TIME: The Mayor of Twitter and Superhero of the Blizzard

December 29th, 2010

TIME Magazine

Cory Booker: The Mayor of Twitter and Superhero of the Blizzard

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By Sean Gregory Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010

If you’re a mayor of a northeastern U.S. city, you probably despise Cory Booker right now, because the tweeting mayor of Newark, N.J., is now a social-media superhero, able to move towering snowbanks in a single push — or by sending the shovels and plows your way.

After a blizzard started blanketing the Northeast on Dec. 26, an event that earned the Twitter hashtag #snowpocalypse, Booker turned the microblogging site into a public-service tool. Residents of the city, which has a population of around 280,000, swarmed Booker’s account (@CoryBooker) with requests for help, and the mayor responded. He and his staff have bounced around Newark shoveling streets and sending plows to areas where residents said they were still snowed in. “Just doug [sic] a car out on Springfield Ave and broke the cardinal rule: ‘Lift with your Knees!!’ I think I left part of my back back there,” he reported in one message. One person let Booker know, via Twitter, that the snowy streets were preventing his sister from buying diapers. About an hour later, Booker was at the sister’s door, diapers in hand.

Booker’s frantic Twitter feed reads like an action novel. “I have a snowpocalypse crush on @CoryBooker,” wrote one of Booker’s million-plus followers. “He’s like a superhero with a shovel.” The mayor was out clearing snow until 3 a.m. on Dec. 28 before heading back out three hours later after a few winks. “This is one of those times you’re just pushing,” Booker told TIME while riding around Newark early Tuesday evening, anxiously awaiting a Twitter response from a Newark resident who said her 82-year-old grandmother was shut in by snow. A few minutes earlier, Booker, who played football at Stanford, helped dig out a New Jersey transit bus. “It’s an endurance test.” This is not the first time Booker has responded to distressed citizens on Twitter. He shoveled the driveway of an elderly man last New Year’s Eve after the man’s daughter tweeted about his predicament. He also hit the streets during snowstorms last February.

When Booker first started tweeting a few years ago, some older Newark residents complained that his online obsession was a narcissistic waste of time. And while it’s fair to wonder if all those unplowed Newark streets serve as an indictment of his administration, it’s hard to knock his Twitter habit now. The media-savvy Booker knows his Twitter transparency is winning political points. (The mayor of one of America’s most troubled cities, he has starred in two documentaries about his life, picked a jokey fight with Conan O’Brien that landed him on the Tonight Show, and is a darling of the East Coast elite.) Look at Cory go! But for a mayor who sometimes gets accused of being a dilettante with ambitions beyond Newark, he deserves credit for doing the dirty work that many politicians avoid. (Plus, Booker’s national profile helped the city secure a $100 million education grant from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. His hobnobbing is delivering the goods for his constituents, who re-elected him in May.)

Booker’s Twitter tactics have raised the bar for other local officials, and beg the question: In the aftermath of the snowpocalypse, are other northeastern officials grabbing a shovel and smart phone, and following Booker’s lead? It certainly doesn’t look like it. That’s not to say local officials haven’t responded to citizens via the Web, other social-media sites like Facebook or more old-fashioned means like the phone or even a knock on the door. And we’re not declaring that no other politician dug out a car during this storm. (Though New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for example, certainly didn’t: he was on vacation at Disney World.)

But a cursory search through Twitter and local news outlets doesn’t reveal any Booker imitators. At least one mayor, Mark Boughton of Danbury, Conn., deserves kudos: while he didn’t replicate Booker’s almost insanely relentless tweeting, he did post news alerts about the storm on his Twitter account, and dispatched a plow to one street after a resident sent him a direct message about the excess snow. Other mayors, however, either didn’t have Twitter accounts or they were sadly staid. The last tweet from Boston Mayor Tom Menino was from June 22: “Download the Citizens Connect iPhone App on iTunes or the App Store for free!” wrote the “mayor,” whose sanitized account reads like it’s been written by a staffer.

The accounts of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (@MikeBloomberg) and his office (@NYCMayorsOffice) offered important news updates: a number to call for blood donations, for example, and statistics to ease frustrated New Yorkers. “More than 2,000 Sanitation Workers and 1,700 plows are working to clear remaining streets as fast and as safely as possible,” wrote @MikeBloomberg. However, the mayor has been heavily criticized for New York City’s cleanup efforts (abandoned cars littered several snow-filled streets) and there were no tales of the mayor boarding the Staten Island ferry to clear the driveway of a Twitter user. Of course, it may be unreasonable to ask the mayor of New York City, which has over 8 million people, to respond to individual gripes. But could the mayor of New Haven, Conn., which has some 125,000 residents, be as responsive as Booker, who runs a city of nearly 300,000 souls? The account of Mayor John DeStefano, however, has only a tweet from the morning of Dec. 27, saying that commuter train service was suspended. Prior to that message, he last tweeted on Dec. 20. DeStefano is off this week. (Comment on this story.)

“I hope more elected officials discover the power of Twitter,” Booker told TIME. “It truly is an effective way to connect with the body politic.” Then he was off — to shovel more snow.