I. Cory Booker has become cliche: Newark's Savior-in-Progress. An image that's been marching in place for the better part of a decade.
See for yourself. C-SPAN's newly opened video archive has a call-in segment with Booker from July 2000, when the self-described "neophyte in politics" was only two years into his first and only term as a ward councilman. The camera pans to a Time article titled, "The Savior of Newark?" while callers, Republicans and Democrats alike, praise his refreshing take on urban governance. The footage might as well have been shot last week -- the perception of Booker hasn't changed one bit in ten years, despite his spending nearly half of that time at the top of the city's political totem pole. And while the media has taken note of the significant progress he's made, the title 'Savior of Newark?' still has that question mark behind it.
It's been the subject of just about every magazine profile and TV spotlight on the guy, to the point where his story is considered 'told' until he grabs for the next rung up the political ladder (or somehow falls off of it). How could someone with 'FUTURE' written all over him have an image that's so suspended in time?
Earlier that C-SPAN year, in February 2000, New York magazine predicted that Booker, "an anti-machine city councilman... will probably be mayor of Newark in a year's time, and may well run for a higher office by the time he is 40." (Could they have meant that higher office with the constitutional requirement of 35 years of age?) Well, Booker turned 41 years old today. Yes, he is still Newark's struggling savior, though he is no longer its anti-machine councilman, the David to its Goliath. In fact, if anyone runs the machine these days, it's probably him.
People outside Newark do not look at Cory Booker this way. Perhaps it takes the proper Jersey eye, because when it comes down to it, all the magazines and news shows overlook a key characteristic in explaining who Cory Booker is: a politician from New Jersey... maybe not the fat-knuckled kind we're used to, but a New Jersey pol nonetheless.
To watch Booker as he campaigns for reelection on May 11 is to observe him in the context that he has made himself seem unnatural in -- Jersey politics. Specifically, urban Jersey politics. This month is not about the national ambitions, the editorial boards or charity circuit cruisers; it's about the people he depends on for votes. Newark is not a wealthy city. It's not even a city that caters to the wealthy. It is poor to lower middle class, mostly black, some Latino, a little Italian and a smattering of others. Booker is their mayor. They are the people who put him in office back in 2006. They are the people who have kept him there so far. They are the people who will decide how much clout he carries into a second term. As about two hundred years of American history have shown, keeping them happy -- maintaining political harmony in the cityscape -- requires nothing less than a political machine.
The iconic machine mayor is Richard J. Daley, the master of the political ward club. After the remote cartoon that now constitutes the image of Boss Tweed, Daley's name is probably the most synonymous with the urban political machine, the most tangible idea of what to expect of the person who runs it. For a small-shouldered, pudgy man, he was incredibly nimble in acquiring and keeping power from the early 1950s all the way to his death in '76. Like Booker, Daley was a teetotaling study in self-discipline, a workaholic who saw no problem too small for his personal attention. As you could guess, the two have their differences, but they are interwoven every time someone in the Booker administration hands out his or her business card. Written on its back is a mission statement that pledges, in part, to "set a national standard for urban transformation." See, whether he aspired to or not, Daley defined urban governance in his age. He set the standard from which these bold Newarkers hope to transform.
Tweed, Daley -- the political machine is an Irish import, inherited by the blacks after white flight from the cities. We're talking about a system that is almost as old as the nation itself. When the American Revolution ended, the Continental army officers and gentry tried to keep the British social hierarchy intact by establishing exclusive clubs, the most notable being the Society of the Cincinnati, named after the humble Roman dictator-democrat that Washington was most often compared to. Cincinnatus was a farmer who also happened to be a great military strategist, and when Rome was under siege, the Senate suspended democratic rule and gave him the absolute power necessary to subdue their enemies. Once the war was won, Cincinnatus did not cling to authority as most men might; he restored the republic and returned to his plow. It was a humility in triumph and dedication to principle not seen again until Annapolis, where Washington resigned his commission to Congress in 1783. When Jefferson asked Houdon to carve the giant American general from marble, the French sculptor sailed across the ocean only to pose Washington as an echo of his Roman forebear. Cincinnatus became the emblem of the selfless leader, the ideal the Founders aspired to.
