Christie versus Booker must wait, as mayor intent on building upon their alliance

Standing in the vanguard of opposing partiesmakes Gov.-elect Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker obvious political adversaries – a relationshipmade more intriguing bytheiragreeable historyand the crisis demands onboth of themto deliver reforms in their respective spheres of power -butwhatever the dynamics of their personal and professional relations,allies of both menexpecta comingcollision between Newark and New Jersey.

Don’t count Booker among them.

“I know people want to turn this into a rivalry but when you consider the monumental challenges we are up against right now, he is my greatest ally,” Booker said of Christie,the Republican whoon Nov. 3rddefeated Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. “To characterize us as rivals would be like saying Democrats and Republicans were the chief antagonists during World War II. We’re in a crisis.”

“I would also say – and I use this word because it is accurate – that Chris Christie is my friend. We have been friends for three years and he can assume credit for things we have accomplished here these past three years.”

Booker knows the buzz about howhe’s the Democratic Party’s most likely nominee for governor in 2013, to which he gives the only politic response: he’s focused on the city’s crime problem.

Prodded on politics and Christie, he adds, “I’m focused on next year’s mayoral election and on electing the Booker Team (of council candidates).”

 

Alpha parallels

There are natural parallels, of course, when it comes to Christie and Booker- shared antagonists and shared social circles.WhileBooker broke down the political machine of Newark Mayor Sharpe James, Christie, the former U.S. Attorney,simultaneouslypursued investigations intothe affordable housingprocesses and city credit card expenses of the long-serving mayor, and landed acorruption conviction that sent James to federal prison. Both Christie and Booker believe in expanded charter school education andschool choice.When asked, Booker sayshe can identifynothing worrisome about Christie’sdesignson New Jersey’s largest city with a budget around $600 million.

Throughout the gubernatorial campaign, Booker and Christietext messaged each other,and when Christie finally defeated Corzine, the mayor traveled to the North Ward to be part of the local reception committee. There, themayor and the governor-electhad some private time andtalked issues, according to Booker.

As outwardlypositive as the mayor is about working withtheincomingRepublican governor, Booker called Corzine’s loss “heartbreaking,” andagain – as he did repeatedly on the campaign trail -enumerated ways in which the Democratic governor constantly assisted Newark.

Whatever his difficulty – and ultimate failure -in projecting a messageand stirring urban voters to back him for a second term, Corzine’s political Newark allies expressalmost uniform respect and gratitudefor the progressive lame duck governor.

Gov. Corzine was very deeply involved in Newark and reform-minded,” said Dr. Clement Price, distinguished service professor atRutgers University.”When the city was pursuing a replacement for (schools superintendent) Marion Bolden, I never saw a governor more interested in a search process, for example.”

Identifying early contrasts betweenChristie and Corzine, or at least enough vagueness in Christie’s campaign rhetoric to alert them to the worst, the mayor’slocal political allies note that Christie ran on a Republican promise of restoring tax cuts, cutting wasteful spending and reforming education as he stares at an $8 billion state budget structural deficit.

“I haven’t heard what he’s going to do, soI really don’t know what he’s going to do,” South Ward political leader Carl Sharif said of the Republican governor-elect. “There’s a huge state budget problem, and I suspect some of that will get pushed down in some ways on Newark. Newark could be a pretty big loser.”

West Ward Councilman Ronald C. Rice, a longtime Booker ally and emergent political force in his own right, likewise heard nothing detailed enough in Christie’s campaign rhetoric to give him a sense that the governor-elect will prove a positive for Newark.

“He talked about an urban plan, but I have no idea what that would be,” said Rice. “He had virtually no votes coming out of the urban centers, so I don’t have any sense of what his commitment is. I know that as urban centers go, so goes the state. During the campaign, Chris Christie talked about implementing cost-savings measures in Newark, but what he talked about were innovative things we’ve already been doing for three years. We have been working to cut a structural deficit (now at$73 million) that has plagued the city for 12 years.”

In the Ironbound, on a once vacant lot a street’s width away from the elevated train tracks, union workers are in the early stages of constructing a new building – the first new school in the East Ward in 100 years and the chief accomplishment Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Newark) listed in his fall campaign literature along withthanks toproject advocate Corzine.

“When you look at the state budget and you see that $11 billion out of $28 billion goes to education, I do worry that given his focus on education issues throughout the campaign, Gov.-elect Christie will cut urban education funding,” said Coutinho.

In that vein, “Booker has to really find out what Christie’s positions are and state his own positions very firmly,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Belleville), a public school educator turned lawmaker. “He has to have some discussions with the governor-elect and the two men have to agree in specific terms on what’s important. The governor is facing difficult fiscal times and he has made promises to other communities, which may not fit into Newark’s plan. What are Chris Christie’s specific positions on school aid and crime, on charity care and extraordinary aid? That’s going to shape how things go in the future. Remember,Gov. Corzine was able to get us $3.9 billion in new schools construction (part of the allocation that funded the new Oliver Street School project in the Ironbound). Had Christie been there, would he have done that? I don’t know if that would have occurred. More school aid with no voter approval? There were senators from his own party who pushed Gov. Corzine on this. This was a governor who also gave Newark $45 million in extraordinary aid – after the budget passed.”

