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Why Cory Booker Likes Being Mayor of Newark

15 minute read
Sean Gregory/Newark

Many residents of newark, N.J., long one of America’s most troubled cities and favorite punch lines, would love to hop on the next bus down the Turnpike and never look back. Sure, the city has made strides since its devastating race riots in 1967 — there’s a sparkling-new downtown arena, some bright residential complexes, the gestation of a hipster scene. But Newark is still a drug-infested, poverty-stricken place where rubble piles up on Park Avenue and the shabby Hotel Riviera sits across the street from an auto-parts joint, around the corner from an abandoned five-story building.

So if Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the political phenom who was most likely to be introduced as the “first black President” at speeches before we actually elected the first black President, had accepted a chance to run Barack Obama’s new Office of Urban Affairs earlier this year, could anyone have blamed him? After all, Newark’s mayors — Hugh Addonizio, Sharpe James — tend to end up in the jailhouse, not the White House. What could be more tactical for a young, telegenic Rhodes scholar with infinite political potential? A home among the Georgetown salons, minutes from the national talk-show studios? Or a brownstone in Newark’s South Ward, where on a July day, six teens shared a joint about a block from the mayor’s residence? At 10 in the morning.

(See pictures of Booker on the job.)

Despite all the rational reasons to pursue the position, Booker turned down the President. “That job is not playing to my strengths,” says the mayor while sitting on a couch in his city-hall office. It’s closing in on 8 o’clock the night before the three-day July 4 weekend. He has just wrapped up a meeting with his police director and a conference call with the local electric company, but Booker, 40, doesn’t know when to quit working. Or talking. Some politicians ramble on in paragraphs; Booker pontificates in pages. Chapters, even. “That’s not playing to my sense of purpose,” he says of the White House position. “And right now, I do believe, as immodest as it sounds, I’m the right guy at the right time for this city.”

Is he? Newark had its glory days as a multicultural melting pot that produced luminaries like novelist Philip Roth and Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. It was a place that, with its strategic location in the Northeast urban corridor and assets like a thriving port, had the potential of Los Angeles. But since the ’67 riots and the epic flight that followed, Newark (pop. 280,000) has been searching for its elusive renaissance. Booker, a black kid from the lily-white suburbs of northern New Jersey, has promised to deliver it and prove that an educated, technocratic outsider can rewrite the rules for how America’s most challenged cities are governed.

The Booker bio is irresistible — and familiar: he arrived in Newark fresh out of Stanford, Oxford and Yale Law, passing up riches to save a poor city. He moved into a decrepit Newark public-housing project, which has since been torn down, and was elected to the Newark city council at age 29. In 2006, at 37, he became mayor. To his supporters, who include A+ listers like Oprah Winfrey, Bon Jovi and Brad Pitt, plus an élite cadre of Wall Street and Silicon Valley scions, Booker’s self-sacrificial tale is heroic. To his critics, Booker is still a publicity-loving political opportunist, a permanent outsider using the citizens of Newark to jump-start bigger things for his career.

But he passed up a job that would seem to be a step up, and now, in the age of Obama, how big can Booker actually get? Now that we actually have an African-American President, some say it’s natural to start scouring the country for the next one. But in another sense, Obama’s election has diluted the Booker brand. The challenge for African-American stars like Booker is to separate themselves from Obama’s larger-than-life persona and not seem like Barack wannabes. So is Booker just Obama-lite, or can he really govern? And there’s an even larger question: Can anyone save Newark?

A Crime-Dog Mayor
The centerpiece of Booker’s campaign was a promise to improve public safety in Newark. “You’re a children’s foundation, you’re a health-care foundation — don’t you know that if a kid gets shot, every one of the issues you care about gets undermined?” Booker says.

See pictures of America’s gun culture.

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Booker hired Garry McCarthy, a respected, no-nonsense New York City cop, to run his police department. McCarthy had helped New York City mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg cut Big Apple crime. Booker took a huge risk because in Newark, McCarthy had two strikes against him. First, he’s white. In a majority-black city fraught with racial tension between residents and police officers, that was sure to anger some locals. Second, he’s not from Newark, a provincial town accustomed to giving plum public-sector jobs to its own. So here comes this Ivy League mayor reared in the suburbs entrusting the police department to a white outsider? Political suicide, anyone? “If you’re a white Irish cop from New York and have something to add to the city, I’m not shutting the door just because you’re a white Irish cop from New York,” Booker contends.

Despite the strong law-enforcement team the mayor put in place, Booker’s staff begged him to quit harping on crime. After all, violence, especially in a city with Newark’s harrowing history, is awfully hard to control. “It’s very ballsy,” Newark city councilman Oscar James II says of Booker’s laser focus on reducing murders. “Some dude decides to go on some crime spree, starts taking people out, and then what? It happens.”