But when the poor and ethnic minorities looked at the new American aristocracy, they didn't see Cincinnatuses; they saw a burgeoning tyranny of silk, robed in the cloth of democracy. The foot soldiers of the Revolution had to consolidate their power in numbers, form their own clubs. One in Manhattan took the name of a legendary native warrior, and from that group arose Tammany Hall. Founded three weeks after the adoption of the Constitution, it was clannish and orderly, functioning like a village back in Ireland, except it got bigger and wealthier, wealthier and bigger. Similar organizations sprouted in cities throughout the country -- cities like Newark. But Tammany remained the euphemism of machine politics... remains the euphemism to this very day.
The idea of Tammany has reigned for so long because the institution is stronger than any one man. Tammany's mascot is the tiger, and an appropriate one at that. Sometimes the big cat can be lulled to sleep, only to awaken and eat you alive. Every so often, someone comes along who knows how to ride it. And if you can tame a tiger, why in the hell would you kill it? It's a Cincinnatus conundrum. The only way the machine can ever be dismantled is if the person who is at the top -- the boss -- takes it apart, piece by piece, brick by brick and returns it to the people. But a Cincinnatus of the machine has never come.
The cities' politics have waited for their revolutionary figure. One who's not a multimillionaire who can buy his seat at the table. ("Without the party," Daley said, "only the rich would be elected to office.") Guys like Rudy Giuliani don't count. Even a Muppet can take Manhattan. Give us a leader who can save a Detroit, a Cleveland, a Newark. Someone who is not a flash in the pan of personal dynamism and can leave a lasting political infrastructure to govern when he's gone. That field's been barren ever since Daley won his first mayoral primary on Washington's Birthday, 1955.
Could it be Booker, that young councilman, the 'Savior of Newark?' who becomes the leader that redeems the city from the machine politics that have caused it so much corruption, so much strife? Isn't that what the cliche is all about? Whether the mayor who yearns to "set a national standard for urban transformation" is capable of redefining the urban political model, too?
Sadly, as the nation failed to notice that Booker aged these past ten years, it also failed to notice his transition, his slow acquiescence and submission to some of the old ways of politics in America's big cities. Cory Cincinnatus is still at the core of the Newark mayor's governing philosophy, but a Boss Booker has stepped in on the political side more than he would like to admit. As he runs for his first reelection, now is the time to look at Cory Booker, Jersey Politician.
II. It's 5:27 p.m. on February 9 and it's about to snow -- a lot. Still, three dozen decked-out grandmothers are the first of hundreds to walk up the center ramp leading into the weathered majesty that is Newark Symphony Hall. A blizzard is in the forecast, so they don heavy coats and hats, moseying toward seats in the back quadrants of the auditorium, about half a football field away from the stage and the podium at its center. They've come tonight to see their mayor, Cory Booker, be a politician at a great distance.
Billie Holiday is trilling her voice over the sound system while bow-tied ushers mill about, beaming flashlights under chairs, doing one final sweep before the VIPs arrive. There are several hundred VIPs tonight, for this is a gathering of Newark's leaders, and they number in the hundreds. They'd number in the thousands -- maybe tens of thousands -- if you asked Booker, whose greatest happiness seems to be derived by doling out empowerment to his citizen-leaders, sprinkling the seeds of self-worth across the concrete like an urban Johnny Appleseed.
Tonight is Booker's fourth State of the City Address, his last one before reelection. He has more accomplishments to talk about tonight than he has had any other year -- more reason to talk about his accomplishments than any other year. (The reelection is a referendum, after all.) And yet Cory Booker will talk about anyone but himself. Sure, he'll say how he refused to accept the experts' best possible scenarios, the models that said they could only make so much progress. But it will be something that they overcame, TOGETHER -- not because their mayor never stopped pushing for more.
Because though Booker is a glass-half-full kind of guy, his mind can't shake the half-empty. He's incapable of resigning that cylinder space. He has visions for it and he will will new water into existence if he must, but he is going... to reach... the lip.... So ask Booker if the glass is half-full or half-empty and he'll say, 'Half-full... for now.'
