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Voters in Newark pick a new mayor after seven years of Booker

By Victoria Cavaliere

(Reuters) - Newark City Councilman Ras Baraka declared victory in the race for mayor of New Jersey's largest city on Tuesday - the first citywide election since Cory Booker, Newark's charismatic former mayor, stepped down to join the U.S. Senate.

Baraka, 44, the son of the late activist and poet Amiri Baraka, will be tasked with steering Newark, about 12 miles from New York City, as it struggles with an uptick in violent crime, unemployment and a possible state takeover of its finances.

"We are the mayor!!!" Baraka said in announcing his victory on social media website Twitter.

Booker, who served for seven years as mayor and used his national profile to help draw billions of dollars in investment to Newark, is now a U.S. senator. He won a special election last October to succeed Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died in office.

Former City Council President Luis Quintana has held the interim mayorship.

Baraka's rival for the job was Shavar Jeffries, 39, a former assistant attorney general and a civil rights lawyer.

The candidates touted their Newark roots in an election seen as a referendum on the staying power of gains made by Booker, including large-scale investment from Wall Street and Silicon Valley, most visibly a $100 million matching grant for school reform from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The new mayor will also have to tackle the city's most vexing issues, including a an unemployment rate of 13 percent among its 277,000 residents and the highest murder rate in more than two decades.

Baraka has backed a plan known as Operation Ceasefire that compels gang members to sever such ties and receive job training and education.

Jeffries and Baraka both put education reforms at the center of their campaigns, voicing careful support for the controversial "One Newark" school reorganization plan to consolidate, close or relocate a quarter of the city's schools.

Newark also faces the threat of a state takeover of its finances after showing an "extraordinary level of fiscal distress," state financial officer Tom Neff told city officials in a letter.

A shortfall in tax revenue could leave a gap of about $93 million in the city's operational budget for 2014. Some $30 million of that deficit was racked up in Booker's last year in office.

(Editing by Edith Honan and Clarence Fernandez)

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