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.)