(See pictures of an ammunitions manufacturer.)

During Booker’s first year, the strategy did indeed backfire. In August 2007, three local college students were murdered, execution-style, in a city schoolyard. The tragedy was a nightmare that traumatized Newark and its confident new mayor. “It broke me down,” Booker says on a Friday evening in June while relaxing in the back of his SUV. “I was feeling a deep sense of frustration and pain. I was just taking all the violence at that point very, very personally.”

Instead of shuffling priorities to save face, however, Booker attacked crime even harder. First, he worked with the Newark business community to raise $3.2 million to install more than 100 surveillance cameras throughout the city. The technology led to 109 arrests in its first 16 months of operation. And against the advice of his staff, the police director, even his mother, Booker started personally patrolling the streets with his security team until 4 in the morning. “At some point, I just told him, ‘Cory, you keep me on my knees,'” says Carolyn Booker, the mayor’s mom.

McCarthy wanted the mayor to get back to his day job. “I grabbed my chiefs and said, ‘Look what the mayor has to do to raise his comfort level,'” McCarthy says in his thick Bronx accent. “‘Why aren’t you guys making sure that he’s not uncomfortable?'” Whether the cameras, Booker’s patrols or the Policing 101 measures instituted by McCarthy — moving more officers to night and weekend shifts, when, get this, crime is more likely to happen — were most responsible for the turnaround, the results are stunning. Murders dropped 36% in Newark — from 105 to 67 — from 2006 to 2008. Shooting incidents dropped 41%. Rapes fell 30%, and auto thefts 26%. Newark went 43 days without a homicide in early 2008, the city’s longest such stretch in 48 years. In the first quarter of this year, Newark had its lowest number of homicides since 1959.

Booker is obsessed with the murder statistics. While Booker and McCarthy discuss a recent homicide investigation in the mayor’s office, the creases on Booker’s forehead increase tenfold. He admits to posting a murder target for 2009 on his bedroom wall, a practice that he knows is somewhat morbid. (Booker won’t share the number he wishes Newark to beat.) Booker has dumped the 4 a.m. chases, however. “I made a deal with Garry that as long as the crime numbers are going where they are going,” Booker says, “I will not get in the police cars anymore.” He hasn’t totally softened, though. While cruising to a July 4 community barbecue in his mayoral SUV, Booker spotted a woman buying drugs in front of about 12 children. He ordered his security detail to pull over and lock her up.

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Booker’s tougher policing methods are not getting rave reviews from all residents. “It seems like the cops hate us,” says DeAndre Breeland, a legal aide who lives in the South Ward. On a late-June night patrol, two cars from the Newark police department’s street-crime unit zipped through some of the city’s most notorious neighborhoods, slowing down to check on groups hanging out on stoops and flashing lights to make sure there was no funny business. The glares from Newarkers said it all: Get out of here. Of course, these same detractors didn’t see the gang unit chase down and tackle an armed 16-year-old kid later that night. Or the street-crime unit pull out 31 vials of cocaine from under the passenger seat of a car.

(See pictures of cocaine country.)

Booker sticks up for his guys. “We have gotten far more aggressive, and appropriately so,” he says. “We allowed in our city a high level of tolerance to build up to things that are objectionable. You should not have people dropping trou and urinating on the side of a road. You can go on. I’m sorry, but that is breaking the law.”

The crime stats aren’t all sterling: as the recession set in, robberies, for example, spiked 27% in 2008 and have risen 10% year to date through late June. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. On June 27, a 17-year-old boy was murdered on Martin Luther King Boulevard, near one of Newark’s spanking-new affordable-housing communities. “Whenever there’s a murder in Newark, the city almost defaults to the terrible memories,” says Clement Price, a history professor at Rutgers University, Newark, who has lived in the city for 40 years. “The statistics become meaningless.”

Moving Beyond Murder
A small but passionate band of Booker critics is standing on the steps of Newark’s city hall early one evening, rallying against a city plan to create a municipal water authority. Among the agitators is Amiri Baraka, a prominent, controversial African-American poet and activist. Baraka, 74, has won a trunkful of literary prizes but was essentially stripped of his New Jersey poet-laureate title after penning a post-9/11 poem that was denounced as anti-Semitic. The writer, who was reared in Newark and still lives in the city, is a voice from the civil rights era who can sound resentful of postracial politicians like Booker and Obama. To Baraka, they are profiting from the opportunities that he fought so hard to create. If any local figure is going to rant about cutting Booker’s “nuts out,” as Jesse Jackson did in a slip about Obama last summer, it would be Baraka.

