NEW JERSEY, June 8, 2013 – The mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, Cory Booker, has been vaunted as a “rock star” by Oprah, awarded a superhero costume by Ellen DeGeneres, and been the subject of two books, two documentaries, and a television series.
Yet, he’s not without his critics.
Corey Booker’s long-awaiting catapult to the national stage appears to finally be upon us, as media reports abound he plans to formally announce his campaign to replace recently-passed Senator Frank Lautenberg in the U.S. Senate.
You might know of Booker from his much-publicized “Food Stamp Challenge” last year – challenging one of his conservative Twitter followers to live off food stamps for a week to make a point about the difficulty of poverty. Or you may have seen Sundance Channel’s documentary series Brick City about Booker’s leadership in Newark, or the 2002 documentary Street Fight about his first run for mayor. Perhaps your knowledge of Booker may come from the many comparisons of him to Obama, as in Gwen Ifill’s 2009 book Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.
Wisely, Booker meets the Obama comparisons with equanimity and wit. “I’m tired of people comparing me to Mr. Obama. Let me tell you the distinctions,” he once deadpanned. “Obama went to a privileged, affluent, elite law school: Harvard. I went to an inner-city, gritty, tough law school: Yale…he went on to become a community organizer; I went on to be a neighborhood coordinator,” goes a frequent Booker riff.
Despite the national profile, Booker has managed to stake his brand on the local nature of his leadership. He grabbed national headlines in 2012 for saving a neighbor from their burning house, the feat which won him the superhero costume from Ellen DeGeneres; and the imprimatur of “superhero mayor” from Jon Stewart.
Booker has also built his national profile saving a puppy from the cold of New Jersey winter, fixing a traffic light, and when a Newark resident Tweeted him they were unable to leave their house due to 2010’s “Snowpocalypse,” Booker Tweeted the constituent back and said he was on his way. Booker showed up to the strangers’ abode– shovel in tow – and shoveled the constituent’s driveway. Good humoredly, Booker and the state’s Republican Governor Chris Christie parodied Booker’s reputation for this, in a well-received video last year of Booker dashing off to save a little girl’s cat lost in a tree.
But a critical New York Times spread last year charged that his national praise often obscures local consternation actually in Newark. The plaudits Booker won for the snow shoveling, The Times informs, ignored that much of Newark had the opposite reaction. “Here, his administration was scorned as streets remained impassable for days because the city had no contract for snow removal.”
Perhaps most paradoxically, the attentiveness to local concerns for which he is known nationally is one of the central elements of the Booker mystique with which his local critics disagree.
He has taken heat particularly from African-American activist and politicos in the city. “Newark’s Cory Booker: Is He More Myth Than Mayor?” asked the influential African-American blog The Root.
“A lot of the black establishment” — whatever that is — “says he needs to spend more time in churches, at street fairs. That he’s out of town too much,” criticzes Tom Moran, political writer for the city’s newspaper, the Star-Ledger. According to the Ledger, Booker was out of Newark nearly a quarter of the time between January 2011 and June 2012.
For that reason, many say Booker spends too much time on national T.V., travelling outside the state or Tweeting to his 1.3 million Twitter followers, than actually governing the city. “Everything is a ribbon-cutting and a press conference from him and some goodwill stuff he puts on Twitter, and meanwhile he is never here,” said state Sen. Ronald Rice (D). Considering the source is always apropos, however, as Rice was Booker’s 2006 vanquished adversary in the mayor’s race.
“Maybe if the mayor can solidify the fact that he wants to improve Newark by being there, things would be different,” said the man who will be Booker’s secessor, if he wins the Senate seat, recently-passed Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Before that, Lautenberg insinuated he wanted to “spank” Booker for publicly appearing to push Lautenberg out of the race and into retirement, before Lautenberg’s death last week ended that political in-fight.
Although the conservative BuzzFeed published a glowing portrait of Booker earlier this year, Booker also has his conservative critics. Critics on the Right knock Booker for raising taxes and cutting the police force – the latter of which also angered many in the staunchly-Democratic union base of the city.
“Newark’s taxes have gone through the roof,” the conservative Daily Caller complained – a 20-percent increase, according to The New York Times. “Even as the city sells off buildings, including the headquarters of the police and fire departments,” continues The Caller. Further angering the union base, Booker’s administration has laid off more than 1,100 city workers.
Also, Newark’s public schools remain under state control. A particularly bad black eye for Booker came when a 2010 ballot initiative he pushed, to be friendlier to charter schools, was overwhelmingly defeated by the city’s voters. Even so, Booker’s education initiatives won a major coup when he went on The Oprah Winfrey Show with Governor Chris Christie and Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg to announce Zuckerberg was making a $100 million grant to Newark public schools.
And Booker defends himself by noting his frequent out-of-state visits have brought more than $400 million in private investment to the city, including Facebook’s.
