Newark’s charismatic mayor, Cory Booker, took the stage Sunday at Salem State University’s Speaker Series. A man on the move politically (he’s planning a run for retiring Frank Lautenberg’s U.S. Senate seat in 2014), he’s on the move physically. Using a hand-held mike and roaming the stage at the Lynn Auditorium, Booker held forth for close to an hour in a talk entitled “How to Change the World.” His audience’s enthusiasm seemed to indicate that, if the changes he said he’s making in Newark, of all places, are real he might indeed do it for the world.
He certainly knows how to work an audience. Part preacher, part stand-up comedian, he painted colorful pictures of his family: a father born into poverty to a single mom in North Carolina, whose community took in the father to help raise and educate him. His mother, a political activist, remains a formidable influence on Cory.
Looking back at the history of America, of blacks in America and of his family, Booker said it is people working together as community, “ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things” who “refuse to be erased by history,” that help America to live up to its promise. Booker’s passion for social justice extends to all, including women, immigrants, people of color, and gays and is a theme that underlines much of what he focuses on.
He said his parents “gave me the audacity to think,” echoing a certain President’s The Audacity of Hope. Booker’s parents met in D.C, worked on voter registration and civil rights, and found jobs in the mainstream, working for I.B.M. After a job promotion, they moved to a northern New Jersey suburb, worked on issues like fair housing and raised Cory and his brother. His parents never let him forget that his middle class, suburban upbringing was due to the efforts of others along the way. His father, he said, always chided him, “Don’t walk around the house like you hit a triple. You were born on third base.”
And so, after Stanford, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and Yale Law School, he moved into a housing project on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Newark, where he lived for eight years and got elected to the City Council, defeating a four-term incumbent. Frustrated by the Council’s failure to address crime in the projects, he gained significant media attention by going on a 10-day hunger strike and getting more police assigned to public housing. His parents always told him not to try to fit in but to stand out. And that’s what he certainly has done.
He upended the Newark power structure in 2006 by upsetting the entrenched mayor and was overwhelmingly reelected in 2010. His campaign was the subject of the documentary “Street Fight.” Booker reformed the city budget (twice cutting his own pay.) He prides himself in his data-driven approach to public policy making. Under him, crime has gone down by 40 percent, development has exploded and expanded the tax base, jobs have been created, dumpster sites have become parks, population is growing, a prisoner re-entry program has cut down on recidivism.
A frequent participant in the Sunday morning Washington talk shows, Booker was recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in 2011. His rise to the national stage is impressive though some New Jersey critics have faulted him for allowing time spent there to divert his attention from Newark.
Cory Booker as speaker is very effective. If anything, his packaged presentation is too perfect. He seems more natural fielding audience questions and more authentic talking one-on-one afterward. It has been suggested that given the gridlock in Congress, Booker’s talents would be wasted in the U.S. Senate and better used as governor of New Jersey. But given Chris Christie’s current favorability rating, such a race could be a political dead end.
Wherever he ends up, at 44 years old, Booker seems destined to be on the the scene in some influential way for a long time to come.
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