Some say Newark Mayor Cory Booker is affable and approachable. Others argue he is intense and rigid. Almost all agree that he is a welcome change at the helm of one of the nation’s most troubled cities. While he has been compared to Shirley Chisholm and Thurgood Marshall, political and legal icons of the past, and Barack Obama and Deval Patrick of the present, Booker is indeed carving his own niche in the political landscape of the city of Newark and, perhaps, the country.
When the cerebral 37-year-old Ivy League–trained lawyer won a bitter and at times acrimonious mayoral election in May over salty New Jersey state Sen. Ronald Rice, a throwback to the 20-year regime of outgoing Mayor Sharpe James, residents of Newark celebrated and welcomed their dynamic young leader with open arms. Booker embraced them too. But after five months in office, Booker is quickly starting to realize that the adage “be careful what you wish for” is a cogent precursor to both the good and the bad. In an interview with The Network Journal, he discusses a range of issues, as well as his plans for change, in the Garden State’s biggest and most ethnically diverse city.
The Crime Challenge
“I have some big plans for Newark and want to make it the safest city in America,” Booker says. “Crime and violence have plagued the city of Newark for too long and I am determined to change that image of my city.”
Making Newark safe is a daunting task, even for this ambitious mayor. For years, according to police crime statistics and various U.S. Census Bureau studies, Newark has ranked at or near the top of the largest urban cities with the highest crime statistics. At one time, the city held the dubious distinction of being the car theft capital of the country. Gangs continue to rule parts of Newark, and many city residents are terrified to leave their homes. “I will not allow gangs and violence to rule and take over our streets. Not in my city,” Booker insists. “My team will make this community safe by whatever means necessary.”
Determined to be a hands-on and “my door is always open” mayor, Booker may have taken this “being down with the people” vernacular a bit too far, some say. In July, for example, he made national headlines and even a mention on the Jay Leno Show when he helped chase down a bank robbery suspect outside of City Hall. He also garnered criticism when he opted to continue to live in “the hood” after he became mayor. He had lived since 1998 in Brick Towers, one of Newark’s worst housing projects—there’s a 24-hour police patrol at the site—and said he planned to remain a tenant until it is rehabilitated. The building is now scheduled to be razed.
Booker’s stance on combating crime has remained tough and unwavering. In fact, during his campaign New Jersey police and prison officials thwarted an alleged plot to assassinate him. In late June, letters and text messages were discovered in the prison cell of a Bloods street gang leader at East Jersey State prison in Rahway. According to prison officials and published reports, incarcerated gang members at four New Jersey prisons—East Jersey State, Newark Northern State Prison, New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton—planned a coordinated uprising at the facilities. Officials speculate the uprising would cause a distraction and allow gang members on the outside to carry out the plot and attack Booker. Security was heightened at the four prisons for several days in the wake of the plot. At least one of the inmates involved in the fray was found to have a cell phone.
At the time, Booker said he would not be “intimidated or distracted from my goal to make sure that every Newarker is safe.” He continues to echo those words today.
During his campaign, Booker vowed to put at least 200 more police officers on the streets and ultimately triple the size of the Newark Police Department’s gang unit. He has followed through on the initiative. In September, as mayor, he presided over the first graduating class of new police officers from the Newark Police Academy. Three dozen new recruits, 22 men and 14 women, hit the streets of the city.
“There are too many Newarkers who are living in fear and afraid to leave their homes,” Booker told the graduates at the time. “I ask you to join me in making our city a great place to live.”
Booker does have his critics and naysayers. He recently announced layoffs, an increase in taxes and the elimination of some city-sponsored programs in an effort to balance the budget. At the same time, he agreed to decrease his annual salary of about $140,000 by the same percentage as the proposed tax hike. Much of the budget shortfall stems from shoddy, questionable accounting practices and, in some cases, blatant abuse of city funds from the James administration, he contends. “I inherited a lot of baggage from the previous administration,” he says. “There have been a number of discrepancies and some questionable accounting procedures that have come to light in recent months and they need to be thoroughly examined.”
In July, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs sent the city of Newark a letter essentially stating that the budget submitted by the James administration was so sloppy and littered with mistakes that a new budget needed to be submitted. In one example of “sloppiness” or “mistakes,” the amount of “cash on hand” was put at $251 million while the amount “on deposit” was listed as $96.5 million, raising questions about the whereabouts of the remaining $155 million. Another example involved an entry of “$13 million in unallocated tax receipts.” A person or persons had paid $13 million in taxes for reasons no one could fathom.
Booker also has been accused of displacing African-American workers at City Hall and hiring more Hispanics, creating tension and unpleasant working conditions for Newark’s largest groups of minorities. Booker does not dispute the charge. Instead, he argues that given the increasing demographics of Hispanics in Newark and nationwide, the group should be represented accordingly in his city. “For years, Hispanics have never been accurately reflected in City Hall,” he says. “The growing Hispanic population (as well as the African-American population) must be represented equally at all levels.”
The Road Ahead
Booker recognizes that the road ahead is going to be long and bumpy, but insists he would not trade his plush corner office in City Hall for anything else in the world. He is reluctant to publicly castigate his predecessor, even though the same cannot be said of the controversial 70-year-old Sharpe James, who at one time threatened to “out-nigger” Booker and win the election. James later claimed that the comment was taken out of context.
“I don’t want to verbally assault Sharpe James,” Booker says. “Yes. There were a lot major problems with the previous administration and a lot things were done improperly and unfairly. But now it’s time to change those things and move forward.”
Newark—and much of the country’s political community, for that matter—will be paying close attention to the changes he implements and the way in which he moves forward.
By Glenn Townes