The Next President of America?
by Gaby Wood
He's a non-drinking, non-smoking vegetarian, who went from a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford to being the charismatic mayor of the “worst city in America”. Here, Gaby Wood talks to Cory Booker about chasing robbers, saving Newark and turning down Obama
Martin Luther King weekend, 2009. In a beautiful 19th-century church in Newark, New Jersey a young jazz musician has just performed a dizzying solo. Two days from now, the first African American president of the United States will take over the White House, and Newark – a city that has been predominantly black since the 1960s – is celebrating. Dr King's dream has, the church service programme declares, “become reality”. As the applause mounts, a figure familiar to the assembled citizens hops into the pulpit.
“Oh!” he shouts in praise of the pianist, closing his eyes to emphasise the collective ecstasy. The congregation cheers. “Ohhhhh!” he repeats. More noise from the pews. “Can I get a witness!” he calls out, using the motivational cadences of a preacher to ride the natural rhythms of the crowd. This burly, bright-eyed, glossy-headed man is the Honorable Cory A Booker, mayor of Newark: a politician still in his 30s whose charisma, ability and almost unfathomable commitment to one of America's most complicated cities has earned him national awe for more than a decade. “I used to say: If you listen to Cory Booker for 15 minutes, you'll be hooked,” says his friend Gayle King, who introduced Booker to Obama. “Now I say five.”
Booker is often described as representing a new kind of “post-soul” African-American politician – born after Martin Luther King was shot, unhampered by their elders' brand of combative politics yet inspired by their example, respected by whites as much as by blacks. Politicians such as Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson Jr, Artur Davis, Deval Patrick, Adrian Fenty and Cory Booker have, as Booker himself suggests, genuine commonalities. Eddie Glaude, a Princeton professor and Booker's close friend, puts it this way: “Our eyes are focused on a different arena – an arena defined principally by governance. Traditionally, when it comes to African-American leadership our eyes tend to focus on an arena of struggle. And I think that difference matters greatly.”
Yet Booker is unique despite this wave, and this has never been more clear than it is now. To a certain extent Obama's inauguration has made it easier for others to be themselves and has shown the ways in which it's wrong to, as Booker has it, “put all of us in the same pile”. Glaude says: “Obama couldn't just be a black man running – he had to become universal man. Cory isn't that, and he never tries to be. He exudes a comfort with who he is.”
People have seen presidential potential in Booker since he ran for his first job on the Newark City Council in his 20s – the word then was that he would be the first black president of the United States – and in 2005 he was the subject of Street Fight, a documentary that went on to be nominated for an Oscar. His fans (and in many cases funders) include Steven Spielberg, Chris Rock, Barbra Streisand, Forest Whitaker, Bon Jovi and Oprah Winfrey. This has not traditionally been Newark's target audience. Still, he has repeatedly refused to take fast-track steps to the political big time. In 2002 he was approached to run for the Senate – a move that, had he won, would have made him the first African American there, two years ahead of Obama. He chose not to run. Late last year, he was asked to consider offers to become lieutenant governor of New Jersey and a position in the new Obama administration. He turned both of these down, too, preferring to aim for a second term as mayor when elections come round again next year.
Booker is a light-skinned black man with blue-grey eyes and a serial Ivy League education (Stanford, Oxford, Yale). He was brought up in a predominantly white suburb of New Jersey. His public persona is affable in demeanour, intellectual in reach, inspirational in delivery; in private he is witty, unguarded and idealistic. He wears – I'm not the first to notice – rather ill-fitting suits, and he writes a blog in which, between comments on the national election or a local murder, he'll assess his own salsa-dancing skills and compose a spontaneous poem. This combination of magnificently urgent rhetoric and slightly goofy charm has garnered him landslide numbers of followers.
