It was a great plan. Mayor Cory Booker was going to stick to a strategy that had made him one of America’s most admired mayors – using the visibility of his public office to launch profile raising publicity stunts for himself. And not just any headline grab, but one that would help define Mayor Booker as a true man of the people in these trying times. He would become a man, nay, a symbol of the dispossessed and suffering.
In other words, Cory was going on food stamps.
Obviously it would only be for about a week but the optics were perfect. And without fail the merry band of morons who had just helped ensure an Obama re-election by trivializing rape and recommending immigrants “deport themselves” took the bait and committed another Fox Pas.
Analogizing cosmetic dieting with brutal poverty? Yes! Winning. Booker was not only going to get great press for his heroic act of not eating the more expensive foods he likes for a week, he would also get an honorable mention from every liberal establishment stroke artist as epitomizing the sensible alternative to a right-wing gone mad.
Meanwhile, back in Newark …
Cory had another great plan. Using the opportunity presented by a deadlocked council vote, he launched a surprise attack making an unprecedented appearance inside the city council building to vote in a crony of one of New Jersey’s most notorious political bosses Steve Adubato. A dirty move even by Newark standards and not in keeping with Mayor Booker’s hyper-managed public profile as an advocate for transparency and good government.
That irony was not lost on Mayor Booker’s colleagues as Newark Councilman Darrin Sharif noted:
“The mayor, who goes all around the country to talk about democracy… literally in the back of the room, hiding in the shadows,” Sharif said.
The riot caused by Mayor Booker’s political ambush was put down by the police with pepper spray and a prominent SEIU union leader was arrested. But, nonetheless, it seems the power play will stand.
So how does shadowy Back Room Booker, the man that actually governs Newark, square with America’s Mayor? Will the Real Cory Booker please stand up?
O Cory Where Art Thou?
As the mythology around Mayor Booker amplifies perhaps it is time to gain some perspective.
Chris Hedges, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist turned activist, is fond of noting in reference to Karl Popper’s influential book The Open Society and Its Enemies that those attracted to power are, at best, mediocre but typically venal. Popper believed that minimizing misrule is more important than trying to find great rulers. The wise know that if you cling to politicians for solutions to all your problems you are asking to be both disappointed and lied to.
So is Cory Booker mediocre or venal?
Despite the venality of recent events he surely weighs in on the mediocre side. Which is all the more deflating when considering the grandiosity of Mayor Booker’s public persona. The mythical image Cory puts forward – as a hero struggling against and triumphing over the epic and craven forces of American politics – would surely be hilarious if not for the tragedy that some actually believe it.
What those believers may be surprised to learn is that the Newark Cory will be leaving behind as his second term ends is strikingly similar to the Newark he inherited from sworn enemy Mayor Sharpe James. The results have been, well, mediocre.
Meet The New New Newark Same As The Old New Newark
In 2002 Cory Booker made his first attempt at becoming the Mayor of Newark. The struggle between Booker and then Mayor Sharpe James was the basis for the documentary film Street Fight. The film lionizes Booker and casts a harsh light on James clearly stemming from repeated mistreatment of the filmmaker by the James Team which is caught on camera. Side note: a great way to become the villain in a film’s narrative is to repeatedly interfere with and harass a filmmaker.
The film also showed Booker traveling to New Jersey’s wealthy suburbs well outside Newark to fund raise confirming an attack launched by the James campaign and validated by campaign finance reports. Booker was repeatedly labeled a “carpetbagger” who was relying on outside money to buy support in Newark which stood in contrast to Booker’s campaign message about popular reform and cleaning up corruption in Newark. In a ironic twist of fate one of Booker’s key campaign operatives, prominently featured in the film, would plead guilty to tax fraud earlier this year.
In any case Booker was defeated 53%-47%.
James would later be indicted and convicted of corruption (venal) clearing the way for Booker to run in 2006, where he would win.
And so began the Golden Age of Newark? Not really.
The primary promise of Booker’s 2006 campaign and the focus of his next media vanity project – Brick City – was on a new plan to reduce violent crime, particularly homicides, in Newark.
Newark Remains one of America’s most dangerous cities
So Booker, true to his word, made homicide reduction the center of his administration’s agenda. Echoing the policies other cities faced with high crime perform, which is essentially a holding pattern strategy, Booker used expanded manpower and new policing techniques to swarm crime hot spots. This lead, not surprisingly, to an initial drop off in violent crime and later to a reversion to the mean with violent crime being roughly where it was when the whole thing started.
So in 2010 Newark saw its first homicide free month in generations…. and about a year later the trend began reversing itself considerably. 2012 has not fared much better.
