Back in Newark, Booker and I are talking, as he does often and well, about his own family’s story, and the lessons that come from it. His father, who didn’t know his own father, is from North Carolina, and his eventual success—one of the first black executives at IBM—depended on the fact that his community got together to help send him to college. “How do you put in place that kind of structure that broke my dad out of poverty? It’s something that weighs on me all the time.” His mother was born in Detroit, in better circumstances, and later moved to Louisiana and then Los Angeles. His grandfather worked in the bomber factory—“Those were the stories of the boom years,” Booker says. Then, starting in the fifties with suburbanization, things went badly, quickly, for industrial cities. “Unfortunately, it’s a story that repeated itself in numerous cities: massive declines in tax bases, massive corruption, middle-class exodus …”
An exhausted-looking aide holds a tape recorder in the other chair to make sure his boss is quoted correctly. Another aide sweeps in with coffee without being asked—“It’s Aquaman telepathy,” Booker jokes.
Newark always meant something for Booker: According to his high-school friend Jim Donofrio, while everybody else was dreaming about playing for the Mets or the E Street Band, Booker—the class president; one of the captains of the football, basketball, and track teams; and even then a friend to all cliques—knew that he wanted to be Newark’s mayor “to turn the city around.” He had a dentist there, as well as non-blood relations he still considers “family,” Booker explains.
Two of those “relatives” showed up in Asbury Park during the July 4th boardwalk walk, grinning and delighted to watch their successful “God-cousin” scoop ice cream next to Bradley, giving off that same big-brother jollity they always remember in him. They don’t see the mayor often, they tell me, looking on adoringly. But sometimes they connect with him on Twitter.
Not everyone in Newark, or in the New Jersey political Establishment, has always appreciated Booker’s good intentions (this is a state in which regional party leaders are matter-of-factly referred to as “political bosses”). And there are lots of political vets who resent his refusal to play by their rules—he can go over their heads, right to the public. When I mention this to Bradley, he says sarcastically: “I’m shocked—shocked—that people who are in machine politics are upset that Cory doesn’t play that game.”
Reservations aside, for the most part the party Establishment is behind Booker in this race—it’s good to back a winner. On the question of his tenure as mayor, they are more divided. Any account of those years must start with the fact that the city has gotten a bit safer since he took office, and that its population is growing for the first time in decades. But many Jersey politicos think he’s spent more time grooming himself for the publicity Elysium where Oprah and Zuckerberg hover in white robes writing big checks rather than hanging out in the city’s rusty old governmental engine room, tinkering. They wonder if tweeting is the same thing as governing. That perhaps it wasn’t enough to be so ostentatiously the only honest man in a corrupt city, that this was a task that required more than multitasking. “Cory is a big-idea public figure,” notes Price. “At the same time, the nitty-gritty workmanship of [being] a city mayor doesn’t seem to appeal to him.” So maybe the Senate is better suited to his many talents.
As one critic who once had the job he’s hoping to land, Bob Torricelli, puts it to me ominously: “The scenario of this almost immediate election ensures that the Cory Booker story in Newark is never going to really be told.” When Josh Lautenberg, the late senator’s son, endorsed Booker’s opponent Pallone, he put it this way: “My father was known as a workhorse, not a show horse … But he [saw] Cory as a show horse, not a workhorse, something that, in his guts, bothered him.”
Booker is aware of the carpetbagger critique, and is careful to present his story as an uncynical one, his evident ambition almost edited out. “There’s a purity of being in the nonprofit world,” he says, a little enviously. “If you’re in the nonprofit world, and you help somebody cross the street, you’re a good guy; if you’re a politician, you’re trying to get their vote.” As he always tells it, Virginia Jones had to persuade Booker to run for office—“She chipped away at my resistance”—but according to Gillespie’s book, Booker went to Jones asking for her support. Perhaps that discrepancy is just a matter of divergent memories, but it’s always been important for Booker to present himself as something other than the on-the-go, inevitably ascendant Cory. The truth as he sees it is that it’s all just him, a single man, childless, hard at work for his constituents at all hours.
When I mention the “show horse” quote to Booker at the Best Western, he scoffs: “That slant of argument worked really well for John McCain.”