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The New Natural

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"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.


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