As usual, the mayor is tightly scheduled, and it’s decided we’ll meet downstairs from his office, in the lobby of the Best Western next door. There’s a plaque commemorating all of the presidents the hotel has hosted: Wilson, FDR, Truman, JFK. But none, it seems, since the 1967 riots (some in the city prefer the word rebellion). Visible behind Booker, through the plate-glass window, is the derelict brick façade of the former S. Klein department store, which is being torn down for an expansion of the Prudential Insurance headquarters.
The mission Booker set for himself as mayor went beyond the usual duties—to reduce crime, tinker with social programs, and try to keep the economic-development machinery greased (his hands were tied with the schools, since the state had taken control of them in the mid-nineties). He wanted to change the very idea of Newark, from a place trapped as if under a dome by demography and despair, into a cause. “Newark used to be so much beloved by people who are no longer there,” says Clem Price, a history professor at Rutgers. “Cory was the way for them to reconnect.”
“When I first became mayor, it took me about five years until people started returning my calls,” Booker tells me. “It took a lot of things, from Twitter to media, to get to the point where I can call people.”
Those calls have helped make a city with 13 percent unemployment, and only 13 percent holding college degrees, hemmed in by structurally better-off towns in economically and socially Balkanized New Jersey, into a vast public-private experiment in urban reboot. Booker has long been backed by well-intentioned outsiders, from Oprah Winfrey to Goldman Sachs bankers, and all told, he has helped bring $400 million in philanthropic support to his city, the most spectacular being that $100 million in Facebook stock from Zuckerberg. The gift was announced on Oprah and given on the condition that Booker and allies raise a matching amount. But in order to score that haul, Booker first had to insinuate himself into the annual Allen & Co. tech-plutocrat retreat in Sun Valley. And before he could sidle up to Zuck at a buffet dinner there, it helped that he was already friends with Sheryl Sandberg.
“The era of big government is over, as Clinton said,” he tells me by way of introducing his brand of appealingly purple, network-y wonkery. “It’s really about smart investing. A government that invests in a smart way that produces returns for everybody, that empowers human potential and produces a return for everyone.” This language of M.B.A. spirituality comes naturally to Booker, and he understands that this is part of why the business elites trust him.
“I can take somebody who has an investor’s mind and show them a fatherhood program that for a small amount of investment has saved New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars in terms of the recidivism from over 60 percent to under 10 percent. They get it instinctively. Forget Republican, Democrat. Forget ideology, left or right. This is strategic investment to empower the productivity of thousands of Americans to lower government expenditures over the long term.”
It makes sense that a man like Booker, who has done so well by the system, wants to engineer sensible, sensitive change within it. He gives off an oddly endearing, protect-me aura—helped by his professions of romantic haplessness. He’s hardly ever publicly impertinent or rash, with probably one major exception—when his sympathy for bankers led him to call the Obama campaign’s Bain-inspired attacks on private equity “nauseating.”
Marveling at this skill, one prominent Jersey Democrat recalled how, after seeing Booker give the commencement address at Cornell earlier this year, “these Republicans I know were so blown away. They texted me: Is this guy really a Democrat? He’s fabulous.” Last week, “Page Six” reported that Ivanka Trump, whose father is a birther, and Jersey development scion Jared Kushner, whose New York Observer backed Mitt Romney, hosted a fund-raiser for Booker, giving him his biggest haul to date: $375,000.
Andra Gillespie, today a political-science professor at Emory, saw Booker deliver the 2001 Fowler Harper Lecture at Yale Law School—a gig that often goes to a more seasoned alum, but (of course) Booker was asked back just two years out of law school. She was so impressed she decided to do her dissertation research on minority-voter turnout in Newark, teaming up with, and finally volunteering for, his campaign. She returned later to do more research, which turned into a book, The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America. In it, she describes Booker as a member of a new generation of post-civil-rights activists whom she calls “Black Political Entrepreneurs.” Part of what characterizes them is their appeal to white voters, she wrote, and their willingness to experiment. Once he was in office, “Booker shifted the focus of his government proposals from process to customer service.”