Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, shows what a genuinely public-spirited politician can accomplish when he sets his mind to it.
A Democrat, Booker nevertheless remained an outsider, often outvoted eight to one by the Newark Democratic political establishment. So he began staging media events—dismissed as “stunts” by Mayor James—to draw attention to local ills, including camping out on street corners to spotlight the drug trade that openly flourished in the city. Booker also crossed party lines to seek solutions to Newark’s problems. With South Jersey Republican businessman Peter Denton, he cofounded the education-reform group E3, which advocated bringing more schooling alternatives—from charter schools to vouchers—to struggling inner-city kids. “When I first met Cory, school choice was still very controversial in Newark,” says Denton. “In black communities, it was understood as something that white Republicans supported. But Cory understood its importance right away and was willing to advocate for it.” Booker was appalled to see many of Newark’s political leaders—“the connected, the elected, the elite,” he calls them—sending their kids to private schools but condemning poor children to remain in the terrible public schools.Read the whole thing.
Unable to get the political establishment to pursue the needed reforms, Booker decided to run for mayor. In his first campaign, in 2002, he slammed headlong into James’s political machine. As recorded in the Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight, Newark police ejected Booker from housing projects where he was campaigning, while a businessman who held a fund-raiser for him had his firm shut down for dubious code violations. James and his supporters shamelessly played the race and religion cards. On the Today Show, James declared that the Baptist Booker was actually Jewish (while at Oxford, he did become the first non-Jewish, nonwhite president of the campus’s L’Chaim Society after befriending the group’s rabbi). Calling himself “the real deal,” James also questioned whether Booker was authentically black. The mayor told Booker, “You have to learn how to be African-American, and we don’t have time to train you.” As transparent as such ploys were, they helped give James a narrow victory. The margin was close enough, however, that when Booker ran again in 2006, James declined to seek a sixth term. Booker crushed a James ally, deputy mayor Ronald Rice, to become Newark’s 36th mayor.