May 23, 2007
Call it the Cory Booker dichotomy. After a privileged suburban upbringing, then Stanford, Oxford, and Yale law school, this 38-year-old former Rhodes scholar came to Newark, N.J., to advocate on behalf of the city’s poor, and he immediately moved into the Central Ward, one of the city’s dangerous and dilapidated housing projects, in order to live among the people he was representing. He’s also the burgeoning upstart politician who in 1998 defeated a 16-year incumbent for a seat on Newark’s City Council and ran for mayor (unsuccessfully in 2002 and successfully in 2006) against entrenched machine politico Sharpe James.
As mayor, he still lives in a Newark housing project. The mediagenic Booker also doesn’t shy away from hanging out on street corners to spotlight the city’s ever-flourishing drug trade, or challenging local kids to pickup games of basketball on hot summer nights in the hotbeds of gang territory, in order to help put a plug in the crime that spikes in the city in warmer weather. In short, Cory Booker is both courageous–and complex.
The legacy of political corruption Booker inherited in Newark is the stuff of gangster movies and mob lore. With the city’s rise in manufacturing might after the Industrial Revolution came its exponential slide under the influence of organized crime: By the early part of the 20th century, the tentacles of corruption reached beyond gambling and liquor operations into unions, manufacturing industries and, finally, politics.
By the 1960s, the middle class was leaving in droves (spurring a 40 percent population decline), and the city’s “reform” movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s only yielded in 1986 the onslaught of yet another corrupt regime: that of Sharpe James, Booker’s later opponent in his two mayoral races. James’ 20-year chokehold over the city is a marker of the tragedy that has befallen too many American municipalities–until now, Newark has languished in a cesspool of crime and cronyism, and nearly a quarter of its people live below the poverty line (an alarmingly high number hovering around twice the national average). All of this is a sad state of affairs for a city resting square in the middle of the Washington-New York corridor–just a 15-minute train ride from Manhattan–and housing a world-class airport and a major port.
Booker was passed a faltering torch, and as a result, today his tripartite focus centers on gutting the city’s corrupt government, but more importantly, reducing crime (in a city with a murder rate higher than New York City’s), and refurbishing Newark’s atrocious school system. For him, they’re hand-in-hand: First, “everything hinges on crime,” Booker has said–its eradication is the only way to revive neighborhoods and bring people back into the city. And Newark’s education system is not only crippling the city’s budget (the city spends about $17,000 on education for each kid per year, 75 percent more than the national average), but its stagnation over the years has led to a mere 30 percent of Newark high school seniors passing the state’s proficiency exam–a sure red flag to potential residents.