It's 6 p.m., and the groove goes from Billie to that low-key R&B soft snare sound. It's barely discernible above the growing crowd. The auditorium loses that musty wood and paint smell for a cocktail of women's perfumes. People are shaking hands and hugging, taking pictures. This is Newark.
The stage is bare except for a podium, a flower arrangement, and flags of the local, state and national variety. Formal-looking chairs sit on risers on both sides of the podium and from above, a gigantic screen declares, "We Are Newark!"
Community advocates, ministers, entrepreneurs and more meet under one roof as the snow hits the streets outside. They will hear from their mayor as a group tonight, as he explains how their city moves in inches from a hundred different directions and how it all ties together, though not through a prism of his mayoral leadership, as other might show it to them. In fact, Booker casts it back on them. We. Are. Newark.
Tonight is not the usual setting for Mayor Booker. He prefers the one-on-one to the thunder of applause, this banquet dinner adoration. Booker's disregard for the pomp and circumstance of high city office is evident even in the moments before his big speech. At 6:56, he wanders onstage unannounced, unnoticed to chat up a council member and city officials as they take their chairs on the platforms astride the podium. He slips back into the wings and they run through a quick succession of introduction, invocation, pledge, anthem and then it's his turn at bat at 7:14.
It's a standing ovation and the lights come up on the giant chandelier, illuminating the room. Booker darts to the podium, "THANK YOU EVERYBODY THANK YOU! Thank you for braving the SNOW! Thank you very very MUCH!" The mayor is in a rush. A lot to talk about.
The topic he is most eager to address -- the challenge that bookends both his speech and his first term -- is crime. He talks about the experts who said crime reduction wasn't amenable to the meager tools of a struggling municipality. It had all been tried. Couldn't be done. Impossible.
"I'm telling you as mayor," says Mr. Half-Full-For-Now, "that 'impossible' has never been a word in the Newark vocabulary!"
"That'zright!" cries a woman above the din of the audience.
Only a 10 to 15 percent reduction in gun violence? Unacceptable. He talks with his hands as he gets into the improvements at the police department, at the nonprofit organization, citizen initiatives and so on. The giant overhead beams the 2006 rate of shootings and murders in a bar graph. Then he reveals the rates for his last three years in office, and the bars fall precipitously. Shootings down 46 percent, Murders 28 percent, and Overall Crime 21 percent.
The audience applauds roundly. They seem into it, but a bit subdued. They've heard a lot of it before. Newark is starting to get as much of a reputation for crime reduction as it once did for crime. They're a prouder city but the fear is still there. Booker knows this, and knows they still expect better. He pledges to really turn their heads in the years to come.
He talks about improvements to schools, clenching his fists to his chest like he's holding the reins to a team of horses, spurring them on. Yah! Yah! Yah! Then a litany of micro-tailored innovations: from prisoner reentry to pest control, entrepreneurship to park services, financial empowerment centers to fatherhood college.
No political speech in 2010 would be complete without, "Jobs Jobs Jobs Jobs!" Four times, along with the standard disclaimer of an economy "not seen since the Great Depression." But in Newark, the story has somewhat of a different ending. Unemployment is high, but Booker's luring in companies, seeing to it that they hire Newarkers first. Why, just that afternoon he's landed a major mail service facility in the violence-riddled South Ward and it's got him pumped. He calls out to some of the executives in the audience and rouses applause. "Thank you very MUCH! 180 jobs, people! ONE-HUN-DRED-AND-EIGH-TY JOBS!"
Have no doubt, the companies come to Newark because Cory Booker is the Superman of his city's image, but being the salesman of self is not his bread and butter. You can tell it from an auditorium away how one part of his hour-plus speech is different than all the rest. The Steve Jobs-setup above shows his mouth pinch into a tight smile and then all of a sudden there's this glow from behind the podium.
It's when he gets to talk about residents.
The anti-graffiti godsend, hitting the streets, paint roller in hand, taking down tags. The wheelchair-bound woman who overcomes any obstacle in her way to make the community meetings she contributes to. The lionhearted lawnmower man, who drove away drug dealers in his neighborhood by cleaning up the vacant lots they claimed. Booker is bursting.
"HE... is... our community.... HE... is... New-URK!"