Newark was not exactly an unambitious place for Booker to begin. A city of 280,000 with a crime rate six times the national average and one of the most corrupt political establishments in the country, Newark was, in the words of the historian Clement Price, “as close to a basket case as you can get in American urban life”. Crushed by the race riots that took place in 1967, Newark was voted “worst city in America” by Forbes magazine in 1970. And since then the same people had been in power. Steve Adubato, a prominent educator and a political powerhouse in Newark, tells me that Booker “is not a racist and he's not a crook. Believe it or not, that's a big, big thing. The last three mayors before him were indicted and two of them went to jail.” Sharpe James, whom Booker succeeded in 2006, is currently serving a prison sentence for fraud. How can one characterise a person who would take on such a challenge? Clement Price answers this question with a single word: “Messianic.”
While Newark's poor reputation would seem to position it as an exceptional city, to see it as unusual is to miss the point. It has been home to many historical moments that make it an American landmark: George Washington's army slept in one of its parks; Abraham Lincoln stopped to give an address here on the way to his inauguration; Booker T Washington's doctor founded a hospital in Newark to treat African Americans. And its decline – the post Second World War loss of industry, the 1950s drift to the suburbs, the race riots of the 1960s – tells a story about American cities in the second half of the 20th century.
This is a place that has three parks designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, a Mies van der Rohe apartment building and a church to rival the Sacre Coeur in Paris; a place that was once a pioneer in good, affordable housing and later built some of the worst. One of its public schools has an alumnae association that reputedly boasts more PhDs than any other, yet that same school now has one of the highest drop-out rates in the country. Newark has bred a slew of great writers – most famously Philip Roth but also Allen Ginsberg and Paul Auster – but these days only a third of its students graduate from high school at all.
Booker's mission is to take a terribly typical city and make it actively exemplary. By doing things in Newark that “shine a light” on other places, he hopes to “change the narrative of American cities”. His habitual manner is to move like a character in a Marvel comic, all 6ft 3in of him sweeping with sudden resolve from the clutches of his nerve-wracked security guards. (His penchant for personally chasing bank robbers recently prompted the satirist Steven Colbert to ask him: “Mayor Booker, are you the Batman?”)
I once watched him whoosh into a Starbucks on Broad Street, shaking hands and trailing several stunned strangers in his wake. “When he walks into a room, people ask for his autograph,” Steve Adubato marvels. “I have never seen that before.” When I brought up the subject with him later, Booker groaned, in the weary tone of one who could use a few, that he certainly didn't have any superpowers. Then he smiled: “Capes are cool. But they're really not practical.”
We can joke about it, but nevertheless this is the question everyone is asking about Cory Booker: can he save Newark?
The first time I met Booker was on a bitingly cold January afternoon, in the basement of a church where most of the signs were written in Portuguese. He was holding his monthly open-office session (which tend to last from four until well after 10 at night), cheerily roving between tables, addressing the problems of the city's residents. Could he do something about people curbing their dogs? And the heating in the municipal swimming pool? What happened to the street cleaners in the South Ward?
Here is Booker at work: he opens every encounter with some appropriate greeting – a peck on the cheek, a bow from the waist, an arm squeeze, a concerned smile, a shoulder bump, a hug, a multi-part thumbshake. He is a master at knowing just what to do. He remembers people's birthdays, inquires about their medical treatments and even, on one occasion, offers to sing an a cappella song.
A young guy with dreads and a headscarf asks if Booker knows Barack Obama. “I've met him, we have mutual friends, but I haven't spoken to him in a long time,” Booker replies. “What did you want to tell the president?” An intimate exchange ensues, in the course of which Booker directs the man to someone who can help him get a job and recommends some light reading. The Mis-Education of the Negro, written by the seminal black historian Carter G Woodson in 1933. It's one of Booker's favourites.
Watching him for several hours in a fairly small room, it occurs to me that Booker is so attentive, so responsive, so tirelessly appealing that you'd want to come and talk to him whether you had a problem to report or not. And indeed that happens: this very evening, one of his co-workers has had to turn away a posse of cleavage-thrusting women who weren't even from Newark. They said they wanted his autograph.
“How am I doing for time?” Booker asks just before nine o'clock.
“You have one more left.” He makes a little fist of triumph.
