Newark mayor's star on rise
Cory Booker says he's staying put, but an Obama victory could bring opportunities.
By Victor Epstein
NEWARK, N.J. – The 800 union workers at the Obama rally were fired up long before Cory Booker took the stage on Oct. 22.
Veterans of New Jersey's Democratic machine, led by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), had worked up the overflow crowd, but it was Booker, 39, the charismatic mayor of New Jersey's largest city, who brought them to a frenzy.
“Are you ready to Barack-and-roll?” the former collegiate tight end shouted into the microphone like a boxing announcer, eliciting a thunderous response.
Lautenberg, 84, exchanged smiles with several members of the New Jersey Assembly as a roar washed over them on the small stage at the Robert Treat Hotel downtown.
Booker's early and enthusiastic role as one of Sen. Barack Obama's top cheerleaders has fueled speculation that he might be offered a key position in Washington should the Democratic candidate prevail on Election Day.
Booker has repeatedly denied interest in a federal position, saying his focus remains on improving the quality of life in Newark, a city that struggles with crime, poverty and unemployment. Homicides have fallen to 52 so far this year from 83 in the same period a year ago, but Newark still struggles to shed its reputation for gun violence.
Two people were killed and two wounded in five drive-by shootings during a 45-minute span on Oct. 24. The alleged perpetrators were captured on a video surveillance system that Booker championed. The outburst of violence was reminiscent of the execution-style slayings of three college-bound friends in a school playground last year.
“I'm a big believer that you need to be more about a purpose than a position,” Booker said on Oct. 14. “And right now, my purpose is to see the city of Newark reach its fullest potential and to have a great urban transformation.”
Though Booker denies being interested in moving on, that doesn't mean it won't happen, given the difficult realities of building a political career, according to Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics.
“I could see Cory Booker leaving Newark if Obama won and offered him a meaningful cabinet post” like secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Reed said. “It's the one position that could make him leave Newark with the job there unfinished.”
Booker is viewed by many political observers to be a rising star. He's included with Obama in The Breakthrough, a book by the NPR journalist Gwen Ifill about a generation of emerging black politicians who are direct beneficiaries of the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s.
The Obama campaign has warned its members against becoming too cocky and looking beyond the election, and Booker's comments dovetail with the party line. Newark's comeback will take at least a second term to finish, he said.
Obama values Booker's support, according to Andrew Poag, communications director for his New Jersey campaign.
“Mayor Booker's advice and counsel have been invaluable,” Poag said, sidestepping questions about a possible post.
Newark has never really recovered from the deadly 1968 rallies that fractured the city after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but it's also never had as much positive momentum as it does now with Booker at the helm. The bachelor is one of the youngest mayors of a major U.S. city.
Revitalization efforts in Newark are gaining momentum behind big projects such as the Prudential Center Arena, home to the New Jersey Devils hockey team, and downtown is starting to regain law firms and residents. The $150 million Liberty Plaza office complex, announced last week, will create about 400,000 square feet of high-end office space there.
“I'm sure that Cory Booker would have opportunities in an Obama administration,” said U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat. “The question is, what does Cory Booker want to do?”
Political insiders say the answer revolves around Booker's ambitions and the best path to achieving them. Obama and Washington represent an opportunity that could have an expiration.
For example, there's no guarantee that a victorious Obama would be reelected, according to Reed. At the same time, there's no guarantee the economic slowdown won't undermine the development efforts at the heart of Newark's turnaround.
Jersey City Mayor Jeremiah Healy and the Rev. Reginald Jackson, head of the New Jersey conference of black ministers, are convinced that Booker will stay and pursue reelection in 2010.
“In my opinion, he's going to stay right here where he is and run again,” Healy said. He's committed to turning Newark around and it's going to take another term to finish the job.”
Jackson said Booker does better in statewide polls than he does in Newark, and is a possible selection for lieutenant governor in 2009.
According to Reed, Booker would seek reelection in 2010 in the most likely scenario, then run for governor in 2014.
Gov. Corzine said that he has spoken with Booker about his aspirations and is convinced that the mayor will remain in Newark. If he is successful there, Booker might provide a blueprint for other urban areas that never recovered from the unrest of the 1960s.
Success in Newark will create opportunities for Booker, Corzine said.
“If he does a good job turning Newark around, he doesn't have to worry about” his political future, Corzine said.
Cory A. Booker
Job: Became Newark's mayor on July 1, 2006.
Education: Undergraduate and master's degrees, Stanford University; law degree, Yale University; Rhodes scholar.
Personal: Single. Parents live in Atlanta. Older brother is chancellor of a Tennessee charter school.
Miscellaneous: Booker is a vegetarian who neither drinks nor smokes. He likes to read and watch movies (a favorite is Star Wars). One of his vices is junk food, especially pizza and fries.