Jobs & Economic Development
That private capital is likely to be considered Booker’s signature achievement. Panasonic relocated its North American headquarters to downtown Newark; and Prudential recently christened a $444 million, 20-story office building. Booker gushed this January, “Prudential is building its second tower! There’ll be cranes in!”
In particular, downtown Newark has experienced what The New York Times – even in a critical portrait – still concedes is “a building boom.” Booker is fond of calling his city’s transformation a “renaissance,” including the city’s first two hotels, and the city’s first new supermarket in decades has opened in the Central Ward. That, itself, has been a source of derision too as certain local advocates charge the business district is prospering, but poor inner-city wards languish.
The jobs front has been particularly tough for Booker in a city that declined sharply with the loss of manufacturing since the 1970s, exacerbated by middle class flight to the city’s suburbs and skyrocketing crime and urban blight in the 1980s and 90s, Booker inherited a city with an unemployment rate more than twice the national average. Yet residents look longingly for the 7-percent unemployment from the beginning of Booker’s time in office, compared to the 14-percent it is today.
Despite roughly doubling during his term, Booker reminds this is down from its peak of more than 16-percent at the high of the Great Recession, 2010. “No city has had the kind of renewal we have had, in the worst economy since the 1950s,” argues Booker.
The recession also required Booker to lay off city employees, which has been unpopular, and cut back government departments. In addition to raising taxes, he’s had to sell off 16 city buildings, including Symphony Hall and police and fire headquarters. And, The Washington Post reports:
“For much of his tenure, Booker has relied on state aid and oversight to balance the city’s budget, receiving about $100 million since 2008. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), burned in 2011 by Newark’s $18 million budget surplus after the city received $32 million in state aid, put tight austerity restrictions on the most recent $10 million allocation, a move that could lead to more cuts.”
Yet, noteworthy there, Booker’s stewardship of the city’s finances not only gave the city a surplus in 2011, but overall the city’s structural deficit has decreased. Moreover, the will to take on the city’s entrenched unions and a political base of government employees certainly speaks to backbone of the 44-year old mayor.
Now with a year-and-a-half left in his second term, last year a poll found him with 70-percent approval rating in Newark and a 69-percent approval rating among African Americans.
Critical to Booker’s public support have been his ongoing efforts to reduce crime in a city, long dubbed “murder city.” This year those in the outer wards of the city were placed under a curfew this year because of shootings and drug dealing
Statistics from the Newark Police Department, according to the official, show that since 2006, murder in the city is down 17%, and shooting incidents are down 27%. One month in 2011 was the longest span of time in which the city experienced no reported murder 1966—over 40 years. “We did it! 1st calendar free month without a murder!,” an effusive Booker tweeted at the time.
Overall, the homicide rate has fallen 17 percent since Booker became mayor, but critics point out crime has been on the uptick in the last few years. Since it ebbed to its nadir in 2008 – when only 67 Newark residents were murdered – each year since has seen slightly more murders. Last year, car-jackings spiked to a rate of almost one a day.
The Booker Brand
Yet, Booker points to a population increase in the city for the first time in 60 years—arguing Newark is shaking its “murder city” reputation and newcomers are relocating there.
A billion dollars of development in the last year is another Booker calling card, with an additional $1.5 billion slated to come; and a decrease in crime over his tenure in office, despite a spike in violence during 2011 and 2012.
The Stanford, Oxford, and Yale Law-educated Rhodes Scholar, lawyer and community activist, is widely applauded for his inspirational oratorical skills. “I have a sense that I was born for a reason, that God has called all of us — me included — to make our lives worth something, to make our lives meaningful,” he said in a recent interview.
Booker has also built a brand on transparency, accountability, and restoring integrity. “I’m the first mayor since the 1960s that hasn’t been indicted,” he noted in another interview. In his 2002 unsuccessful run for mayor Booker famously moved into one of the city’s most crime-ridden high-rise projects, Brick Towers, and lived there to bring attention to the plight of the inner city poor.
An unmarried bachelor, Booker has been notable for taking ex-offenders into his home after they leave prison, to help them get on their feet and find jobs. Last year, after Hurricane Sandy, he welcomeddisplaced locals to stay in his home. “I’m having lunch delivered for the 12 of your or so hanging at my place,” he Tweeted at the time.
He DMs Newark residents his cell phone number on Twitter, invites them to call him, to personally attend to constituent greivances. Newarkers reporting everything from down power lines to potholes to late trash pick-up freely tweet the mayor. Routinely they are greeted back promptly with Booker’s signature reply: “On it.”
“Hyper-local, hyper-engaged, hyperactive way of serving the residents of New Jersey’s biggest city,” is how Buzzfeed described Booker.
Whatever hand-wringing exists about Booker’s tenure as mayor, he appears — by all expert analysis — to be prepared to coast into his new post as New Jersey’s newest U.S. Senator.
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