by MAX PIZARRO
As Mayor Cory Booker attempts to unite a realm now stratified into fiefdoms, a sprawling culture in the swamp where the core is downtown Newark, he sees the struggle not as urban versus suburban, Newark against New Jersey, or the city against Essex, but as real versus ideal, "is" against "ought," and this places him in a no man’s land, no doubt, but the perpetual outsider just keeps moving, and building.
In the central ward, where the Rhodes Scholar cut his teeth as a youth organizer coming from the suburbs ten years ago, then labored as a councilman, the crowds cheer when he cries, "We have to put the ‘unity’ back in community."
Political structures bring people into alignment maybe just long enough to drive policy, then drive them apart – and right now, nearly a year into office as mayor of New Jersey’s biggest city of 280,000 people, Booker says he’s tired of the in-fighting in the city, and faces a critical referendum in a Legislative primary election next month in which he’s backing six candidates.
The old football star, a 6 ft. 4 chrome dome of urban energy, wants a team in Trenton that runs the plays.
Part of the situation is there’s another fatigue, too, older than Booker’s 37 years, in the deepest corners of the south ward in particular, where the mayor’s political enemies nurse an anger bred by the belief that to lose that emotion is to give up a vital part of self, where stretching a hand of friendship out to the suburbs is as unthinkable as an Irish Catholic breaking bread with an English lord.
An undercurrent of distrust in outside investment makes Booker the mover the shaker, the man willing to listen to not just whites but Republican whites, a villain. People want jobs, yes, to replace the manufacturing that once bulked Newark up over the shoulders of the rest of the state. But for all the heartbreak since the riots of 1967 left 23 people dead, there is a culture here that exists no where else, which can claim Shaquille O’Neill’s dunk and Whitney Houston’s high notes as much as Stephen Crane’s prose style and Philip Roth’s angst.
If corporate America reinvigorates Newark with jobs and housing, the stalwarts who’ve been through the first third of Newark’s Divine Comedy want to make certain the jobs pay salaries to Newarkers, and the housing market is fair to those who’ve suffered this city too long to be displaced, and that something of the texture of Newark remains.
So Booker straddles two worlds: Gov. Jon Corzine and the corporation and Essex County party power brokers roughly on one side, and the entrenched black neighborhoods of Newark on the other where his old enemies are mobilizing. His fiercest constituents detest half of that world, and Booker knows it, and persists, and everywhere affirms and re-affirms first principles of unity.
In "The Federalist Papers" the founders asserted that the greatest threat to democratic institutions is factionalism, or the human capacity to split into irreconcilable warring parties. If the architects of the Constitution argued that citizens in a representative democracy need to acquire and cultivate a revolutionary mind-set – they also believed the most daunting revolution involves the simple engagement of the representative process. If it is dysfunctional today, and a seemingly unbridgeable gulf exists between the splintered urban center and the scattered towns of the hinterlands, it is through neglect not in Newark alone but everywhere that the system fails.
When Booker shouts, "Change time," and argues in speeches for "transformational as opposed to transactional politics," he is speaking to the larger structure, calling not only on his base but to those people who would connect with this city in a constructive and specifically political way.
Part of getting people involved in Newark and the environs means provoking interest and engagement in those communities where there has been no one in Trenton to give a voice to those communities.
"Newark offers the opportunity to be an engine," says the mayor, "and I’m trying to create broad representation. I’m trying to recognize parts of districts where people have not had the benefit of representation, and that is why we have candidates from Belleville and Bloomfield and Irvington on the ticket."
In District 28, Booker’s team consists of Essex County freeholder (and Irvington councilman) Bilal Beasely for state Senate, and Assembly candidates Cleopatra Tucker (widow of former Assemblyman Donald Tucker) and Essex County Freeholder (and former Assemblyman) Ralph Caputo – running against incumbents state Sen. Ronald Rice, and Assemblyman Craig Stanley and Assemblywoman Oadline Truitt..
Then there is his team in District 29, from three wards of the city and three different ethnic groups – "Line ‘A’ all the way," the mayor shouts to crowds, urging support for state Senate candidate M. Teresa Ruiz and Assembly candidates Grace Spencer and Albert Coutinho.
"We are the most densely populated area in the city and we have had no money for schools," Coutinho says of the east ward where he was born and raised. "Of 161 schools that were supposed to be built, the Ironbound was to be the site of eight of them. But not one school has been built in the Ironbound, and the students here are suffering from over-crowding. Hopefully, we’ll be able to change that."
The anti-Booker forces are eager to depict Ruiz-Coutinho-Spencer as a trio of apologists for the Man. Booker charges his speeches with historical references, appealing to the first principles of a Democratic Party that he says bind everyone.
"We have always been the party of inclusion," Booker told a central ward crowd a week ago at the Robert Treat Hotel. "We have been the party of women’s rights, labor, Medicaid and Medicare, Social Security, Civil Rights – everything we’re proud of."
His critics brood on what they call his Caesar-like ambition, but the mayor insists that by strengthening representative ties not only in Newark but in the larger neighborhoods of Essex County and Hudson County, the core of Newark will prosper.
"It’s not about politics, it’s about progressive reform," he says. "We fully support the prison re-entry program. This is a coalition of people who will specifically work with me, and give their full commitment to urban issues, such as combating crime and expungement.
"There are laws that work against the people of Newark," he adds. " The laws are going in the opposite direction from a God who forgives you when you slip and fall. Now a kid in the suburbs can get his record expunged, but an 18-year old in Newark who makes a mistake and sells marijuana can’t get a job at 38 because that’s still on his record. This is an example of a law that needs to be changed in Newark."