His voice turns up, an almost squeak-squeal of delight. You can hear the tickle in his words, talking about these leaders -- ordinary citizens, all of them -- who take up responsibility, bit by bit. It's the empowerment that gets to the heart of what Cory Booker is. He is dynamic, and he is the center of attention for people here and around the country, but that is the furthest thing from his preferred political model.
No. Booker is hands-on. He concludes his speech, collects himself for the benediction and then wades into the audience, shaking hands and hugging and posing for pictures -- just like the hundreds of ordinary leaders did before he spoke. He is one of them because they handed him great power and he's spent the past few years giving it right back. Not in the form of patronage jobs or the other amenities that generations of urban mayors have employed to secure their offices. He gives them empowerment through an array of micro-services and small, flexible institutions. He taps into their initiative, focuses it, and sends them on their way.
For an ambitious politician to give freely of himself, to suffer the indignities of public life -- that's standard issue. But for a politician to give freely of his power? It's downright Cincinnatus-like. No one does it. And if they have, their political careers didn't survive long enough to tell the tale. It's not your traditional big city boss politics and it's not some conservative small government laboratory. Sure, Republicans might talk about encouraging personal responsibility, but even if they adhere to that mantra, the key word is 'encouraging.' Don't expect the political party that turned 'community organizer' into a dirty word to put any effort into actually helping people empower themselves. And don't expect most Democrats to do it if it comes at the expense of their machines' manpower.
So what does that make Cory Booker's political organization? Call it 'personality-driven selfless governance,' which sounds like it should be an oxymoron but it's not. It's right there in Newark, personified by Cory Cincinnatus.
However, this model is deeply flawed in that it seems unique to someone with Booker's magnetism. Could he pass this operation off to one of his councilmembers? Hardly, as the powerful Savior cliche of these last ten years provides him with the liberating confidence to decentralize, to push the mantra of self-empowering residents rather than hoarding his authority. If he can transform the urban governing model, perhaps he can reset the image of big city boss politician and thereby open a door that's been shut to black mayors from large to mid-sized cities.
Only a handful of former big city mayors go on to statewide office to begin with. You can count those still serving on one hand: Senators Dick Lugar and Dianne Feinstein and Governors Ed Rendell and Martin O'Malley. In the more than 40 years since the era of black mayors in major American cities began, not one has advanced to a higher elected office. Booker aims to break the mold, and he's doing it be demystifying the job through accessibility.
Murray Kempton once wrote that Malcolm X could package a message that "perfectedly suited the demands of electronic journalism," which in the mid-1960s meant a two-minute segment on the evening news. Today, it's Booker in 140 characters or less. The cynical might think that the mayor's Twitter feed is aimed at the broader national audience. His 1.07 million followers is approaching four times the city's population and surely that's part of it. But watching his State of the City Address from Symphony Hall's upper-mezzanine, one can see the audience sparkle like a field of lightning bugs, a hundred cell phone screens blinking in the darkness as they update Facebook statuses, tweet Booker's latest sound bites or check their messages. In fact, those at the post-speech press avail are largely the curators of local websites whose Twitter handles Booker knows by heart. He makes it look easy.
III. There was another young North Jersey mayor who decided to take to Twitter and imitate the Booker style. Hoboken's Peter Cammarano was sworn into office early last summer and began tweeting his daily routine along with feel-good images of him clowning around with kids and community members. He sent his last tweet around 1 a.m. on July 23, 2009, just a few hours before federal authorities showed up at his doorstep to arrest him for taking bribes from a government informant disguised as a crooked developer. 43 other politicians (primarily Democrats), public officials and rabbis would be arrested that day in what the Star-Ledger's resident graybeard calls "the largest sting in New Jersey history." Maybe. Maybe not. But even the jaded Jersey public was shocked.
The next morning, a law student who works in Democratic politics named Matthew Jordan wrote in his Twitter feed, "#ibelieveincorybooker." The hash-tag was a play on Harvey Dent's idealistic campaign slogan from the last Batman flick, Dark Knight. Dent made people believe in him and thereby believe in the system again. He gave them hope. No doubt a lot of New Jerseyans feel the same way about Booker, but why? What makes him different? ... And what if he's two-faced?
