News Column

Cory Booker: National Acclaim, Slogging in Newark

Dec. 14, 2012

Matt Katz

Cory Booker in 2007 (Bbsrock, Creative Commons)
Cory Booker in 2007 (Bbsrock, Creative Commons)

Mayor Cory Booker lives in two political worlds.

In one world, at City Hall in Newark, N.J., Booker twice casts a controversial tie-breaking vote to maneuver an ally onto the City Council, sparking a near-riot with council members yelling, "Shame on you!" A court ultimately invalidates the vote, leaving the council evenly split.

In the other world, outside Newark, Booker is praised as an inspiration and courted to challenge Republican Gov. Christie in 2013. TV interviewers even ask him what happens after he becomes governor or U.S. senator: Will he run for president?

The two sides of the Booker phenomenon provide a backdrop to his decision, which he said he will announce at the end of next week, about whether to run in a contested Democratic primary for governor -- State Sen. Barbara Buono has already declared she will run -- and then a general election against a popular governor. He may also opt to run for the Senate in 2014.

Booker says the recent flare-ups in the council are an aberration stoked by political gadflies loyal to his predecessor, Sharpe James, who was recently released from prison, and not indicative that the council opposes his agenda.

He said that he had been able to get 80 percent of his agenda through the council and that internal polls show his support in Newark well over 60 percent.

The reason, he said, is that residents "can open their doors and see the new park and see the new supermarket, see the new housing complex, see the new police precinct, see the new restaurant."

Yet the optics of the last two City Council meetings, which Booker walked out of to jeers from the crowd and the council members, can be used to tell a different story.

Christie, for example, could say that it indicates Booker doesn't have the leadership chops to run the state. After all, the Republican governor got bipartisan legislation through a Democratic legislature, while Booker allegedly can't work with council members from his own party.

Nonpartisan experts agree with Booker that the opposition primarily stems from a circle of longtime politicos, often from the same few families, like the Jameses, who see Booker as an outsider.

The 43-year-old mayor was raised in the suburbs and went to school at Stanford, Oxford, and Yale Universities. A black Baptist, he was slandered as white and Jewish when he hit the Newark political scene.

He has since made periodic alliances with the political establishment, but not with James, whose son, John Sharpe James, was the candidate Booker sought to block in his City Council maneuver last month.

"He's had time to prove himself, to redefine himself not as an outsider, as a Newarker, and that just hasn't happened," John James said.

Instead, James said, Booker travels the country for paid speaking gigs and tweets his adventures along the way.

In fact, the day after the near-riot council meeting last month, Booker declared on Twitter his intention to live on the meager budget of a food stamp recipient. He never mentioned the council meeting, and what followed was a succession of self-made videos, blog posts, and national TV interviews about his weeklong experiment.

Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist who wrote a book centered on Booker, The New Black Politician, said a "very, very common criticism" is that he's "too busy building his national brand and profile at the expense of governing."

From running into a burning building to save a neighbor, as he did last spring, to living in a notorious public housing tower, as he did for eight years, Booker's propensity for the remarkable is "very sincere, but very aggrandizing," Gillespie said.

Booker says the city benefits from his high-profile, deep-pocketed friends and his travels.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropic funds secured by Booker have paid for parks, police officers' bulletproof vests, and a prisoner reentry program.

On the way into that fateful council meeting last month, Booker said a man who got a job three years earlier through that program hugged him and thanked him. And at a recent speech in Los Angeles, a man pressed a check into his palm to help with Sandy recovery in the city.

Most famously, Booker and Christie accepted a $100 million matching grant for Newark schools from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

"This is the modern era where cities are facing a severe decline in revenue," Booker said. "Mayors can't sit behind the desk in City Hall and wait for the world to come to them. They need to get out there and drum up support, resources, philanthropy, and ideas to come to their city."

Live on stage, Booker doesn't disappoint crowds, offering dollops of the inspiring, spiritual, and politically progressive.

John James allows that Booker is an "excellent speaker."

"But when you're mayor of a large city such as Newark, there are a million issues to deal with, and if you don't take the time to deal with those issues, some have to be delegated, things fall through the cracks."

He cites the multiple business administrators (the city says there have been four), an increase in taxes, and the layoffs of more than 1,100 workers. He's particularly bothered that after Booker's stirring speech to officers graduating from the police academy -- captured in a Sundance documentary series about Booker called Brick City -- the officers ended up being laid off.

Booker says he inherited a $200 million deficit from Sharpe James that is now projected to be just $45 million. And in a knock on his potential future rival, he said funds were short because he "didn't anticipate the kind of cutbacks Chris Christie would bring into the cities." (Christie has blamed his cuts, which hit municipalities across the state, on the finances of his Democratic predecessor, Jon S. Corzine.)

"I think what it suggests is, Booker has great vision," Gillespie said. "But the resilience of these older regimes limits the extent to which he can transform them."

The question for Booker, then, is whether a move to the governor's mansion -- or the Senate -- can further his vision more than staying put Newark.



Source: (c)2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by MCT Information Services


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