Long before he swept into office three years ago as the scourge of corruption and urban blight—and years before anyone outside of Illinois had even heard of Barack Obama—Newark Mayor Cory Booker was already a national figure. Young, black and superbly credentialed—Stanford, Yale Law, and a football star to boot—Booker has taken on one of America’s toughest cities and appears to be winning: Two weeks ago, The Daily Beast has learned, Special Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett invited Booker to Washington so he could explain why Newark’s crime rate was falling while it was rising in other big cities.
“It was flattering that the president’s office was recognizing that something’s happening in Newark—not just by a little bit, not a one-year fluke, but now closing in on three years of continuous decline [in crime].”
His first (unsuccessful) campaign for mayor in 2002, against the ruthless political machine of longtime mayor Sharpe James, became the subject of a riveting documentary, Street Fight, which was produced by Rory Kennedy and nominated for an Academy Award. The film portrayed Booker as a courageous reformer in a city plagued by crime, both violent and political, and announced the arrival of a new star on the American scene. Among the celebs who have climbed aboard the Booker bandwagon and given money to his campaigns and philanthropic projects are Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Jon Bon Jovi, and Oprah Winfrey—who introduced the rising Jerseyite to Obama.
Today the 73-year-old Sharpe James is in jail, serving a 27-month sentence on a corruption conviction, and his successor, at age 40, is the prince of a still-troubled city—presiding over dropping crime rates but also economic hardship and budget shortfalls. On Tuesday, Booker talked to The Daily Beast about crime, race—and his love life.
• On lowering crime: “The lowest murder rate in the city’s history was 1957. We’re on track right now to beat that all-time record.”
• On race: “The last thing I want is for America to transcend race. I think this culture is great because it has a rich black, Latino, Irish, Jewish culture, and so forth.”
• On stealing business from Bloomberg: “I’m trying to get businesses from anywhere—literally from China to other New Jersey cities.”
• On dating: “I need to find the woman that will be tolerant of me, and that’s a very tall order.”
• On Gayle King: “She’s a great friend. She jokes on her radio show all the time that she’s the unofficial first lady of the city of Newark, a title I’ll happily give her. But there’s nothing romantic.”
Q: You’re two years and 10 months into your first term. The next election will be May 9, 2010. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned so far as mayor of Newark?
A: I have to be blunt. So many people were literally lining up to tell me what I couldn’t do as mayor and to control and lower my expectations that a lot of my optimism and idealism will be ground down by the job when I face the realities. I have to say, I’m more hopeful and optimistic about what is possible in this job, and in a larger sense in our country, than ever before. So many things people told me we couldn’t do for one reason or another, we’re actually doing. I think the biggest challenge to us as Americans is lack of moral imagination about what’s possible. We too often resign ourselves. I’m saying that not to overlook the fact that we’re in the midst of tremendous challenges. This economy is really hurting the city. We have an unemployment rate that has reached 13 percent. We have probably about 300,000 citizens in Newark. We have foreclosure challenges, the city budget’s in shambles. But what we’ve been able to do is, as they say, “find a way out of no way.”
Q: I want to talk to you about crime.
A: Crime was the big issue when I was elected. One of the best criminologists in the country told me, “If you lower the murder rate 5 to 7 percent that’s miraculous,” and sort of saying, anything beyond that is basically impossible. Here we are now, down about 40 percent on shootings and murders from the time I took office.
Q: You and your police chief were recently crowing about having only—only—14 murders in the first four months of 2009. That’s still a high murder rate.
A: Look, we’re right now on track to have the lowest number of recorded murders for any year in history in Newark. The lowest murder rate in the city’s history was 1957. We’re on track right now to beat that all-time record.
Q: You were warned against setting impossible benchmarks for yourself, and you did it anyway. What’s wrong with you?
A: You know what? I haven’t been one to believe that conventional wisdom should be uniformly followed. Two weeks ago, Special Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett called us down to Washington, D.C. I was sort of surprised. She wanted to talk about why Chicago’s crime rate is going up, New Haven [Connecticut] is going up, a lot of other cities going up right now, but Newark is so dramatically going down. It was flattering that the president’s office was recognizing that something’s happening in Newark—not just by a little bit, not a one-year fluke, but now closing in on three years of continuous decline.
Q: What did you tell Ms. Jarrett?
A: The first thing is to understand that there’s no one strategy. If there’s one thing to do, then everybody would be doing it. It really is a collection of strategies. One is just managing your department with a real clear focus in mandate, so that everything falls in line in service to the goals that you have. So we had ridiculous stuff—detectives in our gang unit were working Monday through Friday 9 to 5, by union contract. Well, you know what? Gangs don’t work Monday through Friday 9 to 5, so we had to work to get the right officers on during the right time. In fact, we have three shifts generally of policing, an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., which is your daytime shift, and then two nighttime shifts, 4 to 12, and 12 to 8. We had two-thirds of our officers—that is, 66 percent—who were on during the daytime shift, when most crime was happening at night.