For their part, Republican legislatorsheard sufficient boldness in Christie’s campaigning to convince them the governor-elect will secure private sector-centered results.

As a minority party member of the Assembly Budget Committee who has donated money to Booker’s political cause, Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Colts Neck) recognizes that Booker is in a difficult political position in Newark proper, with legislators both at the local and district level already gearing up to fight to preserve certain city institutions and service delivery systems.

But O’Scanlon recalls a quote of Booker’s from a Bloomberg News story earlier this year, and hopes the mayor also remembers.

“There should be a tax revolt in the state of New Jersey,” Booker told Bloomberg in a May 5th story. “We’re the most inefficient state in the country. We have more government per person than we need. You would never manage a business the way we manage our government – we have overlapping provision of services and in my opinion, it’s insane.”

“I’m not hard-hearted, and I am not saying there arenot folks in Newark who legitimately need our help,” said O’Scanlon. “But thebulk of our state spending isgoing intothe urban areas and there will be choices.

“I will say that the state isfortunate to have two great leaders like Chris Christie and Cory Booker in partnership on this issue,” he added.

The new terrain, and the Shapiro challenge

While appraising the new governmental partnership created by Christie’s victory, the mayor’s operatives quietly andcarefully digest the suddenlyaltered political terrain treaded by their superstar. Theyrecognize thatlittle happens locally unless Booker and Christie work together. They know that among 100 professional friends and financial types in the networks of both men, ten are on both men’s teams. They see Booker’s legislative allies playing a more aggressive role if Christie threatens school aid – the city gets $1.2 billion – and distressed cities aid.

Butthey also knowthat a perceived Christie/Booker love-fest could mean major politicalturbulenceif the mayor decides to take a statewide run at Christie in 2013.

The tension that defines Newark as an entity other than New Jersey’s suburbs with specific and internal demands is exactly themicrocosmic tensionnow governingBooker’s political field of operation in the Christie era.

Already more popular among suburban voters than in his own city, ifBooker helps drive institutional reforms (public school aid diverted into school choice programs, for example) that antagonize the local political classes and create just enough short-term upheaval in Newark, he risks alienating whatever urban base he has built, a statewidenightmare as lethal as what killed the Corzine campaign nearly two weeks ago, particularly if Booker faces a 2013 Christie political organization that starts with a strong Ocean, Morris, and Monmouth base andbuilds on the Republican’s successes in the suburban middle class reaches of counties like Middlesex, Gloucester, Burlington and Atlantic.

Even if the reforms are successful and impactearly enough to give Booker abounce headed toward agubernatorial showdownwith Christie, the question is how does Christie avoid absorbing that same bounce as the key partner and enabler fromhis ultimate power projection platform in thegovernor’s office.

The mayor’sallies worryaboutBooker turning into the 21st Century’s version of fellow infant phenomenon Peter Shapiro, the Essex County executive who challenged incumbent Gov. Thomas Kean in 1985.

Shapiro not only lost every county in that histroic rout, butwas buried in his owncounty by an incumbent Republican governor who himself had an Essex narrative, just like Christie.

The youngest person ever elected to the New Jersey State Legislature in 1975, Shapiro now works in the private sector as a financier.

“I would say it’s critically important, especially in the State of New Jersey, for leaders of large local urban governments to get along well with the governor,” Shapiro told PolitickerNJ.com. “New Jersey has a unitary executive, unlike other states, which have elected cabinet leaders, and so it’s important to maintain that closeness. New Jersey’s urban areas are disproportionately poorer than their suburbs compared to anywhere else in the country. Wealth compared to lack of wealth makes the state that much more important to urban mayors becasue of the state’s superior taxing powers.

“My own strategy in government (as county executive) was always that there is nothing to be gained by being an a**hole,” Shapiro added. “A lot of people’s stock in trade is pounding the table and I generally felt that kind of thing is counter-productive.You’re better off figuring out solutions than soundbites.”

The politician turned businessmanbuilt good relations with both Gov. Brendan Byrne – and later Gov. Tom Kean.

“They were excellent to work with governmentally,” Shapiro said. “Byrne was easier, because of the natural political alliance, but Kean was from Essex County, and we had a long political friendship. He was a reform Republican and I was a reform Democrat who ran against the party machine in 1975.There was a natural connection there. He, of course, had excellentinter-personal skills. If anything, I was criticized throughout the gubernatorial campaign for not being tougher on Kean -for not being what I would describe as being more shrill.”

Whileagreeing that the potential parallels between himself and Booker are interesting, Shapiro denies that the sensitivity and dependency of Booker’s office vis a vis the state will be an overriding factor in the event Booker challenges Christie four years from now, just as he doesn’t accept the premise that hisworking relationshipwith Kean damaged his ability to be a more effective gubernatorial candidate.

