Cory Booker was the Obama of American politics before Barack Obama leaped onto the national stage. When Booker first ran for mayor of Newark in 2002, Barack Obama was a relatively unknown Illinois state senator. It would be two more years before Obama’s keynote address at the Democratic National Convention would transform him into an international star. But Booker, a fresh-faced former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, was already being lauded—in the national press, on Wall Street, and in Hollywood, as well—as the face of a new generation of post-civil-rights, post-baby-boomer (in style, if not exactly in fact) African-American politicians who would march America into a glorious new day. (Other rising stars in this cohort include Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Alabama Rep. Artur Davis, and Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty).
Booker lost his first mayoral race to longtime incumbent Sharpe James, a scandal-plagued, wily, streetwise old-fashioned pol and former gym teacher who denounced Booker as an Uncle Tom—and as an interloper (Booker grew up in the suburbs) far removed from Newark’s tough streets. Four years later, as Booker’s campaign donations and popularity surged, Sharpe opted out of trying for a sixth term. Booker swept into office and Sharpe—long an object of suspicion and ugly rumors—eventually went to prison (from which he was recently released) for fraud and conspiracy after he failed to disclose he was romantically involved with a woman he helped buy nine plots in a city redevelopment zone between 2001 and 2005.
Booker’s success at turning inspirational rhetoric into effective governance might well provide something of a template for Obama. And last week, as Booker basked in the afterglow of his recent reelection for a second term, I asked him to reflect on what he has done. “Four years ago, I was really selling … the rather ephemeral qualities of hope and possibility. ‘Believe in me. Believe in us.’ And those are all important things,” he said. “But when you have nothing to back it up with, it made it very difficult … Now I can talk not just about what we’re going to do, but point to examples of what we’ve done.”
He has plenty to boast about, as The Star-Ledger, Newark’s newspaper, pointed out in endorsing him: “Under Booker, gun violence in Newark has been cut in half. The city payroll has shrunk by 17 percent. New parks have sprouted up across the city. The Housing Authority has been brought back from the dead, and the pace of new construction of affordable housing has picked up. New programs have helped hundreds of released prisoners find jobs, arranged financing for small businesses and helped families combat foreclosure. The list of innovative programs goes on.”
But Booker can hardly rest on his laurels. Along with the state of New Jersey—and the federal government itself—Newark is facing crushing deficits. And like his political counterparts across the country, Booker’s aspirations are circumscribed by this new age of austerity. The government “can no longer do it all … We can’t do what we used to do,” he said. “Resources are shrinking … Personnel costs are skyrocketing, [along with] health-care costs, pension costs. So revenues are not meeting expenses and it’s getting worse every day, which is going to force us to shrink the size of government because we just can’t afford it. And we definitely can’t tax our way out of this problem.” So the future, as he see it, lies in creating “new paradigms, for not only service delivery but for community success.”
It is not just in Newark, and not just in the area of urban finance, that new models are needed. In a new study focused on metropolitan America, the Brookings Institution pronounced the dawning of a “decade of reckoning,” during which urban America would have to face tough issues largely ignored for years: “The economic roller coaster of the past 10 years has distracted the United States and its major metropolitan areas from grappling with the urgent implications of the longer-run shift afoot in our society. Issues such as how to support communities with rapidly aging populations, how to meet family and labor-market needs through immigration, how to build workforce skills to maintain American economic leadership, and how to help lower-paid workers support themselves and their families cannot go unaddressed for another decade,” declared Brooking’s researchers.
Booker has already proven he can govern; the challenge of his second term will be to prove that he can lead, that he can breathe new life into an old city—and, in the process, help create a new model (or “new paradigms,” as he calls them) for the urban areas that growing numbers of Americans call home.
Ellis Cose is also the author of Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge and The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America.