Baraka is asked to evaluate Booker. “I give him credit. The homicide rate has gone down,” says the poet. “But I don’t know if you can judge the quality of life in a city by just the homicide rate. Where is the employment? Where is the education? What is in it for the residents?”

Fair questions. Booker’s team can rattle off a list of accomplishments beyond murder reduction. For example, his administration has doubled the number of affordable housing units currently under construction and quadrupled the affordable stock in predevelopment. Almost a dozen parks have been refurbished. Booker’s national profile and endless advocacy for Newark have attracted more than $100 million in private philanthropy — money that is even more crucial for Newark in a recession.

But as Booker well knows, philanthropy and social programming, no matter how creative, won’t solve Newark’s most pressing problems. Unemployment in the city rose to 13.5% in May, the city’s highest level in nearly six years. Foreclosures have tripled, and boarded-up homes taint many blocks.

The mayor remains upbeat. “I don’t say this in an exaggerated way, but in five years, we’re going to shock the nation,” Booker says. “In a way that you’re kind of resuscitating people’s belief in democracy and belief in the American ideals.” If you’re a politician who could possibly face Booker down the road, clip that quote. The city is burdened with the same drug, crime and urban-decay issues it had four, 10, 20 years ago. Booker talks a big game, and three years into his term, he has certainly impressed. But despite Booker’s best efforts, 2009 Newark isn’t shocking anyone.

See pictures of the Civil Rights movement from Emmett Till to Barack Obama.

Read TIME’s 2000 article on Booker “The Savior of Newark?”

Leadership, but for How Long?
Still, Booker’s political future in Newark remains bright. According to an internal poll, he enjoys an 80% approval rating. More important, a strong opponent has yet to enter next year’s mayoral election. Booker’s victory looks like a foregone conclusion. “For the first time in my life, Newark is looked at more positively because of its mayor,” says Steve Adubato Sr., a longtime local power broker, and former Booker foe, who runs a nonprofit in the city. “Newark is no longer a big joke.”

(Read “No Charisma? Don’t Worry, You Can Still Be a Leader.”)

Critics, however, offer legitimate complaints about Booker’s leadership. Many city workers earn a handsome living — Newark has 264 municipal employees who make $100,000 or more. Plus, during 2007 and through the first eight months of 2008, Booker signed some 160 executive orders either giving an employee a pay raise or starting a new hire at a salary above the minimum set by civil-service guidelines. Some orders gave low-level workers a more livable wage. Others were a bit gratuitous. For example, one aide went from making $107,225 to $118,607. Isn’t 107 grand enough to live on? The fiscal impact of these orders totaled about $1.5 million.

Booker staunchly defends the salaries. “I stand by any personnel decision I’ve made,” he says. He points to a reduction of Newark’s budget deficit, from $180 million to $73 million, according to the city, as a healthy return on his talent investments. A more professional and efficient city hall has helped Newark collect an extra $10 million in property taxes this year in spite of the foreclosure crisis. Further, Booker has proposed a 2% pay cut for all non-police and non-firefighter employees making more than $100,000 and is pushing for mandatory furloughs.

Booker, a former tight end at Stanford whose hands are longer than the Jersey Shore, possesses the oratorical gifts of Obama (unlike the President, he shuns teleprompters) and the eagerness to engage that carried Bill Clinton to the top. Unlike Clinton, Booker sometimes needs to read crowds a bit better. At a community event, he dropped a reference to the television show Frasier while playing Simon Says with a few dozen African-American kids and their parents. (Frazier was the last name of one of the participants.) The kids were mystified.

Geeky slipups aside, Booker’s intellectual breadth and insatiable curiosity are impressive. But his critics are convinced that he’ll bolt the city soon enough. The mayor, however, has promised to stay put. “I’m not going to give you any political baloney,” he says. “At this point, I’m committed to two terms, and at the end of those two terms, if I stay in politics, I will look at other offices.” (New Jersey will have a governor’s race in 2013, near the end of what could be Booker’s second term as Newark mayor.)

At about 9:30 on a warm June evening, after Booker has finished his radio show and is on his way to sell Newark to yet another philanthropist, I give him the ultimate no-win task. Grade yourself. Like any other good pol, Booker dodges. “It’s very hard to feel you’re doing an A performance when you still have a 12-year-old who gets shot,” Booker says, recalling a recent incident (luckily, the boy has recovered). “But I do feel more hope and optimism than I’ve ever had in my life that we can get there. It’s not an issue of can we. It’s more an issue of will we. I do have a feeling that we control our own destiny.” Now all he has to do is shock the world.

Read TIME’s 1957 article “The New Newark.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com