O, The Oprah Magazine: Is Cory Booker the Greatest Mayor in America?

August 18th, 2010

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Is Cory Booker the Greatest Mayor in America?

By Lucy Kaylin

O, The Oprah Magazine | August 23, 2010

Cory Booker dreams of making Newark, one-time worst city in the nation, a glorious place full of hope, jobs, impressive schools, and happy people. Is he out of his mind—or the greatest mayor in America?

Cory Booker bounds around the gray streets of Newark like a golden retriever chasing waves. On a cloudy day in May, as his police-issue black Chevy Tahoe docks at the curb, he leaps from the car and scans the sidewalk for citizens who need his love.

“How you doin',” he says to a badly weathered guy in saggy jeans and a sweatshirt, hanging out in front of a senior center.

“Just trying to get by,” comes the narcotized response.

Booker leans in, his slate blue eyes intent as he listens to the man's woes; then he refers him to a staffer who might have some job leads. The conversation ends with Booker saying, “God bless you, brother. Stay strong.”

Inside, he recognizes a young guy in the lobby—Newark has more than 280,000 residents, and it seems almost plausible that Booker has met them all.

“Did you get a job?” Booker asks.

“I tried yesterday.”

“Every day, make it your job to get a job,” Booker declaims; as a product of Stanford, Oxford, and Yale Law School who has been writing down his goals on a whiteboard since college (and in a “goals journal” before that), Booker has scant experience with lethargy and low expectations. “When did you get up today?”

“Early! Eight o'clock.”

“I got up at 5:30 this morning, chasing my dream,” says Booker. “Do you believe you have a great destiny? Get that job—get that dream. Promise me you will.” And the young man gives him his word.

But when, exactly, he'll find work is the tricky part. Like many cities across the nation, Newark, New Jersey, was summarily coldcocked by the economic downturn; unemployment hovers around 13 percent, and the budget has been stretched to the screaming point. Of course, while recovery has been slow in coming for everyone, Newark has the added complication of a legacy that looms like a boogeyman over its 27 square miles and five districts—or wards, as they're called—each with its own grim tale to tell.

A fabled haven in the first half of the 20th century to striving immigrant families like the ones that spawned Philip Roth and Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, the city started to lose its way by the 1950s, after many of its factories and breweries either relocated or closed; when the jobs left, so did its bootstrapping middle class. Southern blacks looking for work migrated north and took its place. But with jobs dwindling, taxes soaring, a risible plan to demolish black homes in favor of a dental and medical college, white minority control of both the city council and the school board, and a mobbed-up mayor in charge of it all, the situation was rigged for disaster. The toxic brew of anger and desperation boiled over in 1967, when the abuse of a black cabdriver by a pair of white cops sparked five days of rioting that left 26 dead.

What followed were decades of textbook urban rot—joblessness and despair fueling an antic drug trade; violent gangs providing the structure in communities where many fathers were either in jail or dead. Newark became a darkly mordant joke, the perennial worst place in America.

Can a city left for dead be made over? Can hope and green things be coaxed to grow where bullet casings and crack vials have lain so thick? Cory Booker, who's just now starting his second four-year term as mayor, resoundingly says yes; if the sheer force of his passion were enough to get the job done, Newark would surely be Paris by now. His belief in this place is limitless, and so are his plans. Or as Booker thundered from the podium during an evangelical State of the City speech last year, “Does my confidence offend you? Well, prepare to be surprised. In the coming years, you will see this city and won't believe your eyes….”

When Booker arrived for his new job at City Hall in July 2006, the copper lettering on the Beaux Arts building was missing a c and an l. “ITY HAL,” it read, elliptically—a small but symbolic example of the neglect that had grown commonplace in Newark, and of the top-to-bottom repair work that lay ahead.

