Local Hero: Cory Booker
by Jacob Weisberg | photographed by Franco Pagetti
Chasing armed robbers, hand-delivering supplies after Hurricane Sandy, talking $100 million out of Mark Zuckerberg—it’s all in a day’s work for Cory Booker. Now will Newark’s star mayor seek the national stage?
It’s four days after Hurricane Sandy, and Cory Booker is speeding though Newark’s powerless neighborhoods in his “rolling bodega,” a Chevy Tahoe packed with blankets, diapers, water, and other supplies. At the Pennington Court housing project, the mayor, dressed in baggy jeans, hiking shoes, and a Fire Department windbreaker, reminds a few dozen residents to check on their elderly neighbors. If the lights don’t come on by nightfall, he says, he’ll send police protection. Then he hands out candy to the kids who missed Halloween, joking that he’s going to arrest a couple of the boys if he sees them wearing L.A. or Miami basketball hats again. He wants the residents to call a number if they need help. He wants hugs.
Then he’s off again—worried about Rosalie Powell, a bedridden 70-year-old woman he’s been friends with since he knocked on her door in 1997, during his first political campaign for city council. At Powell’s small town house, he finds a dozen relatives huddled in the living room—and a warm welcome: “My baby is here!” Powell exclaims.
The space is stifling from pots of water boiling on the kitchen stove to provide heat. Booker had just been on local television warning about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, so after some affectionate joking, his goal quickly shifts from getting Powell to move to a shelter—this clearly isn’t going to happen—to preventing the family from succumbing to fumes.
“Turn off the stove!” Powell yells to her grandson, and soon the windows are open and a carbon monoxide detector is on the way, along with a hot meal for 20, which the mayor puts on his credit card. There were hundreds of such moments in the week after Sandy. Running on adrenaline, gobbled slices of pizza, and two to three hours of sleep, Booker lifted morale on streets, in homes, at the Emergency Operations Center—everywhere he went. To the rest of the country, his tweets, in which he personally responded to problems ranging from the lack of taxis at the airport to a guy running out of Hot Pockets, offered a kind of catastrophe comedy. For the 277,500 residents in Brick City, however, the 43-year-old mayor’s constantly updating feed was no joke. It was a lifeline during the crisis.
“Help Mr Booker, im shannon 11yrs old, no power since monday on Madison st, mommy can’t cook, no heat, I have asthma,” read one of the messages three days after the storm.
“Where are you exactly?” he tweeted three minutes later. “We will deliver some food and help. Direct Message me your phone number and exact address.”
Such is Booker’s governing style: the mayor as collective parent and urban superhero. This is the guy who began his first term staying up all night to chase drug dealers off corners and once ran down a scissors-wielding assailant while shouting, “Not in our city anymore!” In April, he shoved aside his bodyguard to rescue a neighbor trapped in a burning house, suffering smoke inhalation and second-degree burns in the process.
His heroics aren’t merely expressions of physical courage—though they certainly are that. They’re applications of a theory of civic revitalization, which says that a single leader, visibly doing the right thing, can influence a whole community’s behavior. As the post-Sandy blackout continued, Booker was proud that Newark, once synonymous with the destructive effects of urban unrest, had had no reports of looting. “It’s a great spirit in our city,” Booker told me by phone after the storm swept through, “people pulling together and watching out for each other.” The orderly recovery in the weeks that followed was a tribute not just to Booker’s high-touch presence but also to his belief in leading by example. “It helps,” he says, “to spread a message and a spirit of heroism to others.”
Long before he became America’s most influential mayor, Booker began his career as an exercise in self-imposed humility. He was marked for success—growing up in a white, middle-class suburb about 30 miles from Newark, becoming president of his high school class and an all-state tight end (or, as he puts it, the “most overrated high school football player ever to walk the Earth”), earning degrees from Stanford, Oxford (on a Rhodes Scholarship), and Yale Law School. But then, at the age of 28, with prestigious clerkships and six-figure salaries on the horizon, he moved into a “penthouse apartment” in Brick Towers, one of Newark’s worst housing projects, with the aim of helping tenants.
Booker lived there for eight years, through winters without heat or hot water, often walking up and down the fifteen flights of stairs when the elevator wasn’t working. Gayle King, the CBS morning-news anchor who has become a close friend, says that by the time she started visiting him there a few years later, he no longer noticed the smell of urine in the hallways.
