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Booker's Balancing Act | The Nation

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Booker's Balancing Act

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Leanne Shear

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Tune in all day Thursday to watch Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown and others at the New Populism Conference.

The third in a series of debates between The Nation and The National Review, moderated by Roll Call.

May 23, 2007

Project Politician

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.

Youth Movements

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.

After co-founding the education reform group E3 while still a city councilman, Booker has gone head to head as mayor with the all-powerful state teachers' union, putting his political weight behind a statewide bill that would give tax credits to companies who put money into a scholarship fund for Newark students who either want to go to private schools or attend better public schools. He feels it's the necessary path to innovation, and in response to cries against any sort of voucher program, Booker demurred, "Who can object to a pool of money that will give poor children the same opportunities as middle-class kids?"

The common denominator among Booker's top three political raisons d'etre (crime, corruption, and education)? A zeroing in on Newark's young people--because, Booker has said, "Young people are at the forefront of the city [and the impetus for its resurgence], but the reality is that young people are being swallowed up in negative activities." For that reason, last year Booker unveiled the Newark Youth Connection, a program enacted to create space for empowerment and leadership among young people ages 14-20.

Because young people are the centerpiece of his policy objectives, Booker's young age also constitutes a big chunk of the inherent dichotomy surrounding his political persona: Does his youth impede or prohibit his efficacy or credibility, or, conversely, bolster it, allowing for an edge and a fresh dynamic in a rather soured city?

Age As Issue?

The danger is that sometimes the whole energy-infused, rebellious youth formula simply doesn't cut it ... or is at least mitigated by other factors. Take, for example, the 30-year-old mayor of tiny New Paltz, New York--Jason West--who was ultimately ousted even after successfully gnashing his teeth at the old guard: in 2004, just a year after becoming mayor in an upset on the Green Party ticket, he performed marriage ceremonies (amidst much fanfare and braggadacio), for 21 same-sex couples in the town in protest against George W. Bush's proposed constitutional amendment against them, securing its (and his) spot on the national map. Then, this year West was soundly defeated for a second term as mayor, the populace of New Paltz opting instead for Terry Dungan, another progressive (albeit at age 60, an older and more experienced one).

Then there's the handsome young Booker doppelganger Harold Ford, Jr. He spent the past decade as a Democratic congressman in the Ninth district of Tennessee, and then last year decided to run against Bob Corker for the senate seat vacated by Bill Frist--and ended up losing by three percentage points. In this case, youth tipped the scales in Corker's favor: in 2002, at the height of Democratic ennui, Ford, Jr. (who was then 32) decided to run for House Minority Leader. He was trounced by none other than Nancy Pelosi--and his challenge to the Democratic establishment, while confirming his chutzpah, made him a prime target for the attacks on his youth wrought by Corker, and the Republican party at large, in the Senate race. In a particularly notable attack ad, it was insinuated that Ford, Jr. cavorted with a stereotypical dumb blonde (who also happened to be white, whereas Ford, Jr. is black) at a party at the Playboy mansion.

And that's precisely the point where youth-as-detriment intersects with a charged racialized component to create a poisonous--even fatal--compound for the politician(s) trying to evade pigeonholing, and eclipse politics-as-usual. Similarly controversially to the attacks against Ford, Jr., some critics suggest Booker is no better than his rival Sharpe James, although marking corruption of a different degree: They say instead of building a black, local (corrupt) machine from within the confines of Newark, he is forming his from outside the city, via his Stanford/Oxford/Yale pedigree--not to mention his friendship with luminaries like Oprah Winfrey--in order to cultivate a more national, refined, "platinum" network (perhaps positioning him for a national run like his political progenitor Barack Obama, whom he just endorsed for president?).

Balance The Books'

However, attacks against youth and inexperience in many cases (and perhaps this one) amount to a smokescreen for blatant racism. In effect, this type of inquiry--or, rather, the impugning of Booker and other young political luminaries like him under the auspices of race, or using racial forecasting to boil down their ascendancy(s) to a sort of perversion of affirmative action--trivializes the drive and more importantly, capability, he has to do good for the city of Newark.

At the end of the day, even if Booker's "aw-shucks"-ism, perceived naivete, and/or disavowals of anything other than the good of Newark is disingenuous, he puts his money where his mouth is. And regardless of his motivations, the thing about Newark is that it's a city with a lot of potential, and a place where someone with a little wherewithal--like Booker--to withstand the pressure cooker of vested interests and battle it out could actually make a difference and turn the place around, setting it sail down the stream of viability. If nothing else, then, maybe Cory Booker is less a dichotomy than a balance. Just how far will he go? The future--replete with possibility for gutsy young politicians like him--mirrors the future of our country: It remains to be seen.

Leanne Shear, a Pisces, is a writer living in New York City and co-author of the novel The Perfect Manhattan.

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