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Natasha Del Toro Headshot

Street Fight: The Ugly Side of Politics

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Getty File
Getty File

With Election Day around the corner, nasty campaign tactics are being to deployed by both political parties to see who can tip the balance in what has shaped up to be an uncomfortably tight race. Already, voters in the battleground states of Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Iowa have complained about receiving phone calls and phony letters misinforming them about when, where and how to vote. DVDs popped up in Floridians' mailboxes featuring an anti-Obama conspiracy movie claiming that President Barack Obama's real father was a communist. In Virginia, a man working to register voters for the Republican Party was charged of destroying voter registration forms. All of these tactics call into question the health of our democratic process. None of them, sadly, are new.

But it's not just presidential elections that are tainted with tricks. It also happens on the local level. Consider one of the dirtiest and most visible campaigns of the last decade -- the 2002 mayoral race in Newark between longtime-incumbent Sharpe James, who was running for a fifth term, and then-newcomer Cory Booker.

Booker, a fresh-faced Yale-educated lawyer, son of civil rights activists and a first-time city council member entered the race with high ideals and ideas about how to change one of the most poverty-stricken and crime-ridden cities in America. Instead, he got a taste of Newark's old-machine politics at its best.

James' camp proved that they would do whatever it takes to hold on to power: They removed Booker signs with city-owned equipment or simply blanked them out, they barred Booker from canvassing at a public housing project, they raided and cited code violations for businesses displaying Booker signs, they demoted city employees that didn't support James, they formed a sting operation to catch Booker's chief of staff in a prostitution ring at a strip bar though the bar's owner said Mayor James himself had frequented the club.

They also maligned Booker, questioning his sexuality, his political intentions, and his religious affiliations. James, an African American who grew up poor in the streets of Newark, accused Booker of being a carpetbagger funded by Republicans and backed by Jewish groups. He also challenged Booker's race, suggesting Booker wasn't black enough.

"You have to learn to be African American. And we don't have time to train you all night," he once said about Booker.

This racial dynamic and battle for black leadership was part of what drew filmmaker Marshall Curry to document the mayoral race in the appropriately-titled film Street Fight.

He wanted to explore the generational divide between black civil rights era politicians and new guard, like Obama and Booker.

Curry's intention was to give both James and Booker fair representation until he himself became a target of James' intimidation campaign; James' security guys forcibly tried to stop him from filming at a public political rally. They even broke his camera. Fortunately, Curry was able to keep the camera rolling and captured it all on tape.

"I didn't have a sense of what I was getting into when I started making the film," says Curry, who admitted to feeling apprehensive of James' strong-arm tactics. The experience made him think twice about the election process. "It doesn't work exactly how it was intended by the Framers of the Constitution," said Curry in a POV interview.

James won the election that year by a thin margin. But he decided not to run for a sixth term. Shortly after he left the mayoralty, he was convicted of five counts of fraud by a federal jury and sentenced to 27 months in prison. Booker, on the other hand, won the 2006 mayoral race against Ronald Rice. Many believe he has presidential ambitions.

But the focus now is on the election between President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The bare-knuckles battle depicted in the documentary film Street Fight reminds us of how ugly it can get.

Street Fight airs this Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on America ReFramed, a new documentary series on public television's World Channel.