Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker brought his message of hope and revitalization to the John F. Kennedy School of Government Monday (March 12), describing his own painful odyssey to the mayor’s office and his plans to take Newark from its blighted past to a promising future.
Booker, elected Newark’s mayor in 2006, described his struggle against drug dealers, slumlords, and Newark’s powerful political machine, which Booker said was more interested in perpetuating its own existence than in improving the lot of the city’s residents.
But Booker also described the innate strength, wisdom, and sense of justice of many people living in the blighted areas. Booker said he drew on those resources in his own political rise, learned from them, and used them to set his moral compass.
“I began to realize that the power and dignity of the people who lived in this community were going to be my biggest lessons in life,” Booker said.
Booker’s 35-minute speech, “The Continuing Quest for the American Democracy: The Urban Frontier,” was well received by the audience at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, which gave him two standing ovations. The event was co-sponsored by Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and the Institute of Politics. Du Bois Institute Director and Fletcher University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. introduced the event.
In his talk, Booker described his 10-year journey from Yale Law School to Newark’s City Hall. Booker, who grew up in a Newark suburb, said he wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told him at the beginning of the journey that he’d be Newark’s mayor now. Booker said that while at Yale, he decided to pursue his aspirations of working in Newark and doing what he could to help the city.
He wound up moving into an apartment on Martin Luther King Boulevard, which runs through some of Newark’s toughest neighborhoods. Within his first month there, he saw a dead body on the street and had his life threatened. He watched the vibrant drug trade play out on the streets below his apartment and in the nearby crack house.
He witnessed a reality unlike anything he had seen before and, at times, was scared by it.
“I began to believe my idealism was a few steps ahead of my sanity,” Booker said.
But Booker became energized when talking to longtime local residents, particularly one woman, Miss Jones, who had lived there for many years and who was refusing to give up on the neighborhood, refusing to abandon hope that things could improve, and stubbornly sticking it out.
Booker began to work with Jones and other residents to effect change in the neighborhood. Within a year and a half, he said, they managed to get a slumlord convicted in federal court and a nearby crack house torn down. Booker said he got an education beyond his law degree during that time: not just of the hard life in inner-city America, but also of the hope and belief in the ideals of American democracy of those living in some of the nation’s worst neighborhoods.
During their work, Booker said he began to see the city government as part of the problem. Instead of striving to meet the needs of the city’s residents, Booker said, Newark’s government had become adept at the politics of power and worked to perpetuate its own tenure in office.
In 1998, Booker ran for city council, winning in a nasty campaign where he said his car windows were smashed and tires slashed, and in which he was subject to race-based attacks by people who said that despite his being African American he represented whites who wanted to seize power in the city.
His first year on the city council was hardest, Booker said, as even the smallest reforms he suggested were stifled by other councilors.
“We realized we threatened the power of the elite in the city,” Booker said.
He described being harassed by the city police, having his phone tapped, and his car ticketed wherever he parked. Checks for his staff were slow to be issued, leaving him to pay staffers himself. After one particularly discouraging day in which his attempts to get help for his neighborhood were rebuffed, Booker decided to embark on a hunger strike to call attention to the unmet needs in his neighborhood.
Booker and three others set up a tent outside a housing project and said they were staying until things changed. Drug dealers threw garbage and feces onto the tent, Booker said. But the next morning the media came out and as the word spread, others came to help. Hospitals sent staff to do health screenings, a suburban mayor sent police to help with security, and by the last day, Booker said, hundreds of people were holding hands and praying.
In 2002, Booker ran for mayor for the first time, losing in another bitter campaign that featured an array of dirty tricks, such as city code enforcement inspectors shutting down businesses of supporters, police harassment, and people having sugar poured into their gas tanks. Race again played a role, Booker said and he was accused of being a tool of Jews and right-wing whites.
He ran again in 2006, winning this time. When he moved into City Hall, however, Booker said he found the situation far worse than he had imagined. The city was in financial disarray, with a large budget deficit. Services were antiquated and often micromanaged by the mayor’s office.
“Change by its very nature is difficult,” Booker said. “Power concedes nothing without a struggle.”
Booker admitted the first months of his administration have been difficult and said he may be forced to make the tough decision to lay off hundreds of city workers to balance the city budget. He said he’s concerned that action would confirm the fears planted by his opponents in the political campaigns.
Still, he said, there are signs of hope. Shootings in the city are down 30 percent in recent months, and he’s moving ahead with a variety of initiatives meant to foster economic development, improve education, and streamline city services.
Though Booker’s rise in Newark city government has brought him national attention, Booker said he isn’t interested in running for national office because there is so much work to be done in Newark.
“The fires of my city will burn again,” Booker said, “but they will not be the fires of rage and alienation, of riot and rebellion. They will be the fires of hope, of opportunity, the fires of love, the fires of the divine, the fires of the American torch itself.”