When all the residents have left, Booker and his staff hold a postmortem. Everyone else is exhausted; Booker is buoyant. “I think we were able to help a lot of people,” he says. One of his aides gloomily criticises him for trying to be superhuman and spending too much time with individual residents. Booker shakes his head and looks over at me with a smirk.
“London Observer: I have no yes-people. What I would give for just one person who'd tell me what I wanted to hear!”
“Would you really?” someone asks.
Booker laughs. “Nah!”
Not everyone was ready for Booker when he came to power – not the drug dealers who threatened his life, nor the old-guard residents who were unused to such eloquence in a leader. There were those who said he was “all talk”, but anyone who thinks that now must not be listening. At the beginning of this year it emerged that Newark had been, in 2008, number one in the nation for the reduction of violent crime. That shift has come about in just two years. In his first hour on the job, Booker took a tour of some of the police precincts. He discovered that although most violent crime happens at night, most of the city's police officers were on duty during the day, typing up paperwork. He was stunned: “We had detectives in our gang squad who were working Monday through Friday, nine to five.”
Booker hired police director Garry McCarthy from New York (over complaints that he should hire a local black candidate) and went about transforming the force. “We used to joke that we were trying to do this impossible thing, bringing the police department from the age of the Flintstones to the age of the Jetsons in four years,” he says.
Despite their successes, Booker is not satisfied: 66 homicides, he will tell you, is 66 too many. And he has reason not to gloat – a year after he came into office, three college-bound teenagers were murdered by a gang of ex-cons; Booker was accused of having their blood on his hands unless he did something to stop the violence.
Two thousand people return to Newark from jail every year, and a high proportion of them once went back to jail in short order. Operating on the principle that “it costs less to rehabilitate than reincarcerate”, Booker has set up a group of pro bono lawyers who help ex-offenders get through the legal maze that confronts them if they want to get their lives on track. He has a one-stop employment centre. He's founded a fatherhood programme on the grounds that “Parenting is one of the most critical things that can break cycles of poverty”. He has brought major developers into the city, encouraged minority-run businesses, struck deals with major local companies requiring them to hire a percentage of their staff from Newark, and doubled the production of affordable housing. He knocks on doors, he sweeps the streets. “When we had a big snowstorm recently, I called him and asked him what he was doing,” says Gayle King. “He was at some senior citizen's home, shovelling the sidewalk. I said: 'Of course you are.'” Booker's old friend Eric Gregory quotes the black intellectual Cornel West: “'You can't lead the people if you don't love the people; you can't save the people if you don't serve the people' – and I think in many ways Cory embodies that.” Booker practises total immersion. One member of his staff told me that they'd had to schedule a time for him to wish his family a Merry Christmas.
In 1969, a couple of months after Cory Booker was born, his parents tried to buy a house in Harrington Park, New Jersey. They were told it was no longer for sale. Not believing the estate agent's story, Cary and Carolyn Booker asked a white couple to pose as buyers, and just as the sale to the white couple was about to go through, the Bookers and a lawyer from the Fair Housing Association confronted the realtor. They eventually bought the house, and when they moved in with their two sons, Cory and Cary Jr, they became, in Cary's affectionate description, “the four raisins in a tub of vanilla ice cream”.
Cary Booker was born to a single mother in what his son describes as a “viciously segregated town” in North Carolina. “He used to say: 'Cory, I couldn't afford to be poor. I was just po… couldn't afford the last two letters.'” Cary and Carolyn were active in the civil rights movement and went on to be among the first African Americans to be hired by IBM. (Booker's admiration for his predecessors is not limited to the flashy or the famous; along with Cornel West, he complains of “the santaclausification of Martin Luther King” and names as one of his heroes the Birmingham, Alabama minister Fred Shuttlesworth.) Cory went to state school, where he was unusual enough that other kids routinely asked if they could touch his hair. He won an American football scholarship to Stanford university, and in 1988 he cast his first vote: for Jesse Jackson.
On graduating from Stanford, Booker became, like Bill Clinton and one or two Nobel prize winners, a Rhodes scholar. He studied modern history at Oxford from 1992 to 1994 before going on to Yale. When he graduated from the law school there, his grandfather reminded him that his diploma had been paid for with the blood, sweat and tears of his ancestors and that in order to be worthy of it, he'd better roll up his sleeves and get to work.