Q: By the way, I hear sirens in the background.
A: Yeah, but if you get to be a mayor in a big city, you’ll be able to distinguish between police sirens and ambulance sirens. When I hear an ambulance siren—unfortunately—this sounds so morbid, but you always send up a prayer because you know they’re either rushing to pick somebody up or taking somebody to the hospital. For police sirens, you check your BlackBerry real quick, to make sure nothing serious is happening. That was an ambulance siren.
Q: OK, let’s talk about the culture of the Newark Police Department. You know better than anyone that it was a corrupt institution. They were actually the political shock troops for Sharpe James.
A: I don’t want to say that the entire institution is corrupt to its core. I think it’s also how you define corruption. I think it’s corruption that the city was spending millions of dollars doing some things, yet their police department didn’t even have laptops or computers. They were working on typewriters that belonged in the Smithsonian.
Q: I have to think a lot of people still working the department were part of that corruption. I know you don’t want to tar everyone with the same broad brush. But how do you change the culture there?
A: That’s the first question, how do you change the culture? There’s a lot of people that I had to stomach when I first became mayor who were the people involved with a lot of the things that made my life difficult for so many years. And I could choose to retaliate against everybody or I could choose to focus on the mission—and that’s what we chose to focus on. If you change the culture, you create clear objectives and you hold people accountable for those objectives.
Q: In other words, you’re looking forward, you’re not looking back. You’re not going to have an investigation of waterboarding, you’re just not going to do it anymore—like your friend Barack Obama?
A: [Laughs.] I’m not sure that the analogy quite holds. But we did not go back and investigate acts. That would’ve been fruitless. Unlike Barack Obama, we didn’t have ironclad evidence that this stuff existed. We probably could’ve turned the police department upside down, which would’ve drained tremendous resources from the urgent task at hand. The day I was elected, there were murders happening in the City of Newark, and the urgency was screaming to me from every corner. So we had to get the job done, and literally I jumped into a car with lights and sirens and began on Day One. In fact, on the day I took office, I was coming outside and there was a bank robber running, and I and my security detail chased them down and apprehended them.
Q: This whole crime issue is by no means an abstraction to you. Years ago, when you were strolling with your dad around the housing complex where you lived, didn’t you happen on a teenager who was just shot and died in your arms?
A: Yeah. It was a little bit up the street from where I lived, but absolutely. I spent many years, before I was mayor, witnessing the savage impact that violent crimes have. That really tragic incident, where I was on the scene, that shook me to my core frankly.
Q: What did your dad and your parents think of the fact that you were living in this terrible place full of crime and in danger on an hourly basis?
A: I’m not sure exactly, but I have to tell you that my parents know one thing: They raised me with a certain set of values. My brother and I were born on second base, and my father didn’t even have a ticket to the stadium. My parents raised my brother and me recognizing how privileged we were, but yet that we had an obligation to continue the larger struggle for this country. My mom would read poetry to us all the time. Langston Hughes was imprinted on my gray cells: This dream today embattled/ With its back against the wall—/ To save the dream for one/ It must be saved for all. Both my brother [Cary Booker, an inner-city educator in Memphis, Tennessee] and myself took it to very logical extremes—not even extremes, but logical conclusions. I don’t think we could do other things than what we are doing now. But does it worry my parents? My mom tells me all the time she has sore knees to this day, because I keep her on her knees praying so often.
Q: Get her some mayoral knee pads!
A: Great idea for her next birthday present.
Q: One of the things that you did, in a majority black city—where the Sharpe James machine had portrayed you as an errand boy for the white establishment—is you appointed a white guy [former NYPD Deputy Commissioner Garry McCarthy] to run the police force. How much heat did you take for that?
A: I think I took a lot of criticism, and I think some members of the council didn’t vote for him for those reasons. He had one incident on the Palisades Parkway that seemed to mark his record [a February 2005 traffic arrest that had escalated into an argument with the Palisades Parkway cops]. It was the first time I had editorial boards writing against me. Both The New York Times and the Star Ledger told me not to hire him. At least the Star Ledger editorial board told me recently that they made a mistake and I did the right thing, but there was a lot of pressure for different reasons not to hire the guy—from sort of the race-based reasoning to other things. But it was clear to me that this was going to be the great partner that I needed, the great leader that I needed, to drive down crime in the City of Newark.
Q: Racial politics have been with us forever in this country. Where are we now in terms of the role of race in politics, particularly given that we have a black president?
A: I think we do a tremendous disservice to our nation and our nation’s diverse cultural heritage if we just think of race in terms of let’s build different boxes and check off different categories—as if that’s the only lens with which we should view the world. The reality is, especially in the City of Newark, black Newarkers and white Newarkers and Latino Newarkers want a safe city, and more than anything they want the people best qualified to accomplish that. I think shallow, simplistic, or narrow racial views undermine the larger cultural success that we want to have as a country. Now I’m not one of those politicians who says we need to get to a race-transcendent country. The last thing I want is for America to transcend race. I think this culture is great because it has a rich black, Latino, Irish, Jewish culture, and so forth. I also think that as long as race is still so strongly correlated with injustice in this country, whether it’s a racial achievement gap in education, whether it’s a racial disparity in incarceration—you know, blacks are 14 percent of New Jersey’s population, and over 60 percent of the prison population—that you cannot just toss out race as an important factor by which to understand issues in this nation. But I’m not going to be a mayor who looks at the world through simply one lens. I’m going to see the full spectrum of the challenges we face, and therefore engage in the pursuit of the full spectrum of tools necessary to solve our problems.
