One of New Jersey's longest serving former mayors got a hero's welcome Tuesday, stepping off a Greyhound bus in Newark and blowing kisses to a throng of cheering supporters before being driven to a halfway house where he'll serve out the remainder of a federal prison sentence on corruption charges.
"It's good to be home," former Newark Mayor Sharpe James said through the lowered window of an SUV that barely inched forward through a sea of 300 or so supporters who chanted, cheered and held signs reading "no crime committed" and "Sharpe for governor."
The 74-year-old had left a federal prison camp in Virginia earlier Tuesday where he had been serving a sentence since Sept. 2008.
James was convicted in April 2008 stemming from charges that he abused his office by steering city-owned land to his one-time mistress. He was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison and ordered to pay a $100,000 fine. His former mistress, Tamika Riley, was sentenced to 15 months and ordered to repay $27,000 in a housing subsidy.
The longtime mayor, also a state senator, was one of the most powerful figures snared in a series of corruption cases in New Jersey brought by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, who is now New Jersey's governor.
James was one of the few to plead not guilty. He maintains his innocence and will continue to appeal his corruption conviction.
Prosecutors charged that James abused his office and betrayed his constituents by arranging for the sale of nine city-owned properties for $46,000 to Riley from 2001 to 2005. Riley quickly sold them for $665,000 without ever starting required rehabilitation work on most of them, prosecutors said.
James will serve the remainder of his sentence at a halfway house, where he checked in Tuesday night and was under a gag order, according to his son, John Sharpe James.
"He just said he's glad to be home, and happy to see the family," James said of the car ride with his father to the halfway house. "He said he missed us."
The younger James says his father will do community service, working as a mentor at an Irvington church.
Sharpe's contentious run against current Newark Mayor Cory Booker in 2002 was chronicled in the Oscar-nominated documentary film "Street Fight." Booker ran again and was elected mayor in 2006, the year James left office, declining to seek a sixth term.
Although he is barred from public office because of his conviction, James' supporters held signs urging him to run for office and chanted "Booker must go."
"You got average people out here saying 'Sharpe! Sharpe! Sharpe!'" said Newark resident Lamont Vaughn. "Now, had he ruled with an iron fist, or was some cruel ruler or politician, he'd have nobody here but his immediate family and his close friends."