Here Booker treads on sensitive terrain, and invites critics to once more go on the offensive. When he talks about building coalitions he must face the inevitability that people he has defeated or who are on the outside of the power he wields will spring up again nursing all manner of hurt. It’s one thing for him to advocate expungement, but he’s helping Sandra Bolden Cunningham raise money in her bid for the state Senate in District 31, and his surrogates are in Jersey City assisting Cunningham’s campaign.
Meanwhile, her opponent, Assemblyman Louis Manzo, is the prime sponsor of the expungement bill in the Assembly. So when Booker speaks of supporting candidates who champion his favorite issues, then backs Cunningham over Manzo, who’s had has his boots on the ground on this issue since at least last year, Manzo is just one Booker detractor who bristles.
"He ought to stay in Newark," he complains. "My race is about the people of Bayonne and Jersey City. It’s not about Cory Booker building his empire."
Booker says passing a strong expungement bill in the Legislature requires a coalition that Manzo has been unable to generate. As a vanquished mayoral candidate who fell at the hands of Booker’s chief ally, Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, and as a vocal critic of Gov. Jon Corzine during the budget process last year, the headstrong Manzo has an urban cowboy style that clashes with coalition building, in Booker’s estimation.
"I think he’s really a good guy," Booker says of the state Senate candidate. "But we are at a level of urgency that necessitates bold action to empower our disadvantaged residents."
Booker’s tried to work with some of the old-time independent legislators in the two main districts of Newark, and ended up frustrated and staring at a silent telephone.
In the 29th district, the aging triumvirate of retiring Sen. Sharpe James, Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo (who’s running against Coutinho and Spencer) and Assemblyman William Payne (who’s running against Ruiz for James’ seat) barely communicated. No one knew if James, for example, was going to run for re-election in the senate until the filing deadline. Caraballo and Payne butted heads and couldn’t ultimately summon enough common ground to fight the machine.
"We have to change the culture so that people are working together," says Booker, the central ward community activist turned big city power player. "We can’t solve our problems alone. We have to realize that only together can we come up with the solutions."
But his alliances at the top of the structure at times feed that lingering distrust in those on the ground who fear the profit-motives of capitalism unleashed on their city will benefit Booker and management, but leave low and moderate income Newarkers in a weakened position.
Booker says he supports Corzine’s controversial monetization plan, for example, which the mayor argues would enable New Jersey to lease state assets such as toll roads to private companies and replenish state coffers without resorting to property tax hikes to pay for schools.
"I’m willing to look at any option that works to ease the burden," says the mayor. "When it comes to the urban school districts, and looking at Newark’s school system, people are not seeing the results. We have to be loyal to our Constitution, which requires us to educate our children, but we also must make sure that educating children as currently enacted does not price us out of our ability to do the job."
Several municipalities have passed resolutions in opposition to privatizing New Jersey’s toll roads, and the consumer lobbyist New Jersey Public Interest Research Group has expressed serious reservations about monetization, as have lawmakers from both parties.
Along with Healy, Booker parts company with Hillary Clinton partisan Corzine and flexes his own urban guerilla credentials with an enthusiastic endorsement this past week of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. While the mayor says he’s a "big fan" of Clinton’s, he believes Obama represents the greatest opportunity to unify the country.
"He is a prophetic leader who can speak to our highest aspirations," Booker says of Obama. "He can speak to large cross-sections of the country that traditionally have been under-represented."
Obama also faces critics from within the African-American community, where older generation leaders have questioned Obama’s true "blackness," as they have Booker's, binding the mayor even closer to what the American philosopher Mortimer Adler identified as "the common sense of politics" rather than race-first fulminating.
A significant feature of Obama’s record is he never supported the Iraq War. Running for U.S. Senate at the time, Obama said in the lead-up to the toppling of Saddam Hussein that he was not outright opposed to war, but opposes "dumb wars."
Booker acknowledges that in a primary showdown with Clinton, Obama can summon credibility Clinton can’t and as a result, "He is going to be able to rally a lot of voters," Booker says.
Back on the ground in Newark, whether the young mayor will be able to rally voters once again to his side will be determined in the June 5th primary.
The police protection is tight ever since the Bloods threatened to assassinate the mayor in retaliation for his commitment to law and order, but Booker moves easily in crowds, asserting his breakneck style of American politics in every ward, grinning with the thrill and daring of a revolution older even than the Newark riots. The people go to him and he embraces them or shakes their hands. At the Mediterranean Manor in the Ironbound, residents mob him as he makes to his way to the door, in preparation for a trip to Las Vegas, to the International Council of Shopping Centers where he hopes to draw retail business to the city.
"You and I share a birthday," Ironbound resident Albert Velez tells the mayor and Booker delights in the news.
If Obama is the one-time community organizer turned prince at the top of the pyramid, Booker is the perpetual community organizer as mayor, the suburban-academic with a decade in Newark under the belt already who to some must everyday prove the right to occupy the streets, but to others is a superstar among them, worthy of ever more resources and allies to do the job.
Asked about the specific issues facing Newark that he wants the team of legislators to address as soon as they land in the Statehouse in Trenton if they are elected, Booker says crime and taxes. Newark residents are spending on average 30 percent of their income on housing, he says. Seniors are desperate.
An oratorical spitfire, who crams multiple ideas into passionate sentences, who uses everything from Archimedes’ triangle to Laverne and Shirley to Star Trek to make a point, Booker bounds from street to stage to community hall to hotel lobby, campaigning, somewhere along the way quoting Frederick Douglass, who said, "You’re not going to get everything you pay for, but you must pay for everything you get," where loved or despised, Booker speaks those words with forceful pride in the unsparing ground war of Newark.