Cory Booker, part preacher, rock star, scholar, aphorist, attention-seeker, often progressive, friend of corporations, awesome fund-raiser, media star, orator, and optimist is the pride of New Jersey to some and the bane to others. Like a good chess player he has always been thinking several steps ahead as he gradually rose to the U. S. Senate, and now an announced candidate for the presidency. In Part I we look at his colorful early political life in hardscrabble, impoverished Newark, rife with racial tension, crime, and corrupt leadership.
Born in Washington, D.C., raised in Harrington Park, he attended Stanford University where he received an undergraduate and master’s degree in 1991 and 1992. He studied abroad at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship before graduating in 1997 from Yale Law School where he operated free legal clinics for low-income residents.
In his last year at Yale he spent spare time in Newark where he was planning a run for City Council representing the Central Ward. In the midst of the raging AIDS epidemic in Newark he visited NJCRI, a community-based HIV organization where I first met him and found him to be concerned and charismatic. During his campaign he garnered local and national attention to the problems of open-air drug dealing by going on a 10-day hunger strike and living briefly in a tent in a drug-infested area. He then moved into a crime-ridden public housing apartment where even FedEx would not venture.
After a run-off election in 1998 he defeated incumbent councilman George Branch, often festooned with a large gold necklace, watch, and ring who also visited NJCRI while he was under a charge of graft. On the council Booker’s progressive proposals were largely ignored by the other members. As he had never lived in Newark he was frequently viewed as a carpet bagger who did not understand the needs of the city.
Rather than running for re-election as a councilman in 2002 he ran for mayor against the corrupt but still popular Mayor Sharpe James. This bitter race was later chronicled in the Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight. James, then a State Senator and Mayor, who had easily won mayoral elections four consecutive times, saw Booker as a real threat, and responded with mudslinging. By some in this African-American city Booker was considered “not black enough” to represent its citizens. James was criticized for his flamboyant lifestyle with corruption claims dogging his administration. Nonetheless, James with a powerful political machine won the election garnering 53% of the votes to 47% for Booker.
For a while Booker dropped out of the public’s attention, but his plan to run against James in 2006 was no secret. James raised funds for re-election, but only announce his candidacy while driving a bicycle through City Hall at the last possible moment. Two weeks later James decided not to seek re-election. James knew he was the target of a federal investigation and by 2007 prosecutors obtained a thirty-three-count indictment against him. Deputy Mayor Ronald Rice (currently a State Senator) stepped into the race.
Voters who had shunned Booker in 2002 indicated that they were ready for change after living under the leadership of just two corrupt mayors in the past 36 years. He made safety his top priority, promising to overhaul the Police Department and fight gangs in schools. He has also promised to bring professionalism, accountability and fresh ideas to the city, which has long had a reputation for mismanagement.
Here is where Booker through media attention first demonstrated his skill in raising large amounts of both national and local campaign donations. With over $6 million in his warchest, James out of the race, and calling Rice a crony of James, charismatic Booker won the election with 72% of the vote outspending Rice 25 to 1. His slate of city council candidates, “Booker Team”, swept the council elections, giving Booker firm leadership of the city government.
Part II: His years as Newark Mayor.
Preview image: Cory Booker, 37, celebrated with supporters as he declared victory in the Newark mayoral race. CreditMike Derer/Associated Press