City’s POWER CHIC BACKS NEW MAYOR-IN NEWARK

On the morning of Feb. 12, about 40 Manhattan lawyers, investment

bankers and money managers buzzed with anticipation as they gathered in a

conference room on the 37th floor of the Condé Nast Building. These powerful

and well-connected New Yorkers were there to hear an unlikely guest speaker: a

young City Councilman from Newark, N.J., who gained national notice several

years ago when he spent 10 days camped in a tent in one of Newark’s most violent

housing projects-and lived to tell the tale.

Cory Booker, an earnest 32-year-old with a golden résumé, is

challenging incumbent Newark Mayor Sharpe James’ attempt to win a fifth term in

May, and his campaign has become a cause

célèbre among Manhattan’s business and social elite. Mr. Booker’s good

looks, formidable energy and stellar career as a legitimate student athlete-he

was a tight end at Stanford University and

a Rhodes Scholar-have won him the attention of wealthy Manhattanites whose

knowledge of Newark has until now consisted of what they glimpsed through the

tinted windows of town cars speeding towards Newark International Airport.

Mr. Booker is pleased to have the support of powerful and wealthy

patrons on this side of the Hudson River. “There are two types of money:

There’s love money, and there’s money from people who are interested in getting

something from you,” he said in an interview with The Observer . “Unlike so many politicians I know in New Jersey, the

people who are supporting me are doing it because they believe in me and they

want what’s best for Newark. It’s love money.”

Mr. Booker already has raised $1.5 million-all of it love money,

naturally-and senior campaign aides say he hopes to raise another $1.5 million

in time for Election Day.

Mr. Booker’s appeal was on full display during the breakfast

reception for him in the Condé Nast building. He leaned his tall frame against

a wall and gazed intensely at his audience, which included top supporters like

Andrew Tisch, the president of Loews Corporation, and a handful of partners at

the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, which was hosting the

event. As the bankers and investment gurus sipped coffee and tea, Mr. Booker

entertained them with tales from the streets of his district-Newark’s central

ward, which was the epicenter of the infamous 1967 riots and remains one of the

city’s toughest neighborhoods.

“I was out canvassing, and I knocked on a woman’s door and I

asked her to step outside,” Mr. Booker told the hushed audience. “I gestured

towards her street and I asked her, ‘Tell me if your street has gotten better

while Sharpe James has been in office.’ Just as I said that, a stolen car came

barreling down the street at breakneck speed.”

Mr. Booker paused a beat, then added: “She shook my hand and

said, ‘You’ve got my vote.’” The bankers and lawyers let out a relieved

chuckle.

Mr. Booker has attracted a range of seemingly unlikely supporters

in Manhattan. Among them are Roger Aron, the chairman of Skadden, Arps, who has

held two fund-raising breakfasts for him; the wealthy investor Leonard Harlan,

who is a key donor to Mr. Booker; Herbert Allen III, the son of the founder of

Allen and Company; and Mark Gerson, a well-known Manhattan investor whose

brother, Rick Gerson, helped Mr. Booker buy a mobile home when he decided to

spend the summer of 2001 living on the streets of his district. (Having already

experimented with a tent the year before, he apparently decided to upgrade to a

camper.)

Many of these rich backers are comfortable with Mr. Booker, who

grew up in an affluent suburb in Bergen County and shares their Ivy League

pedigree. They like to point out that he took a far more virtuous course in

life than they did. Rather than go straight into a lucrative career after

graduating from Yale Law School in 1997, he moved into one of Newark’s bleakest

housing projects and won a City Council seat in the neighborhood.

“Here’s a guy who can write his own ticket for whatever career he

chooses,” Mr. Tisch said in an interview with The Observer . “He has chosen politics. He has chosen Newark. He’s

genuine, he’s plain-spoken, he’s action-oriented. He’s a real activist

politician.”

Mr. Tisch wrote a fund-raising letter on Mr. Booker’s behalf in

which he described the Councilman as “the most exciting individual we have met

in politics in 30 years.”