That's when he moved to Newark. Booker had already spent a good deal of time here – in fact, he wrote his graduate thesis at Yale about Newark, and in the process of interviewing people for it quickly came to the conclusion that the city's politics were “toxic”. In 1998 he moved into a 16th-floor apartment in Brick Towers, one of the city's most infamous housing projects, where he lived for the next eight years. Whatever other qualifications he may have got from university, this, he likes to say, is where he earned his PhD.
He became involved in various community initiatives, supported by a “dream” fellowship from the law firm Skadden, Arps. But Booker saw that Newark didn't need another nonprofit, and a well-known Newark philanthropist advised him that what the city could really do with was a new mayor.
“I thought he was crazy,” Booker says now. “I didn't like politics. I didn't like politicians. A friend of mine persuaded me to basically jump off a cliff and run for office in a town that was so hostile to any challengers. It was a very tough period of time. I remember having migraines, not being able to sleep.” He decided to give up the fellowship and accept the challenge. “And once I jumped in,” he smiles, “I had an even bigger appreciation of how reckless it was.”
When Booker, an educated newcomer, defeated George Branch, a well-entrenched former boxer, in the city council election in 1998, it was nothing short of miraculous. “We faced a tremendous amount of hostility – negative literature, windows on my car smashed, threats,” Booker remembers. “That was my first real introduction to Newark politics. It was rough, and it was scary. But at the same time it was so empowering to go around knocking on thousands of doors.”
During his unsuccessful 2002 mayoral run against Sharpe James – the subject of Marshall Curry's documentary Street Fight – Booker battled against one of the nastiest campaigns imaginable. He was labelled a “faggot white boy” and a “Nazi Negro Republican”; he was accused of taking money from the Ku Klux Klan; he was suspected of being Jewish. “You have to learn to be African American,” James famously taunted him, “and we don't have time to train you.” Booker's old hero Jesse Jackson called Booker a “wolf in sheep's clothing”.
Booker ran what Curry describes as “a choirboy campaign”. A non-drinking, non-smoking vegetarian, Booker was insistent that everything be conducted with dignity, and he comes across as almost heartbreakingly sweet. But not merely sweet: as soon as he lost, he announced his intention to run again in 2006. While he waited, he returned to the reality of life in Newark, reminding himself with every day of what needed to change. In April 2004, Booker was walking down the street with his father when a boy was shot in front of them. The boy bled to death in Booker's arms.
After the open-office session, Booker offers me a ride back to New York; he's going to see a friend of his in SoHo. “Of course if I do this for you, you'll have to rename one of your children after me,” he says. “The next one can have your name,” I deadpan.
He doesn't pause. “All right, good. Let's go.”
When he says he will give me a ride, what he really means is his bodyguards will give us both a ride. He introduces me to Detective Negron and Detective Steelers. As we drive over the Pulaski Skyway, we talk about his plans for Obama's inauguration the following week.
I say I'd wanted to meet him there but imagine it will be too much of a scrum.
“Yes,” he smiles. “Now there's a word you wouldn't understand, Negron: 'scrum'.”
Negron takes a wild guess. “Rugby?”
Booker goes off on a riff about English words. “Know what 'knackered' means?” he asks, mischievously testing the detectives. “How about 'pissed', in the British sense? Or 'bollocks'? Or 'braces' – that means suspenders.”
I say we also have suspenders, but as an undergarment. This only inspires him further.
“Knickers! Know what 'knickers' are?”
The detectives barely crack a smile. Booker tells me he spent much of his time in Oxford in pubs, failing to woo British women.
“I doubt that,” I say. “You already knew the words 'knickers', 'suspenders' and 'bollocks'.”
He throws back his head and roars with laughter. He then asks if I would recommend the institution of marriage.
“Have you got plans?” I reply.
“I have to find someone first. And that's pretty hard with these guys on my tail,” he says, shooting Steelers an ironic scowl.
