As this year's election season gets into full swing, voters across the country are thinking about the kinds of changes they'd like to see in their elected leaders. For voters in Newark, N.J., change has already come.
In May, they overwhelmingly elected 37-year-old Cory Booker as their new mayor. Booker came close to winning the job four years ago but lost to longtime Mayor Sharpe James, running for his fifth term. Now, like Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., Mayor Booker is part of a new generation of Black leaders bringing fresh ideas and attitudes to the local and national political scenes.
Booker didn't grow up in Newark but in a more affluent, predominantly White New Jersey suburb. He first made a name for himself by winning football games, not elections. He was a New Jersey player of the year, a high school All-American and went on to play tight end for Stanford University.
He also stood out in the classroom. After earning his bachelor's and master's degrees at Stanford, he won a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England. After Oxford, he was accepted by Yale Law School.
Some people have used Booker's impressive education and achievements against him. In his 2002 race against James, which turned extremely ugly, critics cited his privileged upbringing and elite credentials as some of the reasons he couldn't possibly relate to or represent Newark and "real" Black people. But Booker was always determined to prove those kinds of naysayers wrong.
A college friend later remembered that even as an undergraduate, Booker had a strong sense of mission: "He talked about the disparity between the rich and poor, as well as the problems of the inner city. He had this great burden of wanting to give back — and every step up the ladder of his career, I think his purpose intensified."
Booker himself has credited his parents for always emphasizing the familiar proverb "from him to whom much is given, much is expected."
While he was a law student at Yale, he began commuting back and forth to Newark to serve as a legal adviser for a tenants' rights association, and soon became a full-time resident completely immersed in community activism. He chose to live in a housing project in one of the city's most disadvantaged neighborhoods so he could get a fuller understanding of people's needs, and became convinced he could make a real difference in Newark.
At age 29, he decided to run for the city council and won, edging out a 16-year incumbent and becoming the youngest council member in the city's history. As a councilor, he spent time living in a mobile home so he could easily move from block to block and be a literal presence on the street corner to address problems and help keep drug dealers and other negative influences away.
The bitter political battle of his first run for mayor was the subject of an Academy Award-nominated documentary, Street Fight. Supporters then had no doubt he'd be back, and I'm glad he persisted. Now that he's won, new admirers are already talking about even higher offices.
But for now, at least, Cory Booker is still focused on the same tasks that first pulled him to Newark back in law school: helping to solve some of the city's persistent challenges — crime, educating our children and creating jobs. Youth development and children's needs have always been among his top concerns.
Many people have high hopes for this bright new leader, and Mayor Cory Booker certainly has a track record of success.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.