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Thursday, May 04, 2006

It's not about winning

Cory Booker

Newark Candidate Runs Against His Own Fame

When Richard Whitten, a former Newark postal worker, met Cory Booker at a charity event downtown in 1996, his first impression was that Mr. Booker seemed too polished to be sincere.

With degrees from Stanford, Oxford and Yale Law School, his generous use of quotations from famous intellectuals, his perpetual smile and gregarious earnestness, Mr. Booker seemed almost like a caricature of a politician, even though he had yet to run for office.

"At first I didn't like him," Mr. Whitten said. "I thought he talked too fast; I thought he sounded like a used-car salesman."

Although Mr. Whitten was eventually won over, volunteering to work for three Booker campaigns after coming to respect his intelligence and zeal, his early skepticism mirrors the challenge Mr. Booker has faced ever since he arrived in Newark a decade ago.

Outside the city, he has become a political celebrity because of his sparkling résumé and camera-ready charisma. Yet in Newark, Mr. Booker, 37, has consistently had to rebut the notion that he is a self-aggrandizing interloper.

During his unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 2002, the powerful incumbent, Sharpe James, described him — though they are both African-American Democrats — as Jewish, gay, a Republican and a proxy for the Ku Klux Klan.

Now, with only days to go before Newark's nonpartisan election on Tuesday, Mr. Booker, who has been working as a lawyer and running a nonprofit group that he founded, is closer than ever to his goal. Mayor James, his archrival, has decided against seeking a sixth term, and his current opponent, State Senator Ronald L. Rice, is far behind in the polls.

Yet despite Mr. Booker's best efforts, the same questions persist.

His opponents ask what he has actually achieved during his eight years in Newark politics, and whether he has enough experience to manage the nation's second-poorest city, where 40 percent of residents lack a high school diploma and gang activity and homicides are on the rise.

Mr. Booker's salad bowl of divergent influences — as a Democrat who cites the Republican mayor of New York, Michael R. Bloomberg, as a political model, and a churchgoing Baptist who meditates and quotes from Hindu texts — has also led some to suggest that he lacks strong convictions.

Mr. Booker's friends consider his openness a virtue, and say that as mayor, he would bring to Newark a sincere desire to help make the city a national symbol of urban reform.

"They can't believe he's for real," said Shmuley Boteach, an Orthodox rabbi and author who helped Mr. Booker, a former Rhodes scholar, to become president of a Jewish student society at Oxford University. "But it's rare that a man of the level of sincerity and authenticity of Cory Booker comes into politics and, God willing, as he goes through the process, those incredible qualities will remain."


With no inbred political agenda or ideology, Mr. Booker embraced a range of ideas — school vouchers, for one — that turned him into an object of fascination for conservative commentators, national Democrats, activist celebrities and, increasingly, residents of Newark looking for a change from Mr. James.

But to many Newarkers, the attention seemed suspicious. Mr. Booker's popularity with outsiders who thought of Newark as a punch line made him the antithesis of the defensive party-line Democrats who ran the city and whose attitudes were shaped during the struggle for civil rights. He was a vegetarian in a city where the insiders still made deals over smothered chicken at Je's, a soul food restaurant near City Hall.

Mr. Booker insists that he is still an idealist and that he would never "become what I'm trying to replace." He has promised to cut the mayoral salary, strip city employees of expensive perks and establish transparent hiring practices that elevate merit over patronage. But like the heroes of "Rocky" and "Star Wars," his two favorite movies, he also says he is ready to fight if necessary.

Mr. Booker insists that he is still an idealist and that he would never "become what I'm trying to replace." He has promised to cut the mayoral salary, strip city employees of expensive perks and establish transparent hiring practices that elevate merit over patronage
. But like the heroes of "Rocky" and "Star Wars," his two favorite movies, he also says he is ready to fight if necessary.

His supporters just hope he can pull it off.

"What will be a unique challenge for him, and one that he has set for himself, is to make everyone part of the win," said Ravenel Boykin Curry IV, a major Democratic donor. "The real test of who Mr. Booker is as a leader will be determined by his ability to make Newarkers feel safer and better served.

"If you can't feel the difference in the city," Mr. Curry said, "he will have failed."

As I said last week, his friends are in all the wrong places. If they don't work in the State House, they're useless.

The 2002 campaign against him was despicable, filled with Uncle Tomism to defend a basically corrupt government, with the US Attorney sending people to jail left and right.

The problem is that he's going from theory to running a sailing ship in rough waters,
with a crew who has a stake in him crashing the boat.

Bloomberg had $4B to buy friends and lots of Dems willing to listen. Booker thinks he can be all smiles and James and his friends in Trenton will play along.

Newark is desperate for change, but he's already looking at the NJEA as a major enemy. They will stop his voucher plans cold unless he can work out a charter school deal, like Bloomberg did in NY. When Giuliani wanted to hand over schools to the Edison Project, they were stopped cold by ACORN and the UFT. Booker awaits an even nastier fate if he does not handle this right.

Make no mistake, the machine is lying fallow, setting Ron Rice up to retake the seat after years of Booker led failure.

And while reminding people he went to Yale and Oxford may seem like a good thing, the fear, as expressed by the Black Commentator, is that he's really a tool of the white man come to colonize Newark as their great experiment.

But that's a simplistic view of North Jersey's complicated and machiavellian politics. Booker may sit in City Hall, but James and his allies still will run every department and control the city's seats in Trenton.

Oh, and if he think's he's gonna take away jobs from people,well, that's gonna be interesting. When the civil service turns on him it will not be pretty. Because while he thinks he can end patronage, he doesn't control it, the machine does, and they can and will frustrate him.

Having people tell the Times how bright you are is nice. But unless they have votes in Trenton, it's useless.

posted by Steve @ 7:21:00 AM

7:21:00 AM

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