He says he never meant to go into politics, but one of his local mentors, an activist named Virginia Jones, convinced him that running for office was the best way to bring change. He first made national headlines the year after his election to city council, in 1999, when he pitched a tent in front of another housing project and went on a hunger strike to protest open-air drug dealing and violence.
It took Booker the better part of a decade to bring down the corrupt political machine of Mayor Sharpe James. This ugly, bruising struggle is documented in Street Fight, an Oscar-nominated documentary about Booker’s 2002 mayoral campaign, which he lost by a narrow margin. He ran again and won in 2006. Since then, Booker’s constant cheerleading has brought a measure of hope to a city badly in need of it. The population had been shrinking for half a century when he took office; today it has growing numbers and a business-friendly climate (Panasonic recently joined Manischewitz and Audible in relocating its headquarters here). In 2010, Booker celebrated Newark’s first month without a murder since 1966. He has closed low-performing schools and, with the help of a $100 million donation from Mark Zuckerberg, made Newark a laboratory for promising educational reform. Booker, who has never been married, habitually refers to the children of Newark as “my kids.” He gets worked up talking about the human potential that’s lost in bad schools. “I don’t have Obama cool,” he says, apologizing for his emotional tone.
Now Booker faces what might be the biggest choice of his career: whether to seek higher office. In the coming weeks, the mayor has to decide if he will run for a third term, challenge Governor Chris Christie, who is up for reelection in 2013, or make a run for the U.S. Senate the following year. Will he stay or will he go?
This question hangs in the air during a personal and nostalgic tour the mayor takes me on weeks before the storm. “Slow down,” he tells his driver, and points out the police station where the riots began in July 1967. They were sparked when an African-American taxi driver was arrested and a rumor went around that he’d been killed in custody. Twenty-six people died. The memorial is barely visible; in its place, Booker wants to commission “an iconic piece of art” that will pay tribute to Newark’s past and future.
There’s no public money available for something like that. Booker assumes he’ll pay for it himself, or get some of his well-heeled friends to pitch in. Many of the most important initiatives Booker has introduced, from the Emergency Operations Center’s huge wall of flat-screen TVs to the police department’s bulletproof vests, have been funded with private money—more than $300 million for the city from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Goldman Sachs, and Zuckerberg.
Booker’s wealthy allies, and the time he spends courting them in Aspen, Sun Valley, and the Hamptons, have also engendered criticism. As a columnist for the Star-Ledger wrote, some see him as “a big-shot celebrity, a man who has abandoned his roots and is using the mayor’s office to build his own fame and wealth.” His campaigns have been underwritten by Wall Street donors, many of whom, like hedge-fund managers Paul Singer and Julian Robertson, otherwise give almost solely to Republicans. Unsurprisingly, the mayor has developed a finance-friendly view of the world. This became a matter of national controversy in May, when he called the Obama campaign’s attacks on Bain Capital “nauseating” on Meet the Press. Critics pointed out that Booker had received hundreds of thousands in contributions from figures at Bain and other private-equity firms.
His connections have certainly helped get Newark back on its feet. This becomes clear as we drive down Bergen Street, a thriving shopping district when Philip Roth was growing up a few blocks away. After the riots, it became an alley of boarded-over storefronts and vacant lots. With new business investment, the area is showing signs of life, albeit of a more suburban kind: There’s an Applebee’s, an AutoZone, and a multiplex, which Booker was intent on siting close to the sidewalk, to encourage pedestrian traffic. On the left, he points out the Mayor Sharpe James Apartments. Next up is Rosalie Powell’s house, and right across from it is Nat Turner Park, a good place, according to Booker, to find a corpse or a stolen car ten years ago. Today the park is safe, with a sports field, a playground, and picnic tables.
We’re on our way to a local community-center event for homeless veterans. Booker knows a surprising number of these men personally and makes the most of his physical presence. With his shaved head and booming voice, he commands the noisy gymnasium, thanking the vets for their service and explaining how the city can help find them housing and jobs. The audience offers political advice in return. A couple of men think he should run for Senate. Two others think he should stay as mayor of Newark. Many more want him to run for governor against “Krispy Kreme,” as one woman calls the incumbent. The mayor declines to laugh at the nickname. Whatever his decision, he has to work with the governor between now and the election.
