Rising Star Shines on Political Stage But Critics See Style Not Substance

Is Booker an ‘absentee’ mayor with few accomplishments or a visionary agent of change?

Newark Mayor Cory Booker
All the hype and excitement about Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the clear frontrunner on the Democratic side to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, becomes understandable as he works a room.

At a long-term care facility in Wayne last week, Booker sat, held hands and looked intently into the eyes of one woman who talked softly about healthcare. After shaking hands during lunch, he grabbed a microphone and sang a chorus of “Happy Birthday” to one of the residents.

Later, at a gathering of grandmothers in Paterson, he spoke, preacher-like, drawing shouts of acclamation, about what happened when he met the tenant president of the high-rise where he would live for seven years, offering his help but then being chided by the woman as he described the crime-ridden neighborhood.

“She waves her finger at me and she says, ‘Boy, you need to know something,’” Booker, 44, told the rapt audience. “The world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you got inside you. And if you see only problems and despair, that’s all it’s ever gonna be. But if you are one of those stubborn people who, every time you open your eyes, you see hope, you see possibility, you see love, you see the face of God, then and only then can you help me.”

“…And I looked down at my feet and I’m thinking to myself, ‘OK, Grasshopper, thus endeth the lesson.’ That was the beginning of my career in Newark.”

Mayor of the state’s largest city since July 2006, Booker shines while connecting with people, whether he’s posing for pictures with grandmothers in Passaic County, jogging through the streets of Morristown with Gen-Yers, or rubbing elbows with celebrities.

He brought $200 million to Newark’s schools — half of it donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Oprah Winfrey hosted a $1,000-per-person fundraiser for him last week. He has 1.4 million Twitter followers, who eagerly re-tweet such sayings as, “Please don’t forget that perhaps the biggest thing you can do today is a small act of kindness.”

Democrats across New Jersey have been falling over one another to support him, with local party organizations in three-quarters of the 16 counties that have made an endorsement backing him.

It’s not surprising, then, that he had a commanding 37-point lead in the polls over his three primary opponents and has raised about four times more money – roughly $8 million. He also had a head start, having already stated his intention to run for the Senate – rather than challenge Christie, as many Democrats had hoped – before Lautenberg announced his intention to resign when his term ended next year. The longtime senator died in June.

Still, while he touts his accomplishments in Newark — less crime, booming economic development – Booker does not always play as well with constituents of his own city.

Last November, Booker drew the ire of many when he tried to have an ally appointed to a vacant City Council seat. According to reports, after Booker cast the deciding vote, citizens rushed the stage and police used pepper spray to stop them, in addition to arresting one person.

A Superior Court judge overturned the appointment and the open seat is on the November ballot.

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) is no fan of Booker. He conceded that the mayor has “charisma” but said he has not helped Newark in the way he claims.

“He has not accomplished too much of anything in Newark,” said Rice, who lost to Booker in the 2006 mayoral race. “But he does a good public relations job.”

Rice said Booker has laid off workers, including police officers. The school district remains under state control. Some of the housing units and one of the new hotels that have been built were already under way or planned when he took office. Jobs on the city’s construction sites are not going to Newark residents. The number of foreclosures in the city remains high – 7,000 between 2008 and 2012 by one count.

“He has an agent constantly booking him. He’s a no-show mayor,” Rice added. “I really wish people would wake up and stop talking about his charisma.”

Statistics and data from Newark during Booker’s tenure, which included the 2007-09 recession from which New Jersey is still working to recover, show a city that is still struggling.

All crime dropped by 4 percent between 2006 and 2011 to 14,512 incidents, according to the New Jersey State Police Uniform Crime Report. But while property crime is down, violent crime rose 13 percent to 3,360 incidents. And there are 191 fewer police officers to handle the crime, with the force now totaling 1,095.

The unemployment rate in June – 14.4 percent – was about 5 points higher than it was when Booker took office in July 2006, according to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Newark’s median household income in 2011 was $31,731, which was 9 percent below the 2006 median without adjusting for inflation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The drop is closer to 18 percent when adjusted.

The net value of tax ratables in 2012 was roughly the same as it was in 2006, while the average tax bill rose by more than 50 percent to $6,358, according to the state Division of Local Government Services. At the same time, the number of vacant lots dropped by 20 percent and 1,500 new residential properties were added to the tax rolls, although the number of commercial and industrial properties declined.

The latter statistic touches on one of Booker’s main bragging points, which he made at the debate on Monday night, about commercial development in the city. In 2012 alone, Newark got state assistance for eight projects that will reportedly create 267 new jobs, according to the 2012 report of the state Economic Development Authority. Several other companies have gotten grants to move into Newark, some of them controversial, such as the $104 million the state gave Panasonic to move its headquarters from Secaucus to Newark.

“Newark, New Jersey, has 3 percent of the state’s population. We now make up 33 percent of all development in the state,” Booker said during the debate.

He went on to acknowledge that he worked with Gov. Chris Christie to get grants for businesses to relocate or open in Newark but said that is a positive and will help the state and nation.

“Despite our differences, I am the mayor of the largest city in the state. I’ve got to work with the governor to get things done. He and I partnered together to do as I said, create the largest economic development period in Newark since the 1960s … That’s what you have to do as a United States Senator.”

