By the time Cory Booker lost his 2002 run for mayor of Newark, the young African-American lawyer, former City Councilman and rising star of the national Democratic Party had walked through the fire of racial politics. He had been tarred as a carpetbagger, a pawn of the Republican right, a tool of moneyed Manhattan interests, a white man and a Jew. His opponent, the four-term incumbent Sharpe James, waged a campaign that left no slur unspoken. In the end, Mr. James was returned to office by a slender margin of 3,500 votes.
Mr. Booker weathered the barrage of abuse with a calm dignity. But as he prepares to run again in 2006, some of his supporters would rather see the articulate challenger respond with less politesse and more of a bare-knuckled punch.
They may be getting their wish.
The Observer recently discovered a stack of racially inflammatory, anonymous leaflets sitting on a table in Mr. Booker’s headquarters in the city’s South Ward. Beneath a boldfaced headline—“How Black Mayors Sell Our Cities to White Developers”—one of them accused Mr. James of turning a local businessman into a “sharecropper.” Further down, it concluded: “Sharpe James can’t stand the idea of Black men achieving wealth in Newark unless they are his relatives or his political flunkies.”
Against the backdrop of a campaign that has studiously avoided the messy terrain of race-baiting, the sharp-toothed leaflets struck a starkly different tone.
Mr. Booker declined an interview for this article. Ed Dandridge, a senior media advisor for the campaign, said he was familiar with the leaflets but didn’t know who was publishing them. So how did they crop up in Mr. Booker’s campaign headquarters?
“If you’ve ever worked in a campaign, or worked in a sort of community like the South Ward or Newark in general, you know you always sort of have to get along with everybody in the community,” explained Mr. Dandridge, phoning in from BrandSphere, the Manhattan-based consulting firm where he is a managing partner. “People are always walking by and dropping off fliers for a whole host of things—so, you know, that’s why that desk is there.”
As for the mysterious wordsmith’s identity, Mr. Dandridge ventured a guess. “There’s a fair amount of information in it that, I think, suggests that it’s either someone who currently or formerly worked within the James administration, because they always have some insight into what’s going on in City Hall,” he noted. “There’s a lot of information in there that seemingly comes right out of, I guess, what Sharpe is doing.”
Political observers see the leaflets as evidence that Mr. Booker’s supporters will not stand by as their man is mauled again. But they wonder if Mr. Booker, a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, or his supporters have gone too far.
“That’s where they are now,” said Hiver Ambrose, who was an aide to Mr. Booker in 2002. “ No more soft college boy: ‘Now I’m in your face, I’m Newark.’ When we were there, I was as much an advocate of him just being a little bit stronger, but this is not what I had in mind. What I had in mind was being genuinely offended when Sharpe called you a Jewish gay boy, not playing Sharpe’s game.”
“He was stung last time by the criticism of him not being a Newark guy,” noted Doug Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College, discussing Mr. Booker’s 2002 race. “One of the chief critiques, other than the behind-the-back whispering, was that he was a little bit too uppity and snooty for Newark, and that he was hanging around those big guys from across the river, and with his Ivy Leagues and everything else—he wasn’t a real Newark guy. So he wants to be more of a Newark guy.”
This summer, the pressure for street cred has been leaking out on the Booker campaign. Last month, Mr. Booker tangled with Mr. James during a youth basketball tournament, getting physical in a shoving match that lasted 20 minutes and broke up the game. The fracas began with fighting words. According to a report in the Star-Ledger, Mr. James called Mr. Booker’s supporters a “goon squad” and “political whores.” Mr. Booker goaded him back: “You want to hit me. Come on, hit me.”
So what’s bothering Mr. Booker? For the former Rhodes Scholar, such swaggering bravado seems out of character. Mr. Booker remains a cause célèbre among moneyed Manhattanites. Andrew Tisch, chairman of the executive committee of the Loews Corporation, held a fund-raiser for him at the Regency earlier this year, while Gail King, Oprah Winfrey’s best friend, hosted an evening for him at the lush West Village atelier of Diane von Furstenberg in June. Politicians on either side of the aisle are eager to see Mr. Booker take office as a “New” Democrat and rise within his party, and his allies have included everyone from former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley to Arianna Huffington, Barbra Streisand, the Manhattan Institute and Cornel West.
But when it comes to branding Mr. Booker for Newark’s voters, his friends’ strong stature on the New York and national scene may not matter. In the past, such popularity outside of Newark has only added to the incumbent’s arsenal.
“We don’t need no carpetbaggers coming here and telling us how bad we are. Stay out!” Mr. James hollered during a 2002 campaign stop. His words were immortalized in Street Fight, a documentary by filmmaker Marshall Curry, which aired as part of the POV documentary series on PBS last month and had its New York premiere in April at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Mr. Curry’s film revealed the dark underbelly of Newark machine politics. It quoted some of Mr. James’ most cutting attack lines—“You have to learn to be an African-American, and we don’t have time to teach you,” he blasted Mr. Booker—and showed the incumbent’s supporters rallying with slogans like “Newark Is Not for Sale” and “Sharpe James: The Real Deal.”
According to Mr. Curry, when Mr. Booker and an aide, Pablo Fonseca, finished seeing the film for the first time, “the two of them just sort of sat there silently, and Pablo put his head down in his hands and his voice was kind of crackling with emotion, tears, and he said to Cory, ‘I never want to feel that again. I never ever want to feel that again. We can’t let that happen again.’”
“What James did in essence to Booker was attempt to disqualify him and say that this guy wasn’t one of us, he’s a total phony,” said David Rebovitch, the managing director of the Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. Of the pro-Booker, race-baiting leaflets, he added, “That really does say something about the tenor of politics in Newark.”
Ever since the polls closed in 2002, Mr. Booker has been working to retool his local profile, attempting to shed his image as an outsider from the suburbs of Bergen County. He founded Newark Now, a community-outreach nonprofit; forged new alliances, most notably with Oscar James, a former aide to Sharpe James (with no relation to the mayor); and boosted the number of Newarkers on his campaign staff. Mr. Booker’s latest campaign video, completed just last week, emphasizes his childhood visits to an aunt and uncle who lived in Newark.
“I saw really everything through the lens of Newark; it was sort of my benchmark,” Mr. Booker explains, earnestly addressing the camera. “It was the community I felt closest to because of the family connection and, frankly, because as an African-American growing up, it was my African-American place.”
Even Mr. Booker’s New York pals are pitching in to build his credibility on the streets of Newark. Jonathan Kieden, a talent manager who met Mr. Booker in 2002, said that he’s been introducing Mr. Booker to black music moguls to “see if the hip-hop people got behind him.”
“Cory’s not just running for himself; Newark is in such a dismal state,” Mr. Kiedan lamented. Asked if he’d ever visited Newark, Mr. Kiedan said he’d been there once for a Booker event last spring and that, driving around, “You don’t see a lot of signs of life.”
The struggle to portray Mr. Booker as a man of Newark may already be an uphill battle.
“I call it the ‘Newark pedigree’: It can take up to 30 years, and even then you’re not good enough,” said Alle Ries, who was the volunteer coordinator for Mr. Booker’s first campaign. Reflecting on the leaflets in Mr. Booker’s campaign headquarters, she said: “Cory is kind of coming out and saying, ‘I’m not going to roll over.’ Being above the fray doesn’t seem to work, but it begs the question: What will work?”