Also on the day after the corruption sweep, a deputy mayor in the Booker administration abruptly resigned. 'Health reasons,' they said. It was awfully curious timing. Sure enough, bribery charges were finally brought against him in February. In the indictment, one of the conspirators whispered, "They're all corrupt except for [the mayor]." It was reminiscent of a 2008 Esquire piece that likened Booker to Will Smith in I Am Legend -- a lone warrior in a land of zombies. Booker bristled at the depiction and in a heated letter to the magazine, called the Savior cliche "the most insulting part" (emphasis, his) of a brutal portrayal of Newark, Shadow Skyline of The Damned. He said that to insist that "there was only one good person in Newark, one hero, only one person who was looking to make positive change to confront Newark's challenges" was perpetuating a "stereotype, convenient cliches, and Hollywood hype."
Yet the voice on the FBI tape saying the same thing was not some distant magazine reader but a person close enough to City Hall to peddle influence at high levels. Not high enough, it seems; the mayor was actually complicit in the investigation, cooperating with the local U.S. Attorney's office. He also worked with the feds to weed out city employees who were stealing gas, not to mention his chasing of a bank robber on foot, personally halting an out of towner's drug transaction near a Fourth of July barbeque, or the public shamings of litterers via his Twitter followers.
It's the cliche, the Savior Batman image that makes Booker burn. He knows that he doesn't do it all on his own -- that he can't do it all on his own. His profile is both a blessing and a curse, for he needs to be more complicated than his original conception. He's had to face tough decisions that the Cory Booker of 2000 -- the Cory Booker of legend -- had not considered or maybe thought he could overcome.
In 2000, Booker gave a speech at the conservative Manhattan Institute in which he shared the story of "a very bigwig official in the county of Essex" discussing with him which office he should run for next. None of the conversation had to do with policies or ideas, just how much patronage came with each position. It was the old school machine way of thinking. "Let me put it to you in a crude way," Daley's mentor used to tell young pols. "Put people under obligation to you."
Fast-forward eight years to when Booker was in the position of ultimate municipal power. "You really have to know where your moral compass is," he said of trading jobs for political favors in 2008, "and you have to figure out what lines you're willing to cross to get to the greater good, and which ones, even though they might be a shortcut, you're just not willing to take."
This is why reformers are little more than speed bumps in Boss, Mike Royko's classic take on the heyday of Daley's Chicago. Sure, some managed to defeat weak machine candidates, but "the strain leaves most independents so exhausted that most of them eventually embrace the Machine, at least gently, to avoid recurring primary struggles."
So it is with Booker. In 2007, he couldn't install his allies in the state legislature. In 2008, he lost a council seat to an avowed foe. The city's 2009 turnout failed Gov. Jon Corzine's bid to keep his chin above water, another embarrassing development. How can you steer the course of city government if your levers of power keep snapping off? In the classic leader's dilemma of whether to be loved or feared, Booker was losing the power of fear. Thus he had to spread the love. As he heads toward reelection, he's had to bend that moral compass a little bit more. He's swallowing his pride and embracing some of the guys who milk the system for all its worth, the very people he shook his head at in his 2000 musings.
The North Ward Center seems oddly out of place, its campus behind an imposing iron fence, a green and leafy piece of land. It gives off the vibe of a secret research facility: discreet, secluded and fortified from the street. It's a stone's throw from a housing complex with a heavy turnstile for an entranceway that looks like it can do serious damage if a hand gets caught in it. Across the street is a Fine Fare supermarket, a chain retailer that only seems to locate in rough neighborhoods. There's a bodega and the plastic containers that carry the region's free Spanish language weekly, El Especialito. Three Latino kids patrol the corner atop a steep hill that puts the 'Mount' in Mount Prospect Avenue.
All that is left behind on the street as you pass through the gate and walk up the driveway lined with the unmarked cruisers of politicians, a couple of Crown Victorias and SUVs. The doors are under a big portico that leads to a corridor and then to a room with so much wood-paneling and gilded decor that one might think it proper to raise a toast to the health of President Cleveland. This is the mansion that Steve Adubato, Sr. purchased for his ward club in the 1970s. The Italian Stallion's been riding herd on Newark politicos ever since Booker was a baby. There's a picture of him and Teddy Kennedy back when the guy had a waist and a dream of the Oval Office. Photographs of governors line the walls, while a real one -- Happy 86th birthday, Brendan Byrne! -- searches for a seat. There's a wide wooden staircase with a banister that's as thick as the bar in a saloon. The place is packed to the gills with politicians.
