Newark Mayor Stands Chance of Transforming City
By most accounts, Newark Mayor Cory Booker is an imposing figure -- a former All-American tight end for Stanford University who stands well over 6 feet.
But the tales currently swirling around Booker are so tall that they could easily surpass his formidable stature. Just read The New York Times, which recently ran a story chronicling the backlash being experienced by the mayor -- barely one year into his term.
There are rumors circulating around town and across the Internet that he's not really African American, he's a multi-millionaire carpetbagger and he's using the mayoral office as a steppingstone to the Oval Office. They are silly at best.
After Stanford, Booker could have carved a fairly lucrative career out for himself in the National Football League. He could have had his choice of high-paying jobs -- in an investment bank or a high-flying law firm -- after he graduated from Yale Law School.
Instead, the mayor, who was raised in Bergen County, picked public service and started a nonprofit tenant rights organization in one of the nation's most troubled and poorest cities.
The city Booker now leads isn't too far from where he grew up -- the mostly White Harrington Park -- the son of two social activists and IBM executives who successfully sued a real estate agent for refusing to sell them a house in the suburbs.
But his suburban upbringing and Ivy League education have aroused suspicion among Newarkers already leery of outsiders.
"Newarkers have this sense that their city was abandoned and that the only people who benefited lived outside the city," he told The New York Times, which had run an ongoing series of stories on his administration. "They have this belief that these people are going to come back from over the hills and take over."
When he first arrived, Booker moved into the city's most notorious housing projects – Brick Towers, outside of which drug dealers openly hawked their wares. He organized his fellow tenants in a letter-writing campaign that led to a lawsuit against the management company, which paved the way for greater police protection.
Some of his critics have dismissed his eight years living in public housing as a publicity stunt. But, as he pointed out in a 2006 New York Times story, "Stunts are usually short-term … They usually don't last three winters without heat and hot water."
Upon his neighbors' insistence, Booker in 1998 successfully ran for a city council seat, an upset over a four-term incumbent. During his tenure, he frequently served as the council's lone vote on many controversial issues.
In 2002, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor against controversial 20-year incumbent Sharpe James, who decided not to run in 2006. That opened the door for Booker, who cruised to victory with 72 percent of the vote. With the electoral honeymoon over, the mayor has been forced to get down to the business of reconciling the promise of reform that helped elect him with the grim reality that is Newark.
Booker set the bar high, inflating expectations of a city that was already short on hope. With high expectations comes the prospect of disappointment when overnight miracles don't occur. His own mission statement is ambitious to say the least: "To be America's leading urban city in safety, prosperity and nurturing of family life."
The mayor concedes that governing Newark is far from easy.
"Things come at you 1,000 miles an hour, and much of the time you're dealing with chaos," he told The New York Times recently. "You can easily get distracted by issues that are not central."
The old guard that lost clout with James' departure is now stirring up trouble at a time when Newark needs it the least. The mayor's plan to cut the city's workforce has even prompted a "Recall Booker" campaign.
What is for certain is that he could have chosen a much less arduous and less exasperating route to political superstardom. It's out of love – not personal profit -- that Booker has taken on the challenge.
So what if Mayor Booker hasn't transformed Newark into a shining beacon of hope for urban America in a mere 12 months? Does that mean he deserves to be recalled or undermined by rumor and innuendo? I would think not.
At our Economic Empowerment Tour town hall in Newark in June, Booker delivered an impassioned defense of his administration's first year that could have converted the most cynical into true believers.
Newark's resurgence will require time, patience and most of all, faith. There will be no overnight miracle. All I'm asking of the city's African Americans is to give Booker a chance. If they give up now, Newark will only sink deeper into the abyss of urban despair.
Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.