Q: Where do you think we are on the continuum?
A: I think the election of Barack Obama had a powerful spiritual impact on all Americans. It was a very important step forward for the racial evolution of our nation, in terms of just understanding, the ability to appreciate each other in a broader context. Now every single day, Americans wake up seeing a qualified, competent president who is also black, and it does tremendous things to the psyche of a nation. One of my staff members mentors a black boy at a local school, who is now obsessed with Barack Obama, reads everything he can about him. It has expanded his moral imagination as to what he can be. Then there’s the white boy who may be confronted with strains of bigotry but now has an anchor rooting him against those powerful streams that might have dislodged his perspective.
Q: What is your relationship with some of the people who have supported Sharpe James—people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and that generation of black leadership? Is there still some tension there or have you all sung Kumbaya?
A: I cannot impress upon you enough the urgency of the moment for my job, the stresses and the strains. I’ve got too much to carry forward to have to take time to carry forth grudges and bitterness. I have to let that go. I look at everybody now, whether Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, whoever you want to say, and ask: Can we work together to advance the urgencies of my agenda? Al Sharpton, for example, is a guy who has been pragmatically very helpful to me, especially the stuff he’s doing with the Education Equality Project.
Q: Are you absolutely committed, with no possibility of changing your mind, to run for second term?
A: Yeah, look, I don’t—
Q: That’s a reverse Sherman-like statement!
A: I’m committed to running for this next term. I really worry sometimes how, especially in the political world, people are so often more concerned about a position than a purpose. I really want to stay true always to what I feel in my heart is my overriding purpose. We started a phenomenal mission. We’ve gained some incredible ground in three years. I think with another five years, we could just blow people away. Really what I’m interested in is expanding people’s ideas of what’s possible. I think Newark, New Jersey, can really become in five years a symbol of not just urban excellence, but an example of a transcendent city that really came together and leveraged its assets to achieve that which other people said was impossible.
Q: Now you’ve developed a friendship with Mike Bloomberg. You endorse him, he endorses you. Now Cory, are you trying to steal businesses from Manhattan and lure them to Newark?
A: I’m trying to get businesses from anywhere—literally from China to other New Jersey cities.
Q: I don’t think Bloomberg will care much about the businesses you get from China.
A: Are you trying to pick a fight between me and the billionaire?
A: I think most mayors are smart enough to know that businesses do not make decisions based upon personalities or people, especially in this economy. You’re looking at the bottom line. In many ways, those who believe in the powers of markets and efficiencies do believe that it makes sense for businesses to locate where they could be most efficient.
Q: When are you going to grace the City of Newark with a first lady?
A: I need to find the woman that will be tolerant of me, and that’s a very tall order.
Q: You're a huge catch. What are you talking about?
A: I think you can ask my last girlfriend [a publicity-shy executive in the financial industry] that question. She might tell you it looks all rosy on the outside, but once you get to know the guy, the City of Newark is a jealous lover, and very competitive for my affections. I’m still friends with her.
Q: What do you think of all the gossip that you’re dating Arianna Huffington or Gayle King?
A: I love the speculation that you can’t be friends with somebody. I guess it’s a When Harry Met Sally question. But Gayle is a really, really good friend, and somebody I hang out with a lot. I just saw a movie with her very recently. We saw, God, why am I forgetting the name of it? But sometimes we go out together and we’ll run into paparazzi. She’s a great friend. She jokes on her radio show all the time that she’s the unofficial first lady of the City of Newark, a title I’ll happily give her. But there’s nothing romantic. She really is one of my favorite people on the planet though
Q: I guess if I ask you the question—what does the future hold for you?—you’ll give me some kind of vague, feel-good answer, right?
A: It would be horrible—the most politic thing I could say. You’d be nauseated. So I won’t even go there. But I’ll give you the five-year plan. We’re going to run for re-election, we’re looking forward to having a solid victory, and then we’re going to rock and roll. We’re really going to try to take the second term that much higher, that much more exciting and really make something new. We just started on the new social-media world, I’ve been on Twitter now for about two weeks. I think we’re going to start experimenting with new ways of accessing government. I’ve got some meetings in Silicon Valley coming up that I’m really excited about. Most importantly, we’re going to focus on the bread and butter, lowering crime, improving quality of life, et cetera, and if the economy eases up, watch out! You’re going to see cranes in the City of Newark, new buildings going up, new residential and business space, as well as hotels. It should be an exciting time.
Lloyd Grove is a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.