Although the mayor has a spacious office on the second floor adorned with photographs—of his parents, one of Martin Luther King Jr., another of demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, being blasted with fire hoses—the real work happens on the hustle, on the move. An all-access public servant who freely gives his cell phone number to strangers who are serious about finding a job, Booker starts his morning by sending out tweets both inspirational and chatty to his roughly one million followers in the Twitterverse; sentiments range from “Courage delayed is fear embraced” to “Two hours of cardio today—trying to make up for my cookie dough sins of yesterday.” Then he hops on the stationary bike or goes for a meditative run through the neighborhood—fueling, oxygenating, firing up his own machinery. It's work, hurling out that exuberant, throw-me-the-Frisbee energy all day long, and it won't stop until he closes his eyes at night. Perhaps, then, it's a blessing that there are no wife and kids at home, making demands. At 41, Booker jokes frequently about his “failed personal life”—”It's the one area you can't put up on the whiteboard,” he says. “I definitely want a partner, somebody to talk to at the end of the day. Honestly, just lying next to somebody is like a gift from God. Forget the sex—just having someone spend the night is a great thing.”

While there are still some stately residences in this town befitting a mayor, Booker has made his home over the past three years in a no-frills, three-family brick-face house in the contentious South Ward, where loyalty to his floridly corrupt predecessor, Sharpe James—who spent 18 months in prison for fraud—still runs deep. Before this, Booker lived for eight years in the run-down Newark housing project Brick Towers until it was condemned and demolished; then as now, his preference is to be in the mix and win people over, despite the obvious risks (Booker appears unfazed by the occasional death threats he's received since he was first elected mayor in 2006). His parents stay on one floor of the house during their frequent visits from Atlanta, and his security detail occupies another. Just like at Booker's apartment, the vibe there is man-cave minimal: TV, couch, chair, another stationary bike, and a passel of plaques and hardware engraved with Booker's name that he has no interest in putting on display.

On a typical morning last spring, Booker bursts into City Hall, face joyful as a helium balloon, smooth scalp gleaming, arms and smile wide as he greets city workers—”How are we doing today? You're 65, and you're in better shape than I am! Gotta get a haircut like mine—high and tight!” He's wearing a dark, bulky suit in the obligatory manner of high school jocks on game day; the tailoring can't obscure the physicality, the 63 build, the tree-trunk thighs that served him well while playing football at Stanford. His first task today: addressing the largest-ever graduating class of the Senior Citizen Police Academy. Kind of a quaint idea in any other community—grandpas and grannies in their blue uniforms and caps, deputized to keep a nearsighted eye on the neighborhood. Only here, support from seniors is a dead-serious affair: Most of the graduates are longtime residents who lived through the riots and the crack epidemic. Some have lost children to violence and raised their own grandchildren. They are the memory keepers, the conscience of Newark, who quite literally know where the bodies are buried. Booker tells the graduates he has to run off to an Arbor Day celebration, “but you all are the great roots of this community.”

Arbor Day—is there a bigger snoozefest on the American calendar? Who cares about Arbor Day? But again, here in Newark, where kids have had criminally few places to play and the worst kind of mischief goes down in vacant lots, the promise of a leafier tomorrow is fraught with game-changing potential. Booker has made the greening of Newark a high priority, hosting tree-planting days and gardening days; reclaiming abandoned land for community gardens and refurbishing parks; as well as supporting Beautiful Newark, which sponsors a kidcentric cleanup on Earth Day. On this Arbor Day alone, volunteers are planting 213 trees in a six-block area of the West Ward. At the enthusiastic assembly at the Thirteenth Avenue School, Booker, who is greeted like a jolly green giant by the kids, with whoops and cheers, poses for pictures with the New Jersey Youth Corps. In the audience, small children clutch paper cones containing a single sapling each—and it's tempting to imagine them holding Newark's equally fragile future in their small, dimpled hands.

