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The New Natural

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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.


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