relations with the governor is good for Newark. “Gov. Christie and I could write a long dissertation on our disagreements, but if we left it at that, Newark would have suffered,” Mr. Booker said.

The perceived frostiness between Messrs. Christie and Baraka has worried some in Newark, who see the governor paying more attention to Camden.

“Relationships are everything,” said Sam Delgado, a Verizon New Jersey executive in Newark. “People should be concerned about the relationship between the mayor of Newark and the governor.”

Mr. Delgado added that Mr. Baraka had reached worked to develop relationships with the business community.

In many ways, Mr. Christie has the upper hand with Mr. Baraka.

Newark’s budget needs state aid, which the Christie administration controls. The governor is in charge of the school system and holds sway at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which Mr. Baraka wants to hire more Newark residents and give the city more money.

“The governor of New Jersey is one of the most powerful offices in the American republic. There are dangers that being combative, either real or perceived, with Christie could be a no-win situation for the residents of Newark,” said Clement Price, a historian at Rutgers University-Newark.

Mr. Baraka could prove formidable, particularly if he can convince the corporate and philanthropic sectors he is a good mayor, Mr. Price said, and leverages his alliances with other New Jersey politicians.

Mr. Baraka has tried to build and maintain his support at home first instead of building a wider profile. He says his ambitions aren’t national like Mr. Booker’s. At the poetry reading on Tuesday night, he took to the microphone and stood beside a portrait of his father before reading his latest poem, encouraging black women to “walk on” and be sassy.

“See yourself in all things majestic,” he read. “Walk through life as you are.”