Booker asks his folks, who are visiting for a few weeks, to meet him on up-and-coming Halsey Street for a little shopping. Well, not shopping per se—Booker is resolutely not a “stuff” guy; he's content with his old-school BlackBerry and simply doesn't get the whole iPad frenzy—but there are saplings in the form of new businesses that he needs to check on. He'll show some money-love to the Coffee Cave, which got its start through the city's small business loan program and now sells upscale java and baked goods befitting Bay Area hipsters, and a salon called Cut Creators, where he wants to treat his dad to a trim. (Booker had been at the salon just yesterday for the grand opening of its second location, but as he explains, “It's one thing to cut a ribbon; it's another to patronize the place.”) While splashier achievements like the building of a Marriott—the first new hotel to open downtown in 38 years—and a deal to break ground on the tallest tower in the city have incalculable significance, the colonization of scarred streets with edgy shops and stylish boîtes is just as key, supplying the sort of cultural flavor that can make a city a sexy destination. In progress: a $120 million plan to create a “Teachers Village,” with charter schools as well as housing and retail that will be marketed to educators from nearby colleges like Rutgers and Seton Hall, giving them some incentive to live where they work.

Carolyn and Cary Booker are semiregulars in Newark, whether campaigning for their son, attending his speeches, offering counsel, or keeping the pressure on to find a wife. As two of the first black executives at IBM in the 1960s, they were pioneers who never particularly felt like pioneers, as their focus was always on their boys, Cory and his older brother, Cary (cofounder of a company that runs charter schools in Memphis). They instilled in both a ferocious work ethic, and gave them the psychic wherewithal to move gracefully through the almost all-white world of Harrington Park, New Jersey, where the kids grew up. Today Carolyn, in a magenta sweater set, is flipping through a magazine at Michael Lamont Neckwear while her dapper husband with the North Carolina drawl tries out various shirt-and-tie combos. The store is sleek, with exposed brick and blond wood floors—a big step up from the cardboard box out of which Michael Lamont used to sell his wares. “You know what I like about this guy?” Booker says of Lamont, who is standing by in a red-and-white-striped shirt and red suspenders. “Newark artist”—he gestures to a picture of the great Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige on the wall by the local painter Serron; “Newark jazz station”—the excellent WBGO is drifting through the speakers; “Newark business”—Booker flips over a necktie and points out the Newark label stitched into the back. It's the lens through which Booker sees everything: Is it good for Newark? Where does Newark fit in? What about Newark?

Back in the SUV, with a detective at the wheel, Booker tears into a takeout container of scrambled egg whites with peppers and onions. He's been a vegetarian since Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar. As Booker describes it in his soothing, storyteller's tenor, “I decided to take to heart Socrates' admonishment about the unexamined life”—the one that says such a life isn't worth living. “And I started reading everything I could. And the more I read, from the environmental impact of eating meat to the health issues to Gandhi, the more I realized that eating the extreme amounts that I really enjoyed was not resonant with my spirit, with my values. So I tried to go cold turkey, and my body just took off—I felt so good. I'm not one of those judgmental vegetarians who says everybody should do this, but for me it works, and it works very well.”

In a city not known for its salad bars, Booker is an anomaly, and his diet is only part of it. He has no known vices or addictions (except books—a friend once joked that Booker's crack den was Barnes and Noble); drink and drugs have never held any allure. During high school, friends would offer him money just to see him take a sip of beer. In mission and temperament, Booker is the quintessential designated driver. “TV, food, alcohol, sex—they're all things we can fill our lives with that can distract us from our purpose,” he says.

“I was one of those kids who wanted to be a good kid,” he notes, back in his office now—a circular City of Newark seal on the wall behind his head creating an unintentional halo effect. “There could be a lot of theories on this. My brother and I were the only black kids in the neighborhood, and I really did not want to fit into the stereotypes that people were putting in my face. And I grew up with these parents that were so righteous. My dad is like jazz; he's the jokester. But my mom is a gospel hymnal. She is definitely regal. Honor was so important to them, and I really found myself in high school being the guy who was always there for people, comforting someone who is going through a breakup, holding somebody's hair while they're puking. I really liked being an older brother figure within a group of friends, and I had friends in every group: the jocks, the band kids, the geeks. It felt like I could move seamlessly.”