Steelers looks at me, and pronounces: “If he's gonna be with someone, that person's gotta be right. She's gonna be First Lady. And there ain't too many Michelles out there.”
We pull up outside a building just north of Spring Street. Booker turns to the detectives.
“I wanna be outta here by 11,” he says. They nod. Booker gets out of the car. He walks at his usual, purposeful pace then suddenly stops and exhales. He pulls off his tie, undoes his top button, wordlessly reminding himself that he's no longer on duty. Then he moves on.
Towards the end of January I visit Booker in his office at City Hall. He's back from the inauguration, which he attended with his mother and grandmother, and which was “probably one of the most momentous things I've ever been a part of”. The House of Representatives has approved Obama's stimulus package that morning and Booker is in and out of the room, on and off his BlackBerry, awaiting a visit from the senator. The room is decorated with portraits of Gandhi and Martin Luther King; there are several significant tomes on his desk – the Bhagavad Gita, the
Tanakh, the Koran, a couple of bibles and the US constitution (Booker was raised a Baptist; religion, he says, is his “orienting force”). I ask him if he will tell me about his eventual ambitions.
“Yes,” he replies firmly. “I would like to get married and have kids.”
Obviously, the question needs to be put more bluntly. “Would you like to be president?” I try.
“I cannot picture myself being president right now,” he says.
“I didn't mean right now.”
“But I say that in a very purposeful way,” he insists. “I'm so much more obsessed with a purpose than a position. So do I look at Obama and say: I can really see myself doing that? No. Right now my overriding purpose is Newark.”
The most pointed phone call Booker says he received from Obama's transition team raised the question of his becoming director of the US department of housing and urban development, or something along those lines. He declined because, as he has said before, he does not want to leave office until “we have turned around Newark's schools in the dramatic ways we've turned around public safety”.
When I ask Steve Adubato about Booker's future, he says that staying in Newark “is very dangerous for him. It's a very precarious thing. No mayor of Newark ever went beyond mayor. They either went to jail or oblivion.” Then he stops abruptly and says he wants to tell me something very important: “You're not going to know Booker until he gets reelected,” he announces. “This first term, he's learning things, he's trying things. But when he gets reelected he won't have to worry about being reelected. He'll be much more free to be innovative. His second term is going to define him”.
Later that afternoon, Booker has to go to New York again, and I ride with him in his SUV.
I ask him for his own assessment of his political weaknesses. He mulls it over.
“Sometimes I can be brash, and I can charge into things without thinking…” He smiles. “And I've had some incredibly good results! There's a quote from Lincoln: 'I've long since come to realise that a man with few vices has few virtues.' I think we have everything we need to be incredibly successful.”
I can't help laughing at this burst of politico-speak. “Is that what you actually think?” I ask.
“Look,” he says in self-justification, “when
I say 'we', I mean 'we', not 'I'.”
“I'm not accusing you of arrogance,” I tell him. “I'm accusing you of optimism.”
“I say hope,” he clarifies. “I'm a prisoner of hope. I don't see us not succeeding.”
When I speak to Booker's friend Eddie Glaude, he says that “prisoner of hope” is a phrase Booker often likes to use. I tell him that's all very well, but couldn't you have the hope without the prison? “No,” Glaude explains. “To say that is to say that we have the existential armour to hold off despair and doubt. You know, WEB DuBois in his 1903 classic talked about the three temptations: the temptation of hate, of despair and of doubt. Doubt is the most insidious of them all – you begin to doubt your capacity. And so to be a prisoner of hope in some ways is to secure oneself as best as one can.”
In the car, I ask Booker if he thinks he'll have any trouble getting reelected.
“No, I don't anticipate it at all,” he replies serenely. “I mean, the polling numbers we have look pretty invulnerable. But you never know. We could have a severe snowstorm that prevents people from voting.”
This seems an odd choice of obstacle, but who am I to say? One thing Booker's story proves is that, in the world of Newark politics, anything can happen.
“What time of year are the elections?” I ask. “Um… May,” he says, and laughs out loud. “But just in case we have a freak late-April snowstorm, I'm ready,” he smiles. “I am 100% ready.”