This is the 36th annual gathering of the Society of Italians Who Celebrate St. Patrick's Day. It is a late festival, complete with clunky statuette awards for Irishwoman of the Year and Italian Man of the Year. A bunch of pols -- mostly Democrats, some Republicans -- drink and tell dirty jokes about each other, but the main reason they're here is to pay homage to Adubato.
Mayor Booker is near the banister with the deputy chairman of the Port Authority (a recently resigned Republican state senator) and the newly Adubato-installed state Senate President, Steve Sweeney, a gruff South Jersey ironworker. There are congressmen, mayors, legislators, movers and shakers. The chairmen of the state Democrats and state Republicans stand next to each other, a rare display of proximity since they're constantly at odds in the press.
The program starts and a bunch of kids in green blazers descend the stairs to sing a few songs. They're from the Robert Treat Academy, the stellar charter school Adubato oversees and the first place Governor-elect Chris Christie went on the morning after he unseated Corzine in November. The Republican Christie went there with Booker (a prospective 2013 foe) despite Adubato's supporting Corzine -- another testament to the old man's power. Once the kids retreat up the stairs and out a backdoor the program is allowed to get a little racy.
Booker takes the microphone and doesn't disappoint, offering a few jokes about Adubato's great abilities in the backroom and not-so-great abilities in the bedroom. But mostly he talks about the good work Adubato does, perhaps the most sober moments of the evening's entertainment. He finishes his remarks, embraces Adubato and works the crowd on a steady path toward the door. Shortly thereafter, his police director Garry McCarthy, stops by. Face time from this man of the hour -- Newark is about four weeks into a homicide-free run on this evening -- is an important nod to the power of the North Ward Center. As if on cue, cigar smoke wafts in.
To be clear, Adubato is on the level and the work he does is admirable and widely respected. Let it never be said that the machine hasn't done some good things in its day; otherwise the model would've faded away long ago. But in New Jersey, do not confuse the 'legal' with the 'ethical.' Furthermore, Adubato remains an unforgiving ward boss, crushing the elected officials who dare to cross him, or at least making their lives a living hell, as he once did with Booker. Of course, one could make the argument that Booker isn't exactly going to them; maybe they are coming to him? ... But the Passaic River only flows one way, and it was running long before Booker got here. "[My] life is much easier now that I'm not fighting with Steve," he told a reporter after the two smoked the peace pipe last summer. Somewhere, Mike Royko is smiling.
IV. A week and a day later, "Big Steve" is up front in the power pew of the New Hope Baptist Church for Booker's campaign kickoff. Adubato's seated with Democratic State Committee Chairman John Wisniewski, the Essex County executive, the county sheriff, a few members of the state assembly and what looks to be one of the pastors' wives. Booker gives Adubato a big hug on his way to the altar and will drop his name into the speech a few times, more than enough to make him feel welcome and respected. Booker is not above making convenient alliances like an old boss pol. The consolidation of the many, just like Old Tammany.
But outside of the power pew is perhaps the second (after Booker) most influential person in the room: Ms. Gayle King, television personality, magazine editor and best friend to Oprah Winfrey. She and Booker have been close for years, and so there she is, on the Saturday morning before Easter, in a church in Newark's Central Ward, sitting next to Cory's dad, Cary, a small purse on her arm and a Booker rally sign in her hand. See, King is a trump card. Through her help, as Booker mentions in a speech delivered impeccably without notes, Oprah's foundation gave Newark organizations $2 million in 2009. $500,000 of that went to Adubato's Robert Treat charter school -- a lot of green blazers. Jon Bon Jovi and Brad Pitt are just a few of the bold-faced names Booker brings in. There are scores of business executives and charities impressed by him, who want to lend their hands to partner on a project with him and only him. So if you're a Newark pol, ask yourself: the Passaic might have flowed in one direction for a long time, but what good is a current when someone can part the waters?