Although he said he disagrees with Christie on most things, Booker has had a friendly relationship with the governor. The two sat next to one another on the Oprah Winfrey show when Zuckerberg announced the $100 million gift to Newark’s schools, with Oprah praising the Democrat and Republican for working together. Booker even co-starred with Christie in a in a videomade for the annual New Jersey Legislative Correspondents Club dinner in 2012.

Booker’s campaign website lists a host of his accomplishments. Among them:

+Creation of an inspector general’s office, which has been responsible for 19 indictments, all leading to guilty pleas.

+Adoption of the management tool CitiSTAT across several departments, which has resulted in hundreds of improvements, including a 60 percent drop in missed sanitation pickups, a 50 percent drop in worker’s compensation claims, and a 98 percent per-inspector increase in code enforcement inspections.

+A 2013 budget, which calls for spending less than when the mayor took office, that is “structurally balanced and relies on less than 5 percent one-time funding sources,” even though Booker came ’s coming into office facing a $118 million deficit and a budget that was balanced with “one-time” revenues amounting to 25 percent of the spending plan.

When he spoke to the senior citizens, Booker said Newark has improved its senior-citizen housing and transportation systems, created “more safer spaces” like parks for seniors and families, and started New Jersey’s first Grandparent Support Center, called the Grand Family Center, to held help grandparents raising their grandchildren.

Booker has had a high profile nationally and gave the televised platform speech last September at the Democratic National Convention.

He has also made news for shoveling snow for some city Newark residents, rescuing a neighbor from a house fire, and eating for a week by spending only the amount of money provided to a typical food-stamps recipient.

Just as some in Newark complain that Booker is an absentee mayor, his primary opponents complain about his absences at debates. While he participated in Monday night’s debate, Booker has skipped other events, including one in Newark on the same night he attended the Oprah fundraiser.

“At the end of the day, this is a short campaign,” Booker said. “I have to balance all that with being mayor, as well. I agreed to the same number of debates as Sen. Lautenberg did when he ran. I am also going around the state engaging with people. Unfortunately, this is a depressed compressed campaign schedule.”

He has been travelling throughout the state and plans to start a bus tour after the end of the second debate at which he has agreed to appear, on Thursday night. The tour is planned to run through Monday, the day before the special primary election.

Booker has won the support of the three largest newspapers that with home delivery in New Jersey – the Star-Ledger, the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer – as well as the endorsement of many New Jersey politicians.

“For more than a decade, Cory Booker has worked tirelessly to bring people together and find solutions to the challenges facing Newark families,” said Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), who served as governor for 14 months. “That’s exactly the kind of leadership that our state needs in Washington right now.”

Born in Washington, D.C., Booker grew up in Harrington Park in Bergen County and, as he told the grandmothers in Paterson, had a good life, including being named to the 1986 USA Today All-USA high school football team.

“My dad brought me up in a very special way. He used to always tell me, ‘Boy, never forget where you came from,’” Booker said. “He used to say to me, ‘Cory, don’t you dare walk around this house like you hit a triple ‘cause you were born on third base … They used to say to me, “Son, you don’t know, you don’t know what you take for granted.”

Booker earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University, a second master’s from Oxford University – which he attended on a Rhodes Scholarship, and his law degree from Yale Law School. He operated a free legal clinic for low-income residents of New Haven, CT, while at Yale.

Booker moved to Newark and won a seat on the City Council in 1998. Four years later, he ran for mayor, losing to 4-term incumbent Sharpe James. In 2006, Booker tried again. James dropped backed out of the race and Booker defeated Rice by a wide margin, reportedly outspending him 25-to-1.

He told the grandmothers he is seeking the Senate seat because Washington needs more people who understand the problems faced by cities like Newark.

“Since the 1700s, there have only been 20 people who have ever gone from being a city mayor to the U.S. Senate,” Booker said.” “We have lot of issues facing our metro areas and our cities, but there have not been enough voices in the Senate…”

During the debate, Booker allied himself squarely with President Barack Obama. His opponents at times criticized him for not being progressive enough.

According to his website, Booker supports “updated, robust protections that once again give teeth” to the Voting Rights Act, continuing with diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran, eliminating “unfair and unnecessary” subsidies for the oil and gas industry and defending the Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare. He also backs increasing the minimum wage, protecting abortion rights and “common sense gun reform.” He said he supports preserving Social Security and Medicare.

Booker also supports school vouchers, which led to an attack by two opponents during the debate. One of them, Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th), said, “We shouldn’t be turning education into a market-based enterprise.”

“I believe in public schools strongly,” Booker said, adding he was unapologetic about his support for what are known as vouchers. – though he did not use that term. “For poor kids below the poverty line, who are stuck in persistently failing schools who really have no hope, I support scholarship programs to give them a lifeline to have the same opportunities that wealthy parents have.”

Much of Booker’s campaign has been aimed at younger voters – his website includes Ttwitter and Facebook links, but not even one campaign headquarters phone number. Among Booker’s traits that have endeared him to Generation Y are his positive messages, which he often spreads in his tweets. He did the same in introducing himself during Monday night’s debate.

“When you bring people together, no matter difficult the challenges, you can make tremendous progress,” Booker said.

In explaining why he should be elected, Booker told debate viewers:, “If you like what you’re getting from Washington right now, stick with it. It’s not working. What I think we need in Washington is a different kind of experience. Not more Washington.”