“The problem was timing,” said Shapiro. “When I first started talking about running for governor, it was 1982. Unemployment was above 10% and a little known businessman named Frank Lautenberg had just defeated Millicent Fenwick. The economic circumstances were great for a political challenge, but by the time 1985 came around, the economy had turned around, and it was Reagan’s morning in America.”

A source close to Booker last week acknowledged that if the statewide environment changes substantially to Christie’s advantage and polling doesn’t indicate that the mayor can beat the Republican incumbent, he won’t run.

Some – and these are not inner sanctum Booker people but alarmed allies of the mayor’s- talk up Christie as a 2012 presidential candidate. If part of Booker’s perception problem in Newarkis the expectation – real ornot – that he is using the city as a slingshot toward higher office, their rationale forentertaining asimilar starpower narrative for Christie is that such grandiosity could undermine him with his New Jersey baseprovided the Christie brand inflates too early with national GOP aspirations and little accompanying achievement on the ground.

Ideally for them- and this is perhaps the ultimate stretch – Christie would get ahead of himself, run for president in 2012, and return to New Jersey after getting trounced by President Barack Obama, in the processeven losing New Jersey – of course,with the critical help ofnone other than chief Obama ally Booker.

Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland),a former governor and himself a potential candidate for governor four years from now,admits that timing is criticial, and points out that as Shapiro’sstatewidedemise hinged on Reagan’s bludgeoning of Walter Mondale a year earlier, so too willthe implications ofPresident Obama’s 2012re-election bid play intoChristie 2013.

“Mayor Booker has done a good job in Newark,”Codey said. “But there are forces beyond one’s own control in politics. Is he Obama-like? In fairness, yes he is. But mabe by 2013, people will say, ‘we’ve had enough of that.’ You just don’t know.”

 

Mayor’s contest and local elections, 2010

More immediately, Booker plans a re-election roll-out in February forhis May non-partisanmano-a-mano with retired municipal Judge Clifford Minor, who at this point appears to be a reluctant candidate defined early by a single press release condemning Booker as the city’s BlackBerrybrowser-in-chief.

Ever inmake-nice mode with Booker even as he savaged Corzine on the campaign trial, Christie demonstrated his South Ward savoir faire when he repeatedly held Newark’s Central High School up as a model of failure.

The remark carried the double impact of insulting the school’s principal, Ras Baraka, who despite his presence on theMinor slate, happens to be the most politically motivated challenger to the Booker Team next year as a candidate for the South Ward council seat currently occupied by Councilman Oscar James II.

The Central High School remarksignals Christie’s alliancewith the mayorwhile – consciously or not – fracturing Booker further from thosepolitical forces in the South Ward (his weakest ward in the city) who already see him as a capitalist comprador – once again underscoring Booker’s essential political challenge when it comes to Christie.

“The rumor mill claims Mayor Booker is looking for higher office and higher office in New Jersey would be the governor’s office,” said Price.”But their (Booker’s and Christie’s) respective success depends on their getting along with each other. Gov. Christie, it appears, is far more interested in the reforms du jour than was Gov. Corzine. He’s interested in vouchers and in creating more charter schools.

“There may some interesting debates, but I can’t see a breakdown in their relations,” Price added.”From what I can see, Mayor Booker is a very independent-minded progressive who is very socially agile. The election next yearwill tell a lot.We will see how wellMayor Bookerdoes in the polls, and we will see how the people who are riding his coattails do and how persuasive he is.”

As an observer of the last cycle’sObama-Booker-Corzine campaign apparatus in Newark, which ultimately delivered around 4,000 fewer votes for Corzine in his re-election bid and proved part of an inadequate urban counterweight to Christie’s ex-urban support,community activist Larry Hamm said the mayor must not fall prey to the idea that his unique brand is ever bigger than on-the-ground mechanics. To date, whenever he has not been specifically locally allied with North Ward Democratic Organization Chairman Steve Adubato, Booker hasmostly proved less than intimidating.His alliesassumed point for Corzine in Newark, and again,produced underwhelming results.

“In the governor’s race, I didn’t see the street operations,” said Hamm. “When I was younger – and I’m old school, man – you used to see operations. All up and down Broad Street, you saw the evidence. But I think this past campaign was all about big media buys and electronic communications. That’s fine,but useful if done in the right way – only if it’s to embellish the street operation.”

On Friday night crime patrol, Booker reiterated insistently that his focus – if not political – is the street – where, he says, heading toward his second term election next year, “shootings aredown.”

But if the policy differences between Booker’s Newark and Christie’s New Jersey prove irreconcilable, the suburban-urban gap too great to negotiate – in the words of Sharif, the local political brain most responsible forsharpening Bookerinto acitywide product, “the problem for politicians at that level is you don’t have enemies, but if you’re not careful, you adopt other people’s enemies” –the battle at some level must come to the two men, if not in government and outright, in politics, within a framework largelydiplomaticizedand largely aggressivelyunderground.

Christie versus Booker must wait, as mayor intent on building upon their alliance