Not that his differences went unnoticed—or unnoted. “It was a million little teeny things,” Booker says. “Kids coming back from vacations wanting to compare their tans against me; kids saying, 'Can I touch your hair? I've never touched a black guy's hair before.' If I had a dollar for every time someone said, 'Well, you're not like black people, you're one of us….' How are you supposed to feel about that? People say it innocently and don't realize how much of an insult it is.”

Which is why, by the time Booker was a fully sentient, free-willed adult in law school, Newark—an iconically black northeastern city, where he'd worshipped at a Baptist church with his family as a boy—exerted a magnetic pull. Newark seemed like a place where he could connect with something real and just be black, where he wouldn't have to search for African-American products like Magic shaving powder or explain why he needed them; “where things I grew up with in my household were the norm, not the exception.” In 1998 Booker moved into Brick Towers and felt in some strange way that he'd come home.

He was elected to the Newark City Council the same year, then ran for mayor four years later—only to have his opponent, the wily, Rolls-driving incumbent Sharpe James, flat-out claim that the light-skinned Booker wasn't even black. Jewish, gay, and Ku Klux Klan–affiliated, perhaps, as James absurdly posited, but definitely not black. “And I said, 'Wait a minute, didn't I grow up in an environment where every day it was pointed out to me that I was?'” Booker laughs. “The universe gives you these things as gifts. That's a very delicious sort of irony that I experience in my life. It also makes you more comfortable in your own skin. I am who I am. Don't let this person define you. I'm the one who defines myself.” Booker lost that election by 3,566 votes—and white-boarded his goal to win next time around.

When you've got the resources and elite connections of a Cory Booker, a certain degree of success is assured—who doesn't want to be in business with the charismatic, the ascendant? “We got a generous grant from the Obama administration,” he tells a roomful of fans at yet another senior center one afternoon; “we have Jon Bon Jovi's money; we're doing something innovative with Brad Pitt based on what he's done down in New Orleans, so it's very exciting.” Somewhere in the room a cell phone bleats. “If that's Brad, tell him I'm busy,” Booker says, and laughs, despite its being perfectly plausible that it is Pitt on the line, reaching out. Drew Katz, a wealthy, philanthropic friend in the billboard business, recently joined Booker on a swing through a hard-up district, and when a woman in charge of a local school fair told Booker she didn't have the money in her budget for the necessary Porta Potties, Booker gestured to Katz and said, “He'll write you a check.” Which Katz did, for $600. Problem solved. The Obama administration offered Booker a big job to guide urban affairs policy, and he's been approached about countless others, including a Senate seat back in 2002. He's turned them all down, and only uses those connections on Newark's behalf.

But friends in high places won't be of any help to Newark if Booker can't solve its defining dilemma: how to reduce crime—specifically, how to drive down the murder rate and keep it down. In its darkest days, the city could count on a couple of killings a week, thanks mostly to a drug trade that made The Wire look like Wonder Pets.

One of Booker's earliest priorities as mayor was to overhaul the police department, which suffered from cronyism, favoritism, and cynicism; a corrosive “Why bother?” attitude had set in. Looking to provide fresh blood and accountability, Booker filled the pivotal position of police director with an outsider, Garry McCarthy—an Irish guy with a brush cut and a don't-screw-with-me stare, who'd earned his chops under the polarizing then-mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani.

When he got to Newark, McCarthy couldn't believe the systemic dysfunction. Typical of the way the department had been running: Although gang activity usually spikes on weekends, the gang units didn't actually work on weekends. An even greater problem was the mind-set. “I'd been here about a month when we had a running gun battle through the streets and two kids were killed,” McCarthy says. “I remember getting to the scene, and I was shocked by the apathy. It was like, no big deal, that's what happens—among both the community and the cops. That was a watershed moment for me. I took that and started pounding a message into the agency: Where's your moral indignation? Where's your pride? Every time somebody gets shot, we have to get angry. And that started to take root.”

