Cory Booker served as Mayor of Newark from July 1 2006 to October 31 2013. As an over-achiever, he chased down an armed robber in front of city hall, ran into a burning house to save a woman, shoveled snow for neighbors, answered citizen complaints on Twitter, and lived in a dangerous low-income federal housing apartment. He brought national attention to Newark and to himself. No wonder he was called “Super Mayor.” His story as mayor, however, is more complicated.
During his campaign he made safety his top priority, promising to overhaul the Police Department. Facing serious budget shortfalls he immediately cut 100 police officers in an unpopular move. He did bring in a new Police Chief from NYC to start the reform, and he made improvements. However, a later Justice Department investigation that waded through thousands of reports between 2006 and 2011 led to a federal consent decree which imposed a court monitor on the department. He reduced crime rates significantly during his first term, but the murder rate increased in his final years.
With this budgetary crisis he raised the largest property tax increases ever, reduced his salary by 8% and implemented pay for top-earning city managers. Through his efforts the city collected significant sums of money in private philanthropy.
Although the city’s Education Department had been under State control since the late 1980’s, there remained serious problems including graduation rates in Newark schools. Booker spent much of his tenure promoting a specific vision for improving education which included charter schools and merit pay for teachers. The latter innovation, fought by unions, was gradually and grudgingly accepted. However, imposing charter schools which drew its funds from public school money was never popular.
In 2010 Booker obtained a grant of $100 million from Facebook’s Zuckerberg which was announced in a flashy episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show with Zuckerberg, Booker and Governor Christie. The governor then appointed Chris Cerf who had a background in charter schools as Commissioner of Education and soon became unpopular. The funds were managed by a foundation in a secretive manner paying little attention to what residents wanted. With problems persisting Christie in 2011 appointed Cami Anderson as the next superintendent of schools. She proved to be arrogant and tone-deaf. After several student demonstrations and outrage from parents she was forced to resign. After seven years in office the high school graduation rate was still a woeful 67% but on the rise.
With a flight of the white Newark middle class to the suburbs and corrupt management in prior years, Booker inherited a city with significant disinvestment. He set about changing this by raising funds and entering into public-private partnerships. New grocery stores and shops opened, several corporations relocated its headquarters, and Prudential built a new building. In spite of being in the midst of the Great Recession, the city reported $1 billion in real estate development in 2011 and 2012 and another $2 billion in the pipeline for the next two years. Most of this activity however took place downtown and left other hardscrabble wards with boarded up houses, infested vacant lots, and bereft of needed services.
Throughout his two terms he raised large sums of money for his election campaigns from corporations, which have their self-centered concerns, and private equity which seeks to create wealth, not employment. He realized that it takes a lot of money to win public office, like the U. S. Senate, which was on his radar. Some of his choices for donors have since become problematic.
Years later Booker argued that because of his efforts, “Newark turned the corner.” That is true. Newark had become a better place than it was when his successor Ras Baraka inherited it.
Part I: his early years in Newark. Part II: his years as mayor. Next in Part III Booker as U.S. Senator.