The New Natural

Photo: AP

Cory Booker loves to tell the story of how he came to become a candidate for political office in Newark. He was strategizing with his neighbors in one of the city’s housing projects about who to run for City Council. Fresh out of Yale Law School, he’d been living in the area for two years, working as a tenants’ lawyer: “I still had visions of being this kind of Vernon Jordan ideal, a lawyer behind the scenes helping some candidate.”

Then an older woman named Virginia Jones upbraided him. “She said, ‘Boy, you here to be a lawyer, or you here to help the community? If you’re here to help the community, then you’re going to be our candidate for councilman,’ ” Booker remembers.

It’s a tale of anointment, of transformation, one that establishes he’s running not out of vanity but because of the need of a community. And it doesn’t ring quite true – not because Cory Booker is insincere but because Cory Booker behind the scenes is a contradiction in terms.

Booker, 32 years old, six foot three, with a shaved head, sharp cheekbones, and big hands, is a showman. He’s Clintonian in his desire to connect, to extemporize, to feel the pain – and the love. At Stanford, he was the student-body president and a tight end. After college, he went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. While still at Yale Law, with virtually limitless career options, he moved to Newark, a few miles from the affluent Bergen County town where he grew up.

Booker won that run for City Council, beating a four-term incumbent, a man who had the strong support of Newark mayor Sharpe James and his long-entrenched political machine. Now he’s taking on James himself in a generational conflict that’s grown increasingly bitter.

The May 14 contest is, all agree, the toughest challenge James, Newark’s four-term incumbent and one of the country’s first wave of big-city black mayors, has faced in decades. James has held elective office in Newark since 1970, never losing a race. But now he’s feeling the pressure. And he’s responded by tossing off every hot-button insult in the book: In a March breakfast for a City Council candidate, James called Booker “a Republican who took money from the KKK.” To a group of his own supporters, he claimed Booker took money from the Taliban. In an encounter on the street with a group of Booker supporters, he said their candidate was “collaborating with the Jews to take over Newark.” And in a recent public confrontation between the two men and their supporters, James referred to Booker as “the faggot white boy.” (“That was an emotional reaction” was James spokesman Richard McGrath’s rather understated explanation.)

Sharpe James’s war on his upstart opponent isn’t only being fought with words. Booker supporters have been trailed by the cops, deluged with blizzards of parking tickets. Booker’s phone has been tapped. He has been been escorted out of public housing and city parks. Tenants in public housing have been told by Housing Authority employees they could be evicted if they keep Booker signs in their windows.

“There’s certainly an element of old-style politics,” McGrath says blithely. “But you also have to remember, Sharpe has years of service and even more years of living in Newark. He has lots of friends and supporters. So people from all walks of life feel very strongly about him.”

But James’s tactics, far from dragging Booker down into the mud, tend to push him up onto the high road. “You know,” says Booker, “there’s a real viciousness about the way he goes about campaigning, and it gives me a sense of a righteous crusade. I’m not sure I’ll ever have a fight that’s this clear, that’s this personally fulfilling and inspiring.”

Newark hasn’t always seemed a place worth fighting for. Sharpe James’s political career began here in 1970, three years after the riots that (besides the airport, and Philip Roth) are what the city has been best known for. And though Newark has recently shown signs of revitalization – the new arts center downtown has become a destination – it’s consistently ranked among the worst places to raise a child in America. James, who grew up in Newark, the son of a single mother who owned a restaurant, has tried to make their respective upbringings an issue, painting the contest in terms of race and authenticity. “You have to learn to be an African-American,” he’s said about Booker. “And we don’t have time to train you.”

Booker, the son of two IBM managers who raised him in Harrington Park, a wealthy Bergen County exurb, argues that his résumé represents progress, something to build on. “It was Sharpe James’s generation of leaders in America that broke down barriers,” Booker continues. “My parents were sitting at lunch counters. My parents were integrating schools. So when I came along, I could go to Stanford or Yale; I could get a Rhodes scholarship. I could really benefit from all the fights that they fought. So now I’m ready to serve, and they’re saying to me, ‘Wait a few more years.’ It’s the same thing they heard when they were these young rabble-rousers.”