This is not due to some incredible incompetence within Booker’s administration, the plan was performed as designed, it was due to pursuing mediocrity. It was a failure of vision by a so-called (near self-proclaimed) visionary. Beyond the pageantry of more police on the street and the mayor jogging through the city flanked by TV cameras – what was this program actually supposed to do? If the answer was “not much” then mission accomplished.
The program’s failure was the inevitable result of underlying factors that exist in many high crime cities. Not that it’s news but crimes of passion occur in every community, the body counts in Newark, Camden, and other cities around the country are directly a result of dispassionate violence. Newark like other cities is a major hub for the sale and distribution of illegal drugs which means most business disputes are resolved through violence not civil litigation.
Booker, being a mediocre politician, has never attacked or even substantively spoken to the root cause of the homicides in Newark – the war on drugs. Nor is he likely to, for being a mediocre politician he would hate to alienate the wealthy whiter suburbs (aka the buyers of those illegal drugs whose buying creates the markets that leads to the violent business disputes in Newark). He needs their money and possibly soon, votes. More on that later. Yes, he said the drug war was a failure – well, you are mayor Cory, what are you going to do about it? Answer: Nothing.
OK, put aside crime. What about revitalizing Newark and getting people back to work?
The official unemployment rate in Newark hangs around 15%
Obviously we can all think of a thousand excuses for why Newark has awful unemployment numbers. And that’s fine. And no typical mediocre run of the mill politician should be expected to achieve much given the myriad of excuses anyone can come up with.
And that’s the point.
Speaking of Newark’s economy, Mayor Booker has also been surprisingly similar to his predecessor Sharpe James on redevelopment issues. Despite trying to draw clear lines during the campaign in 2002 between a more open and fair use of city resources Booker pursued a parallel path to James. In one instance Cory continued to press an eminent domain seizure – initiated by James – for downtown redevelopment that he campaigned against and was only stopped due to a judge’s ruling.
From the New York Times:
A New Jersey judge effectively killed an ambitious downtown redevelopment project in Newark yesterday, ruling that the city’s decision to condemn 14 acres of property on behalf of a private developer was ill-conceived and wrong…
Although they blame Mr. James for condemning their neighborhood in the first place, residents and merchants said they were disappointed that Mayor Cory A. Booker upheld the city’s use of eminent domain, despite having promised during his campaign that he would not.
So maybe Cory was exaggerating how bad Mayor James’ redevelopment policies were. And hey, politicians break promises all the time.
Cory also ran into some of the same personnel problems Mayor James had running the city as Mayor Booker’s Deputy Mayor Ronald Salahuddin was convicted for conspiracy to commit extortion. A little venality with that mediocrity.
Should Mayor Booker be held responsible for what goes on in his administration? Or should we lower expectations?
Climbing Mount Olympus
As the mythological Cory Booker of twitter and cable fame soars above the petty clouds of politics – the mayor who actually serves in Newark continues his positioning for higher office. It remains unclear what Cory is going to get for the underhanded display at the council meeting from Adubato but surely he has earned whatever is coming.
But aye, there’s the rub. How long can Cory maintain his public persona with all these dirty deeds piling up? And if he is so interested in higher office shouldn’t he be avoiding irritating the people he would need?
There has already been talk of Booker taking on Governor Christie in 2013. Two words: Ha. Ha.
Booker’s major agenda items fit perfectly with Christie’s, one of the reasons the two get along so well (Christie getting rid of Sharpe James couldn’t have hurt either). The public sector unions, especially the teachers unions would literally not have a candidate worth voting for. Booker and Christie see eye to eye perfectly on privatizing public education (despite a recent cheating scandal at Newark’s most revered charter school) and Booker’s pro-Wall Street rhetoric that got him in trouble on Meet The Press is more or less the same as Christie’s. Not surprising given Cory’s history with right-wing think tanks.
Oh and the Democratic political bosses have done fine under the Christie regime – a regime that is now running with 60%+ approval ratings thanks to the Sandy response which included the Obama-Christie responsible leaders tour The bosses have no reason to abandon a ship that’s sailing smooth, especially given the rewards they received for the hand-sitting in 2009 that brought Christie to power in the first place.
That would leave gay marriage as the only discernible difference (watch for a centrist shift on women’s healthcare by Christie) in which case the argument against a referendum makes even less sense. If it’s popular enough to take Booker over the top then it’s popular enough to win on its own.
The remaining high profile race would be U.S Senator in 2014 which is a crowded field and while Booker can raise lots of money from Wall Street – pushing privatization will do that – it is unclear what difference that would make.
But there is no doubt the mythological Cory Booker is quite popular, the question then becomes how much will the voters be wiling to suspend their disbelief given the record?
Earth sounds my wisdom, and high heaven my fame.