Our next stop is his apartment, where he has to change for a lunchtime appearance. Booker moved into the top floor of this modest three-family home after he was elected in 2006, shortly before Brick Towers was torn down. The second floor is home to his security detail and makeshift gym, which he has been pushing himself to use while recovering from an ankle injury.
Booker doesn’t drink, let alone smoke. Vegetarian overeating is his only vice, and he fights a constant battle with his weight. After a long day, he says, his bad habit would be to turn on Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, eat a whole pizza, “and then do some ice cream.” With encouragement from his Twitter friends, he lost 30 pounds in early 2011, only to gain them back with interest. This summer, he tipped the scales at 309 before being horrified by news photographs of his own jowly face—and receiving stern advice from his friend Mike Bloomberg to “cut it out.” Since then, he has dropped 40 pounds, with the goal of losing 30 more.
Booker lives here by himself. He has had many girlfriends over the years, including the model Veronica Webb, but his work has always come first. What takes the place of family, to some extent, are older women friends, including Arianna Huffington and Gayle King, with whom he often spends evenings going to the movies or catching up on Homeland. On this night, he and King are heading to see Barbra Streisand at the just-opened Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Booker and King got to know each other after he lost his first election for mayor. She jokes about how when he’d drive to Greenwich, Connecticut, to visit her, he’d set the Club lock on his Jeep out of habit. “He has fun with a lot of close friends, but he needs to add more to work-life balance, to be honest with you,” King says. “He’d like to get married and have kids. I’m always on the lookout for him. He has dated some really attractive, smart women, but chemistry is very important to him. He wants someone who will understand his life and his dedication to his work.”
Booker changes into a suit and tie, fires off a few tweets, and we’re back in his SUV, headed to a fund-raiser at a hotel in Morristown for the alumni association of his father’s college, North Carolina Central University. Booker warns me that I might not want to stay for this event, which could be a little dull. His father, Cary Booker, ailing from Parkinson’s disease, won’t be there. In fact, the lunch turns out to be the highlight of the day.
The political problem is that Christie has, post-Sandy, become a formidably popular opponent; there’s also the question of whether Booker wants to take on the state’s looming fiscal crisis on the heels of the one he has just been through in Newark.
A second option is the Senate race in 2014—challenging Democratic incumbent Frank Lautenberg, 88, who has never inspired much affection in New Jersey. Some of Booker’s friends argue that with his pragmatic, bipartisan instincts, he could be an important bridge figure in Washington. But the Senate can be a frustrating place, with less potential to make a direct impact on people’s lives than Booker has become accustomed to.
The philosophical question is even thornier, and he frames it in personal terms, telling me about his admiration for his brother, Cary, who runs a charter school in inner-city Memphis. “My brother’s done a great job of staying loyal to his truth,” he says. “He’s a much more humble guy than I am. He’s just sort of a plodding, determined soul, trying to make a difference in as many people’s lives as possible.”
At the same time, Booker recalls a conversation he had with his mother when he was in law school trying to figure out what to do next. “My mom said, You have this obligation to live a fearless life. You should try to push the limits of what’s possible, because you were given so much, that’s what your obligation is. So I guess my question for my future is: Am I answering to what I believe is my personal calling? Am I telling my truth in the decisions I make with my career?”
I ask Booker if he really might stay in Newark, and he responds with the story of one of his own saints, an activist named Frank Hutchins, a crusader for better conditions in Newark’s housing projects, who died in 2009 at the age of 75. He befriended Booker when he first came to Newark and defended him in the black community from accusations of being a privileged interloper. “Fast-forward to the end of Frank’s life. He’s getting sicker and sicker,” Booker says. “On the day Frank died, I went to see him. He could barely talk, and before I was leaving, I just said to him, ‘I love you.’ It was almost like he lit up, and then I saw him really trying to force out the words, ‘I love you.’ It looked almost like he was at peace.”
Booker is visibly emotional. “What is a good life? Here is a guy who was alone. I mean . . . there should have been thousands of people there,” he says, choking back a sob.
What’s a good life? This is the question Booker’s wrestling with. “He lived a great life,” he says. “And so the stuff you get distracted by in politics, it’s a hubris game. I’d just like to be able to lie on my bed and feel that, you know what, I fought a good fight. We’re both going to be in that bed before you know it. And that’s the decision I want to make—” He pauses, considering his choices and where they might take him next. “That I stayed as fiercely loyal as a guy like Frank Hutchins did to the cause, and to the mission.”