Meanwhile, Cory Booker was trying tactics of his own. Alerted via e-mail every time there was a shooting, and frantic to avoid another one, he started hitting the hoops court at midnight to help keep kids busy and out of harm's way. Then, despite fierce resistance from McCarthy, as well as Booker's own parents, he began going out on night patrols in cruisers with cops, rolling up to shady characters and initiating come-to-Jesus conversations about what they were doing with their lives. The foolhardy gambit had its impact: Booker's dedication started to rub off on the department.

More orthodox strategies have included what's known as the broken windows theory—the idea that attention to basic quality-of-life issues can ultimately help avert serious crimes, as when two policemen stopped a guy drinking a beer on the corner, then discovered he was carrying two guns. When they brought him to the precinct and ran his name through the database, they found out he'd just been released from prison for shooting someone six years earlier on that very corner. “If those cops had driven past the guy, we probably would have had a homicide that night,” McCarthy notes. On the other end of the process, Booker has tried to find ways to short-circuit the farcical arrest-release-rearrest-rerelease cycle by encouraging ex-offenders get a foothold once they're out—launching the Fatherhood Center, which helps men who want to be better dads, as well as partnering with the legal community to create the nation's first pro bono legal service for ex-cons.

Overall, McCarthy is getting results: Murders are down 29 percent since Booker took office, and 2010 saw an almost festive-sounding “murder-free March,” the first such month in Newark in more than 40 years. But there have been setbacks. Lord, have there been setbacks.

On a languid night in August 2007, four good kids—two female and two male, bound for college in the fall at Delaware State University—were hanging out at a local schoolyard when six thugs, looking to prove their gang mettle, attacked. Both women were slashed with a machete, and all four students were shot in the head (unimaginably, one survived, escaping a beheading because the machete blade was too dull). The city reeled. Even for Newark, it was a crime too heinous to bear.

But then something remarkable happened. Newark wasn't beaten down by the murders—it was outraged, incensed, galvanized. “That completely flipped over the table,” says McCarthy. “Immediately, I saw that the investigators and agency were responding as they should. They were working the investigation, talking to people, putting together the events. There was overwhelming pressure to solve this case, to do it quickly and do it adequately in the middle of three funerals throughout the city. It was a very emotional time for us all—some of the images from those funerals will be with me forever. I kind of feel it was an event that cemented the city, in a way.” With a big assist from United States marshals and the FBI, the Newark police department tracked down all six killers, one as far away as Virginia, within 13 days while the nation watched. As a result, funding started pouring in for gunshot detection technology and more than 700 surveillance cameras, now trained on hot spots throughout the city, that could drastically alter the crime picture in Newark.

The most amazing thing of all: Worn out by the stress, vulnerable, succumbing to strep and flu for the first time in two decades, the mayor began to realize he couldn't do this job alone—couldn't be everywhere at once, couldn't personally body-block every bullet. That it is a wonderful thing to be heroic, anointed, called—but the job of turning around Newark is bigger than one man, even if that man is Cory Booker. Knowing this has made him stronger.

“The American Dream is alive and wild in our streets…and I have to say as I stand here today, I am the proudest mayor in America.”

On a windy morning in May beneath a garland of balloons, Cory Booker is heralding the opening of the new Pitney Bowes mail delivery plant near Newark's ample waterfront, not far from its first-rate international airport. The plant will bring 180 new jobs; it was a nonnegotiable point of the deal that Newark residents be given priority. A red ribbon is stretched across the dais, which Booker and others cut with big scissors and equally big smiles.

On the way back to City Hall, Booker seems upbeat about the Pitney Bowes event, although he laments the absence of TV cameras. As it happens, the local station is down at the courthouse today, covering the conviction—nearly three years after the crime—of one of the schoolyard killers.

It's where the cameras should be. Getting closure on that horrendous event is critical to Newark's psyche. Yet Booker craves the day when the narrative finally shifts for good, when the almost prurient fascination with the blood that has been shed in this city fades, and the Newark story is a glorious one—about a phoenix, as he frequently describes this place, rising from the ashes. And there's nothing impossible about that dream—as long as all hands are on deck, and someone is willing to lead the way.

“So many people go through life as a weather vane, blown around by the wind,” Booker says. “I'd rather be a compass.”

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