The coalition Booker has put together has odd echoes of the early-sixties, freedom-rider left. Barbra Streisand has been a Booker supporter. So is Kosher Sex rabbi Shmuley Boteach (Booker was president of Oxford’s L’Chaim Society, Boteach’s campus organization. In some company, he peppers his conversation with Maimonides quotes and phrases like tikkun olam; his Jewish friends like to call him “King of the Jews”). Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp and former Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley co-sponsored a Booker fund-raiser earlier this year. Yogi Berra, of all people, is a supporter.

What’s more, a host of prominent Republicans, from the neocons at the Manhattan Institute to George Will and John Fund, have voiced their support for a man who volunteered for Jesse Jackson’s bid for the presidency in 1988. (Jackson returned the favor by coming to campaign last week – for James. “A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Jackson called Booker.)

“I don’t think there could be a finer young rising star in urban politics than Cory Booker,” Kemp says. “His policies go far beyond Democratic-Republican. There has to be a new way of thinking about poverty. Cory understands that private enterprise is not the enemy of the urban poor.”

Arianna Huffington has brought Booker along as her date on the party circuit, introducing him to boldfaces like Margaret Thatcher, Tina Brown, Jesse Helms, and Alan Greenspan. “Cory is a generational leader who can connect with the people he represents, he can connect with his peers, he can connect with people from every walk of life,” Huffington says from her office in California. “He has a magnetism and a passion and an intensity that is very much lacking today.”

Legions of young Manhattanites are volunteering their time to knock on doors. Thirty-year-olds compare Booker to politicians they’ve only read about, like John Lindsay and Robert Kennedy. And Booker has a rare gift for making young, well-educated professionals abandon their cynicism about politics.

“I’m looking for someone who is committed to something they really care about,” says Mark Jacobstein, 32. Jacobstein sold his Internet company in May; now he’s a full-time Booker volunteer. “I’d been forewarned that he was the most amazing person I’d ever meet,” Jacobstein says. “And as a New Yorker, I was immediately skeptical. But it was true. There’s something so passionate about him and about the way he talks about lifting up the city that is very real and very unusual.”

And, much as Andrew Cuomo is attempting to do in the governor’s race in New York, Booker is dusting off the politics of 30 and even 40 years ago, retrofitting them for his generation.”We haven’t had a great world war,” he says, “we haven’t had a great depression. We’ve been living in an era of great prosperity, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t come and make this real substantive difference.”

James, however, is an opponent of formidable powers, one who’s amassed a goodly share of chits to cash in. James can make a good case that both Governor Jim McGreevey and Senator Jon Corzine owe the Newark mayor their jobs, and both have taken to the streets for him.

Booker’s out-of-state support, his suburban background, and his golden-boy image give James and his campaign a sizable target. “The fact that he seems to have other ambitions undermines his purported commitment to Newark,” says McGrath. “The fact that he hangs out with and gets contributions from Barbra Streisand and Jack Kemp has given him more of a national appeal. He moves into Newark and sees political opportunity here.”

But finally, what makes the conflict so potent is that the older generation of black leadership does not want to be displaced, even if the battle has moved on. “They will fight to the end to hold on to it,” says Queens minister and former congressman Floyd Flake. “The younger guys are going to have to make their way, because what’s really most threatening to them is that here is a generation of kids that are not locked up in the struggles of the civil-rights era. And the older generation is saying, ‘They’re not ready because they’re not black enough’? It’s a sad indictment on us as a race.”

Cory Booker gets into the elevator of the Brick Towers housing project in Newark’s Central Ward, where he’s lived for the past four years, followed by two elementary-school girls. One of them, a fourth-grader with a big, shy smile, knows Booker, and they chat about school. Then Booker gives her a playful math quiz. “What’s 23 take away 19?” he asks. The girl’s smile stays painted on her face, and she begins to roll her right foot. She doesn’t speak. “Twenty-three take away 19? Can you count it?” The girl keeps smiling.

“Eighteen?” she asks. The elevator stops at the fourteenth floor, where the girl lives. The doors open. FUCK YOU FUCK YOU is painted on the wall.

Booker counts it up for her. She keeps smiling but doesn’t say anything. “Okay, I’ll see you soon, right?”

The “penthouse apartment” Booker likes to joke about is a mess: Ward maps are taped to the wall above his television set, a punching bag is suspended from the ceiling in the living room, and there’s a stationary bike set up a couple of feet away.