“I love Cory,” said socialite Beth Rudin DeWoody, the daughter of

the late developer Lew Rudin. “I come from, you know, the 1960′s antiwar

movement. He’s a real activist. He’s a smart guy who could have been making

millions.”

Mr. Booker’s candidacy has a storybook quality, pitting a young

reformer against an aging, entrenched incumbent. In addition to being young,

energetic and smart, Mr. Booker is politically eclectic: He’s a liberal

Democrat who supports school vouchers for poor children, a position that has

won him the support of some board members at the free-market Manhattan

Institute.

“He’s kind of a new-wave mayoral candidate,” said Fred Siegel, a

senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. “He’s a New Democrat, a

reformer. He’s enormously appealing-intelligent and gutsy.”

Of course, not every powerful Manhattanite supporting Mr. Booker

is tremendously interested in the details of Newark politics. Having a friend

across the Hudson can’t hurt, after all-especially if that friend is young and

considered a future political star.

“When you see top law firms line up like this, they’re not doing

it because the candidate is the answer to the United Way,” said one top

Democratic fund-raiser in New York City. “It’s a business investment-the city

of Newark has enormous need for counsel and for developers.”

A Manhattan Star

Mr. Booker has managed to win the help of a surprising range of

New Yorkers. Mr. Allen, the director of Allen and Company, has raised thousands

of dollars for Mr. Booker and is scheduled to tour Newark with him. Not long

ago, Mr. Harlan-who grew up in Newark-heard of credible threats against Mr.

Booker’s life. He sent one of his company’s security advisers, a former Mossad

agent, to shadow the young politician for a couple of days.

Bill Ackman, a founding partner of Gotham Partners, a Manhattan

investment firm, recalled meeting Mr. Booker at a breakfast arranged by a

mutual friend.

“I spent an hour with the guy,” Mr. Ackman recalled. “I heard

what he had to say, and I asked him, ‘What’s the maximum contribution I can

legally make?’ He told me. Then I got my checkbook out and wrote a

check-$15,400. It’s the biggest check I’ve ever written to a politician. And

I’m not giving to any other politicians until Cory runs for office again.”

Mr. Ackman subsequently threw a fund-raiser for Mr. Booker at his

apartment on Central Park West. At the affair, which was attended by a

half-dozen retired partners from Goldman, Sachs and a few dozen other wealthy

New Yorkers, Mr. Booker painted a dire picture of life in Newark and shared

more scenes from the streets, including one in which his life was threatened by

a drug dealer named T-Bone.

After Mr. Booker’s presentation, audience members reached eagerly

for their checkbooks. “What was really unusual was that people were supporting

a politician entirely for the right reasons,” Mr. Ackman observed.

The Newark race is also giving some national political players an

opportunity to settle some old scores. For instance, former Senator and onetime

Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Bradley, a longtime mentor of Mr. Booker

who now works at a Manhattan investment firm, is aggressively backing his

candidacy, headlining an upcoming fund-raiser for him in Washington, D.C., with

former Congressman and Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, a Republican. While Mr.

Bradley has nurtured Mr. Booker for years, he also has another motive: It’s a

chance to get back at Mr. James, who strongly supported Al Gore in the New Jersey

Presidential primary of 2000.

Mr. Booker’s reliance on Manhattan support comes with substantial

political risks. Mr. James, a wily political operative, has often portrayed

himself as far more streetwise than his opponents, often to great effect. But

Mr. Booker already is quite familiar with hardball tactics. According to Time magazine, Mr. Booker’s opponents

over the years have played the racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic cards in an

attempt to derail him: They’ve whispered that he is actually white, gay, a

stooge of the Ku Klux Klan and a mansion-dwelling lover of Jews.

Mr. Booker doesn’t seem overly worried about such tactics.

“Sharpe James will try to make [Manhattan support] a political vulnerability,

but we will turn it back on him,” he said. “Sharpe’s money is coming from

outside Newark, and from people who do business with the city. My money is

coming from people who have no financial interest in the city at all.”