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Rise of Cory Booker: NYTimes Misses the Point

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Up-and-comer Cory Booker has innovated a truly original path to political power. And like Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Booker has become a trailblazer for a new generation of Black politicians.

His latest political feat: successfully forcing his main rival, Mayor Sharpe James, to quit the mayor's race just weeks before the voting. James' hurried exit all but guarantees that Booker will become Newark's next mayor -- and a likely gubernatorial and presidential contender, in years to come.

Unfortunately, the New York Times' Damien Cave seems to have missed the true significance of Booker's latest accompishment -- and of his impressive comeback, following his defeat at Sharpe's hands four years ago.

Cave's New York Times article went to some lengths to suggest that Booker, once an "innocent," has become much like the man he got famous challenging. For proof, he points out that Booker has built up a local machine similar to Sharpe's, even co-opting and incorporating many of Sharpe's old supporters.

But the author seems blind to how shocking and unlikely it is that an ivy-leaguer like Booker could build an urban political machine at all, let alone one that attracts Sharpe's former cronies. And Cave's "loss-of-innocence" theme overlooks or underestimates just how smart, tough and savvy Booker has been -- all along.

Cory Booker wins points for his strong ethics, character and integrity. But those traits do not make him some kind of a wide-eyed innocent -- and never did. He moved to town and knocked off an incumbent to get his original city council seat.

Then he used his hard-won Stanford/Oxford/Yale Law pedigree to cultivate a national support network, thick with notables and celebrities. Then, in his first run at the mayor's seat, he turned on the firehose -- attempting to flush his opponent from office with any army of volunteers and the millions of dollars he raised through his national, platinum network.

A CHESS PLAYERS' MIND, A GLADIATOR'S HEART

In other words: beneath Booker's bright-eyed, "gee-whiz" exterior, a chess player's mind has always been operating. And a gladiator's heart has always been beating. This is nothing new.

Truth be told: Mayor Sharpe whupped Booker four years ago, not because Booker was too innocent to win. Sharpe won because too many locals saw Booker as anything BUT innocent. They smelled a slick operator: too driven, too ambitious, too clever by half.

The old-timers and grey-beards were understandably suspicious of this boy wonder -- swooping in from nowhere, beloved by the national press, raising cash from out of town. They were asking, Where did THIS guy come from? What's he up to? Who's pulling HIS strings?

The suspicion was understandable. In a rare instance, a young African-American had the temerity to challenge a civil rights veteran -- at the polling booth. Worse: he was running from OUTSIDE the approved civil rights channels. Booker was not a preacher. He was not an NAACP lawyer. Nor was he the product of any other traditional Black institution. He came to Black Newark -- from Yale.

The brother didn't even have the right surname; he did not hail from a "royal family" of civil rights (like Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., or Rep. Harold Ford Jr., or even Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick). In fact, much of his support and enthusiasm came directly from white liberals -- and even white conservatives.

Thus, Booker looked less like a doe-eyed innocent, more like a scheming outsider and a threat. He was a Black Democrat, but he was struggling to get Black legitimacy and deepen his Black support in a majority Black city. And he was having a very hard time.

BLACK ESTABLISHMENT ONCE CRUSHED BOTH BOOKER AND OBAMA

In that regard, Booker had something in common with an unknown Illinois state senator: Barack Obama. Just a few years ago, Obama was challenging the legendary Congressman (and former Black Panther) Bobby Rush, trying to take away Rush's U.S. House seat. The results: Rush CRUSHED Obama, just like Sharpe stopped Booker.

At that time, the Black barber shop and nail salon crowd were saying about both men: "Now, who this kid think HE is? Got a fancy degree, so now he spoze to be in CHARGE? Negro, please!"

Well, Obama licked his wounds, made up with Brother Rush and ran successfully for U.S. Senate. His victory showed that the Black community would still rally around an ivy league "new jack" -- as long as his opponent were white (or, worse, Alan Keyes).

What is so extraordinary about Booker's come-back is that he has been able to walk right back through the very same Black opponent who stopped him the first time. In fact, he has forced Sharpe -- who in the last election was vociferously supported by Jesse Jackson Sr. and virtually the entire civil rights establishment -- into ouster and retreat, without a single vote being cast. Somehow, without giving up any of his external alliances, Booker has been able to break up the Black establishment, capture parts of it and clear the path to victory.

This is unprecedented. This is shocking. It simply defies all the old rules and assumptions.

NEW PHENOMENON: CAPTURING A BLACK CITY FROM AN EXTERNAL POWER BASE

Booker's ascension represents a new day in Black politics, in a way that Obama's victory does not. Because when Booker wins, he will have successfully captured a major Black city -- essentially from the outside.

Now, let me be clear: I am not saying that Booker did not pay his dues in the vineyards of local politics. He paid them -- working long hours on tough causes for desperate constituents. Nor am I saying that Booker's ivy league credentials place him somehow "outside" the Black community. (After all, civil rights legend W.E.B. DuBois succeeded at Harvard and then died of old age, long before Booker was even born. We have had Black ivy leaguers for generations.)

But the fact is that Booker's original power base lies outside of Newark -- and largely outside of Black America, altogether. This is what makes his ascension so unusual and, for some, bewildering. Older Black politicians would almost always cultivate a local Black base first, then grow out a national Black network and then reach out to other "rainbow" constituencies. (Think of Jesse Jackson Sr., from the 1960s to the 1980s.)

But Booker has worked his magic in reverse. He launched his career initially through traditionally "white" credentials and patronage networks. And then -- relying in part on the supporters he cultivated at Stanford, Oxford and Yale Law School -- he established a beach-head in a major Black city. And now he has risen up, to defeat the local Black establishment and even bring it to heel.

Booker's accomplishment is significant -- representing essentially a new path to power for a Black politician in the United States. It is a path that was not really open to earlier generations of Black politicians. And it is one that none of the new Black politicians has successfully navigated -- until now. Until Cory Booker.

That is why is is so bemusing to read the New York Times reporting, with a scowl, that Booker is building a local machine. Well, he certainly is. But that should come as no surprise. The brother had already built a NATIONAL one. All that's left for him to do now, is to wed the two -- and continue his ascent.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Booker's rise bodes well or ill for the poor and embattled residents of Newark. But the fact that he has pulled it off at all is a truly remarkable feat.