Can one person make a difference? In our current era of cynicism, the pervading sentiment inveighs against a belief that public service with a vision can change things. Political corruption, leaderless organizations and corporate kleptocracy have wrung idealism out of the national psyche.
In Newark, New Jersey, a former Rhodes scholar, who grew up far from the gutted streets and harsh realities of this urban wasteland is waging a valiant battle against entrenched crime, corruption and gangsters run amok. Cory Booker, who was elected mayor of Newark, in 2006, believes he can have a say in shaping the future of this city, riddled with drugs and crime, restoring hope for its residents. The $100,000 question now, seems to be, will his policies and efforts be given the chance to run their course and take root?
Newark, like Gary, Indiana, has been beset by a tide of issues that have contributed to its current state of chaos and disorder. While there is debate among various theories, certainly federal policies, like those instituted by the FHA, such as redlining, helped promote flight to the suburbs, eliminating the city’s economic underpinning, as both middle class blacks and whites departed en masse. Manufacturing, enticed by tax policies, fled to areas outside the city, eliminating jobs. The emphasis during the 1950s and 1960s on building interstates, helped fray the social fabric of neighborhoods in the city. It also made it easier for former residents to live outside the city, while continuing to commute into the urban center for work. Additionally, the city hitched its future to offers from the federal government to construct large public housing projects, financed at 100 percent with taxpayer dollars. Eventually, Newark had more public housing, per capita than any other U.S. city. All of these factors and others helped contribute to the downward spiral of the past 50 years in Newark.
Into this chaotic mix, stepped the idealistic Booker, fresh from Yale Law School. In 1997, he arrived in the city as a legal presence. Confronted by locals and challenged to move into the crime-ridden miasma of the inner city, Booker set up shop in a run-down public housing complex in the city’s Central Ward. What he witnessed was the hardships of his neighbors, rampant political corruption and a city that didn’t function at even the most basic levels, providing baseline services such as electricity and garbage pickup. This prompted Booker to take on a 16-year incumbent for a seat on the city council and Booker pulled off the upset. As a Democrat, it would seem obvious that Booker would be able to build alliances with other councilors on the Democratically-controlled council, but Booker found himself outvoted most times, 8-1, by a machine that cared little about its people and more about maintaining the status quo and its lucrative system of graft and kick-backs.
Unable to utilize the machinations of politics, Booker was forced to staging events and inviting the media. Booker also waged battles at the grassroots level, where he wasn't averse to crossing party lines and aligning with Republican businessmen, like Peter Denton. They co-founded an education reform group, E3, which advocated for schooling alternatives, such as charter schools and vouchers for inner-city schoolchildren. At the time, this was a controversial solution, particularly for a Democrat, like Booker, even more so because he was African-American. Despite Booker's efforts, he failed to rally the support from the city’s political establishment. In 2002, he ran for mayor, against Mayor Sharpe James, who had been lording over his own political fiefdom in Newark since 1986. Despite running an energetic campaign, focused on real change for Newark, Booker lost a close election to James, who waged a racially divisive campaign, even going as far as questioning Booker’s African-American pedigree and stooping to anti-Semetic rhetoric, claiming Booker was Jewish and insinuating that he is a homosexual. Such is politics in our current era.
In 2006, James’ reign of corruption finally was run off the tracks. Facing federal indictment and multiple charges of corruption and using city funds for personal gain, James chose not to square off against Booker. Booker’s opponent, Ronald Rice, who was a stand-in for James, was trounced soundly, with Booker garnering 73 percent of the votes cast for mayor.
It’s one thing to win an election; it’s another thing to govern. In a city where the out-of-wedlock birthrate is 70 percent, an unemployment rate double the U.S. average and social dysfunction the norm, Booker’s faced a daunting task since assuming the reigns of power. His win hasn't been without implications of danger. Just prior to taking office, a gang-orchestrated plot to assassinate Booker was uncovered and foiled. He has been under 24-hour surveillance since.
With its proximity to Manhattan (only 15 minutes away by train), a world class airport and a shipping port where most of the area’s goods pass through, Newark’s cheaper business lease rates comparable to New York and an abundance of housing, much of it in historically significant buildings would appear to be a magnet. However, the city’s reputation as a dangerous place keeps young professionals—the kind of tenants that could revitalize the city—away.
Unlike any current high profile politician that I’m aware of, Booker doesn’t just talk the talk. He’s ventured into known gang areas of the city, basketball in hand, and challenged local kids to pickup games on the city’s blacktop courts. Granted, it will take more than a jump shot and a quick first step off the dribble to stem the tide of violent crime—but the symbolic nature of this shouldn’t be discounted. Additionally, Booker has ordered higher than normal levels of police in some of the city’s most notorious areas of drug and gang activity.
Booker embarked on an overhaul of the entire police department, hiring Gerry McCarthy, from the NYPD, to be his top cop. McCarthy brought with him a reputation of being a valiant crusader against the drug trade, after waging a successful campaign to stem trafficking in Washington Heights, prior to coming to Newark. This appointment wasn’t without its critics, as McCarthy, who is viewed as an outsider and white, was thought to be incapable of running a police department in a city with a black majority. So is the state of race in America.
All of Booker’s efforts, however, may have been for naught, when on Saturday night, August 4th, four teenagers, weeks away from heading off to college, were shot, execution style, in a schoolyard in Newark.
The reaction of the community has been that of anger, demanding that Booker do something, as if one man can turn around decades of neglect and corruption, in a span of months.
Donna Jackson, who heads up and organization called, Take Back Our Streets, was quoted as saying that “Booker doesn’t deserve another second, another day, while our children are at stake.” So much for gratitude for Booker’s Herculean efforts. Maybe he would be better off taking his Yale law degree, find himself a lucrative corporate gig and forget about saving Newark’s ass. Or, he could go the route of higher profile politicians, the kind that end up running for president, who know little about the realities of places like Newark, Gary, Youngstown, or any other urban war zone.
[I'm grateful for Steven Malanga's excellent article in the Spring 2007 issue of City Journal, about Cory Booker and the city of Newark; Malanga's piece, along with interviews from NPR helped me to have a better sense of who Booker is and provided important background on this urban crusader.]