Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker is the leading candidate going into next week’s U.S. Senate primary election. Polls show him far ahead of the other three Democrats hoping to fill the seat of the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died in June. Booker has built a national following, but how does his track record hold up in the city he calls home?
Dozens of volunteers from across the country are working on fold-out tables and chairs inside a Booker for Senate office. Those who can’t find seats have their laptops balanced on their knees as they sit on the floor.
Kim Copeland is a third year Ph.D. student in criminal justice, but she dropped teaching a class this summer to help send Cory Booker to Washington.
“I believe that what Mayor Booker’s vision is for child poverty, for economic development, for addressing the crime issue. I believe in what he has to say,” Copeland said. “So, it’s worth it to come and give my time and resources to this campaign.”
Booker passed up an opportunity to run for a third term as mayor and chose not to go head-to-head against Chris Christie in the governor’s race this year. Instead, his focus is on national politics.
“Because there are issues that we’re facing that can’t be solved in Newark and across the state that have to be solved by the federal level and are not being solved here,” Booker said.
Issues such as curbing gun violence, economic expansion and immigration, just to name a few.
As mayor, Booker has convinced investors that Newark is worth the risk. He’s also brought in roughly $400 million in philanthropy to the city, including a $100 million matching grant from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to improve education.
“The momentum in this city is just incredible. Every day it seems like we’re ready to announce new projects, new groundbreakings, development all around the city,” Booker said. “We have a tremendous pipeline now of projects coming into Newark.”
The mayor has a national following. There are nearly five times as many people following him on Twitter as live in Newark. Despite his notoriety, his record is mixed.
Violent crime is up, but the number of shooting victims is down. Unemployment is in double digits. But the number has risen at a slower rate than in the rest of the state. Test scores are up on standardized tests for students in charter schools. However, 70 percent of all Newark children live in a low-income family.
Writer, poet, activist and longtime resident Amiri Baraka says Newark is a tale of two cities.
“It just shows you that this is a divided city, very divided,” Baraka said. “The downtown seems to be doing well. They’re getting ready to commercialize Military Park and put all kinds of businesses in there. You know, all kind of new businesses coming in. But what’s being done for the people?”
Some residents are leery of outsiders. Booker was a high school football star from the upper-middle class suburb of Harrington Park, went on to Stanford, Oxford and Yale Law School. During his last year there, he commuted from Newark to New Haven.
Baraka questions the mayor’s true interest in the city.
“He used this as a stepping stone and he is stepping,” Baraka said.
But Booker also has his share of supporters who find his ideas refreshing. Rutgers history professor Clement Price remembers when Booker, as a young man, moved into a notorious housing complex, Brick Towers, where his interest in community advocacy grew and led him in to politics.
“He’s always struck me as being a very thoughtful public servant, and he’s also impressed me with his ambition. Ambition is good in our system,” Price said.
Over the course of his 15 years in elected office, which began in the city council, Mayor Booker has drawn attention to issues by going on a 10-day hunger strike and pitching a tent in drug-dealing areas of the city. He also shoveled snow during a blizzard and had residents stay at his apartment during Superstorm Sandy, gaining him praise from celebrities such as Oprah and Jon Stewart. Price wonders how long the spotlight will last on New Jersey’s largest city.
“The question for many is has that national stature benefited him and Newark or just him?” Price said. “To an extent, that’s a question that will probably remain unanswered.”
On a sunny weekday afternoon, Izalina and Ms. D. are waiting for a bus on the corner of Market and Broad Streets. What was once the busiest intersection in America is now lined with fast food restaurants and empty store fronts. Neither woman gave her full name. Izalina says she’s not a fan of the mayor.
“Like he said he got guns off the street. He ain’t get guns off the street. Every day, there’s a killing in Newark,” Izalina said.
A few blocks away, the city’s landscape is changing. Construction crews are bulldozing abandoned buildings and a city park is being reconstructed. However, Ms. D. says more needs to be done about the homeless.
“Instead of rebuilding them building, try to find places for these homeless people out here. I mean, you got Penn Station full of homeless folks,” she said.
One poll out earlier this year shows 70 percent of Newark residents support Booker. Ms. D. says he’s got her vote.
“He trying to make a way to find jobs out here for everybody. If it wasn’t for Cory Booker, half these jobs, the stuff people doing out here wouldn’t get done.”
Cory Booker says the city is a better place since he took office. But he admits there’s a lot of work left to be done.
“People want to live in the city of Newark. Our population is growing more than the surrounding suburbs. When we came in, our tax base, companies were announcing that they were leaving Newark. Now companies are coming. The inflow is incredible.”
Mayor Booker is now on a five-day bus tour across the state, leading up to Tuesday’s primary.