Newark’s Mayor has long been considered one of the most promising politicians of his generation. Now, with a $100 million education grant from Facebook, he’s hoping to become one of the most influential.
by Andrew Romano
December 20, 2010
One of your goals in Newark has been to “set a national standard for urban transformation.” What can other cities learn from what you’ve accomplished?
The great thing about cities these days is that success doesn’t exist in a vacuum. More and more, the first thing I see happening with new mayors is them reaching out to other mayors. That’s what I did when I entered office, and that’s what other mayors are now doing with me. The reason we had four years of double-digit reductions in shootings is that we approached crime as more than just a police issue. We have the first-ever pro bono legal service for ex-offenders. We have one-stop centers for youth coming out of prison; we have a fatherhood program that’s gotten a lot of national attention. If you think someone’s carrying an illegal gun, all you do is call a tip line. You get four digits, you call back and see if we’ve made an arrest—we don’t need a conviction, we just want to recover the weapon—and then, if we have, you get another four digits that you can use to get $1,000 from a number of local banks. It’s just those eight digits, no questions asked. Many of these are ideas we took from other cities and tried to improve on.
Why is there more cooperation between cities now than in the past?
There’s a famous quote from Fiorello La Guardia: “There’s no Democratic or Republican way to fix a pothole.” Mayors don’t have time for pontification. They demand progress. Many people on the national level—especially in the national legislature—see it as “If the other side wins, I lose.” That turns politics into a zero-sum game. The better metaphor for my level of government is a candle. If I can light my candle from your flame, we are creating even more light for our country. That’s what’s going on in cities in America today.
The press tends to treat the recession as an inside-the-Beltway problem. But how has it affected governing on a local level?
The rhetoric you hear on the national level you see in vivid reality here in cities. From soup kitchens to government services, the demands are going up, but the resources to meet those needs are going down, and it’s forcing us to be a lot more creative.
Let’s talk education. Obviously, the big news is the $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. But Newark already spends $20,000 per student. How will you ensure that the city isn’t just throwing good money after bad?
The highest-performing public school in our county is a Newark charter school. But we also have the benefit of learning from the best practices all around the country, and we have the resources to invest in those best practices here, to make Newark the laboratory of excellence. We’re not New York City. We’re not Chicago. New York has 1.2 million school-age children. We have 42,000. Our smaller scale means we can demonstrate excellence so much more quickly.
If you were having a beer with the president right now, what advice would you give him?
I’d probably ask him for advice on how he stays so thin.
It helps that he has his own chef.
[Laughs] And I’m a bachelor living alone in an apartment that I’d be embarrassed to show you.
Never good for staying in shape.
No, no. Look, the Obama I saw in this past month is a guy who can really get it done. He took a shellacking on this tax deal from both sides. But his pragmatism was very much on point in terms of moving the economy forward. This is a guy I’ve known since before he was president. He is not a wild ideologue. He looks at things in a very sober, measured way. So if this tax deal is a foreshadowing of what’s going to happen when we have more of a divided government, I’m very encouraged.
Are there term limits in Newark?
[Laughs] Unfortunately not. We have a city of dynastic mayors. My predecessor was here for 20 years.
So how long do you plan to stay?
I’m leaving everything open. That said, with this new educational opportunity, there might now be a strong argument to stick around for a third term.
It sounds as if the Zuckerberg donation has changed your thinking.
Yeah. I think that the most important unfinished business in our democracy is the crafting of an education system that’s the best in the world. Right now, I’ve got three school years to do some very good work. But then I’m going to have to assess where I think I can make the most difference.