All day, Booker has been talking – with his staff, with voters, to me – about how Newark’s children need to be given the opportunities he had growing up. He can spew statistics: about the pathetic high-school graduation rates, about the lack of money spent on recreation, about the dangerous playgrounds and decrepit streets.

“The tragic thing about Newark,” he says, “is that we sit in one of the richest states in the nation, with the fourth highest per capita income, and we’re one of the 50 poorest cities as judged by median income and poverty rate.”

Booker is essentially a Clinton Democrat. Parts of his platform (school vouchers, for instance) are borrowed from Republicans, and his emphasis on private enterprise endears him to crusaders like Kemp. But he’s also a political showman.

Take his high-profile campaigns to crack down on Newark’s drug dealers. Back in 1999, just a year after being elected, Booker pitched a tent in the middle of one of the city’s most notoriously and stubbornly violent housing projects, refusing to leave – or to eat, for that matter – until the police came in or the drug dealers moved out. The dealers were none too pleased. They dumped feces on his tent and kept him up at night with catcalls and threats. Finally, ten days later, the cops were shamed into helping out. Booker emerged 25 pounds lighter, but with the kind of credibility and name recognition a thousand mailings couldn’t buy.

The next summer, Booker took his campaign on the road, driving an old RV from drug spot to drug spot, waiting for the media, and the cops, to follow suit. Stunts like these are the things that get a precocious city councilman full-page spreads in Time magazine and segments on 60 Minutes.

Booker is a practicing Baptist, and his oratory clearly reflects that tradition. But what may bond him more to some of his constituency is a certain Californian self-help strain. Actualize is one of his favorite words. He tells me how a California businessman told him, “We need people like you who can actualize our idealism.”

Shortly after trying to coax some rudimentary subtraction out of his fourth-grade neighbor, he said, “It’s a tragedy that in too many communities in America, so many of our children never get to actualize God’s unique genius inside of them because of a lack of opportunity.”

In early March, Booker talks to a highly actualized group of young New Yorkers packed into the Housing Works Bookstore and Café in SoHo. The crowd reflects Booker’s pedigree. The Ivy League is well represented, as are New York’s tony private schools. The city’s big law firms, like Skadden, Arps and Davis, Polk and Wardwell, are out in force.

It’s slightly past eight when Booker is introduced, to rock-star hoots. “This is really phenomenal,” Booker says. “Four years ago, they said I was a tool of the Jews and a member of the KKK. I haven’t figured that one out yet.” Pointing to his shaved head, he says, “Now I’m a skinhead too.” The crowd cheers. Booker stops for a half-beat, soaks it all up, and dives in again.

When he’s done speaking, Suzanne Immerman explains why she’s there. She talks about how much help Newark needs, how the city is mired in poverty despite the economic explosion of the nineties. Then she stops. “Part of it is, I think I can get in now on the ground floor,” she says, a little dreamily. “I think he could be president. I truly do.”

Some who know Booker well believe that the New Jersey governorship is a ticket he will punch eventually. But even some of his biggest fans concede that this time, Sharpe James might be too intractable.

Al From, chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, is also a Booker supporter. “He has gone into politics with a mission to reform Newark,” From says. “And he’s shown a remarkable resolve. Regardless of what happens here, he has a terrific future.”

Booker insists he’s not interested in thinking about the future. While he says he doesn’t plan on finishing out his career in Newark’s City Hall (he wants to enact term limits but hasn’t decided on two or three terms), he wants to spend the next decade helping to fix his adoptive city: “Sharpe James is running a campaign that uses every attempt possible to distract voters from the issues. He’s making racial allegations; he’s appealing to people’s worst fears. And if all he can bring to the table is negativity and bigotry, then he’s going to lose.”

Booker is talking about the blacker-than-thou themes that James has been hammering on for weeks. “I have a purpose right now that gives my life meaning,” Booker says. “That’s to empower the city of Newark, to be part of a struggle for justice in the city. I mean, governor? President? Senator? Those titles sound really fancy. But I don’t want my power to come from my title or from the job that I hold. I think our greatest power should come from inside us and who we are.”

Of course, Sharpe James may have a different idea about power. May the best man actualize.

The New Natural