And though the machine can sometimes bring Booker to his knees, make him revert to the ways of boss politics, nobody gets back up quite like he does. Mayor Daley was brilliant at co-opting Republican businessmen in Chicago's Loop, putting the GOP out of business within a few years as long as he kept his wealthy patrons' interests in mind, sometimes at a cost to other members of his machine. The difference with Mayor Booker's friends is that they are people with too much money to spend in one lifetime. They ask for nothing but some face time, maybe a press conference and a little claim to the Savior cliche. It benefits the machine because Booker can offer access to that donor base for their voter turnout operations. In exchange, he gets their backing for his agenda, which is why the incumbent council is in such harmony with the mayor. At his campaign kickoff, Booker -- the ward councilman who used to pride in being voted down 8 to 1 -- says he'd rather not be reelected than sent back without his council allies. David is now Goliath.
The boss never gets ahead, though, and Booker might be foolish for sticking with city politics if his ambition extends beyond City Hall. He had his opportunities. There was an envoy on running for U.S. Senate in 2002, an Obama administration post in 2008 and the second (or first, it is rumored) spot on the 2009 gubernatorial ticket. Booker stuck it out, stuck with Newark. "Four more years!" they chant at his kickoff. "Four more years!" Everyone chants it seems, except state Democratic Chairman Wisniewski. From a distance, his lips do not appear to be moving.
Like many other New Jersey Democrats, Wisniewski is hoping Booker bails in three years to run against Governor Christie, and the tells of a gubernatorial poker player are appearing on his face. In March on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Booker talked about relations with teachers' unions, notable in NJ politics of late as Christie's most vocal adversaries. Except Booker called them, "collective bargaining units that represent teachers," a less polarizing turn of phrase with the ring of positive political framing to it. The Booker of 2000 was passionately advocating for vouchers, the bane of the public school teacher, but in his kickoff speech, he is more ardent about extolling the educators who dip into their own pockets for school supplies. It sounded like he wanted to write them some vouchers for once.
Whether or not he runs (and many think he will), it seems unlikely that Booker will go for a third term in 2014. Such is out of the mold for a mayoralty that wants "standard for urban transformation" written on its tombstone, for it usually takes a decade or two for a mayor to reach mythic proportions. Booker rose to the top of city government in a mere eight years and plans to be out within another eight. On to the next thing. He does not plan to be a martyr to machine politics the way nearly all of his predecessors have been. He'll go where he wants, at the time of his choosing.
It recalls the demise of Tammany -- not the club, but its native namesake. The aged warrior chief looked around at his tribe and his accomplishments and felt satisfied. At that moment, he decided it was time. He set his body ablaze, and for this or maybe other reasons, they would later call him, "Saint Tammany."
Here lies another misinterpretation of Booker, a dimly alluded to part of the cliche. A young charismatic leader, wading into the violence, hoping to halt it by his mere presence, extending his hand out to strangers on darkened streets in spite of death threats -- it's the epic daring, the kind of borderline suicides that cement the peaceful into the heroic. The portraits of Gandhi and King on his office wall are reminders of men who stood for nonviolence, but also of men who met with violent ends, sometimes a requirement for sainthood.
But look beyond the cliche, to what those people really stood for -- not a willingness to die but a deliberateness to live, to not allow any person or convention to dictate where they went even if it meant staring death in the face, physically, spiritually, politically. This is how Booker addressed the violence in his city, diving in headlong not for personal glory, but communal dignity -- to yield no street corner to fear. If only it could be the same with City Hall. Booker hopes to rise from that political graveyard, and it's hard to believe that he won't, when he has risen above so much else.
And yet it's not enough. Booker has not set a new standard for transformation in urban politics. Perhaps he couldn't yet, that the predominant challenges of crime and poverty before him were too great for one term. If Booker stayed in Newark and compounded his power like an old boss, perhaps he'd have the ability to reshape things in his second term. But with his eye is on the door, it does not seem likely.
Some disagree, already seeing a Newark-bred successor to his political model, though it is far from certain whether that person can attain and persevere the way Booker has. A Cincinnatus rarely comes along. Otherwise, it'd just be cliche.