Complicating The Race

New York Times

April 28, 2002
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Cory Booker was working the room at Casa Israel, a medical care center in Newark where low-income patients undergoing treatment can spend the afternoon playing checkers or doing crafts. Booker, dressed in a dark suit and yellow tie, was shaking hands and bantering with the staff in Spanish as he methodically moved through the room. The response was adoring, which wasn’t hard to understand: the strapping 32-year-old city councilman is a handsome local celebrity, and his photo was on the front page of The Star-Ledger that day in an article about his campaign to unseat Newark’s longtime mayor, Sharpe James, in the election on May 14.

The good feelings began to ebb, however, when an unsmiling middle-aged woman named Vera interrupted Booker to ask a question. ”What I don’t understand,” she announced, ”is where you’re from. Where do you live? And what are you doing here?”

Booker looked momentarily deflated. Quickly regaining his composure, he leaned down and answered that, in fact, he lived nearby, on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. He pulled up a chair and started enumerating Newark’s problems and the changes he’d make as mayor. After a few minutes, an aide pulled the candidate away, and with a last ”God bless,” he moved on to the other side of the room. Vera, however, remained unimpressed. Booker seemed smart, she said, but ”I just don’t see how someone who’s not from around here can understand what’s going on in Newark.”

Cory Booker hears that kind of comment a lot these days. It is not entirely surprising; Booker, who would stand out in almost any room, is like nothing this town has ever seen. He has chiseled good looks, Clintonian political gifts and a résumé that almost beggars belief: he was a football star at Stanford, a Rhodes scholar and a Yale law student. He is also a child of the white suburbs, making him a demographic anomaly in a city that is still mostly black and poor. Newark is not accustomed to politicians who speak in rapid-fire academic cadences and drop references to Frantz Fanon and Langston Hughes — let alone Ivy League grads with a national following who raise most of their money out of town.

Vera’s skepticism is something Booker is going to have to overcome quickly if he is going to win on May 14. His opponent in the nonpartisan election has powerful connections throughout the city and state. Sharpe James, like Booker a Democrat, is a veteran political street fighter, now running for his fifth term as mayor, and he has no intention of making way for a neophyte, whatever his credentials.

In recent weeks, the contest has become remarkably nasty, as James gleefully rips into what he sees as Booker’s weaknesses: his pedigree, his background and his close ties to the power establishment outside Newark. Rumors, many reportedly linked to City Hall, have begun to circulate; the whispers in certain circles are that Booker is white, Jewish and financially supported by the Ku Klux Klan. In other circles, meanwhile, Booker is regularly referred to as someone who will end up the first black president of the United States.

Cory Booker is not in fact Jewish or white, though with his pale green eyes, shaved head and light skin, it is almost plausible — though not quite — that someone might make the mistake. And he really does live in Newark. Not just in town, in fact, but in a housing project in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. Since 1998, Booker has rented a two-bedroom apartment in the Brick Towers development, an aging grimy apartment complex that stands at the heart of the Central Ward, the low-income area Booker has represented on the City Council for the last four years. It is an incongruous choice of residence for a college-educated councilman who earns over $85,000 a year. Security guards loiter outside, keeping the drug dealers at bay; inside, the elevator often breaks down and the stairwell is marked with gang graffiti.

Booker’s two-bedroom penthouse apartment, for which he pays an unsubsidized $600, is comfortable enough, dominated by exercise equipment, books and a video collection that tends toward Bible epics and science-fiction films. A poster of John F. Kennedy hangs on one wall; on the other, a window offers a panoramic view of Newark and the Manhattan skyline, 15 miles beyond.

The apartment is the base for what seems a rather monastic existence. Booker, who manages only five or six hours of sleep a night, hasn’t had time to date much in the last few years. He is a relentless self-improver, seeking out ”empowering” experiences, and there is little space in his routine for frivolities like fiction; the morning I dropped in, he had Nelson Mandela’s biography on his night table. The only luxury the councilman allows himself, he says, is ”Star Trek,” which Booker tapes most days and then watches while working out.

Booker’s critics do have part of the story right: The councilman grew up far from the slums — in demographic, if not geographic, terms. Harrington Park, N.J., is one of many upper-middle-class suburbs that ring Newark; it was almost all white before Booker’s family arrived in 1971. His parents, both I.B.M. executives, were unable to buy a house there until a friendly white couple agreed to pose as them and tour around with the real-estate agents; when the real Bookers showed up to close the deal, the enraged agent took a swing at their lawyer.

The family used to joke that they were ”four raisins in a tub of vanilla ice cream,” Booker says, but he excelled in this largely white, unintegrated environment. His parents, both veterans of the civil rights movement, were careful to school their kids in the spirit of struggle, and on frequent trips to Newark, where an uncle worked as a dentist, Booker’s parents made sure Cory noticed the economic and racial disparities between that depressed city and their comfortable suburb.

Booker became a high-school all-American tight end and a star student in Harrington Park before going on to Stanford on a football scholarship, Oxford and Yale — and then back to inner-city Newark, in 1997, where he got a job as a housing advocate.

The decision to move to Newark seems to have involved a combination of conviction and ambition. Booker had become deeply involved with community service as an undergraduate — mentoring kids in East Palo Alto, for example, when he wasn’t in class or on the football field — and Newark, with its many problems, seemed a place he could make his mark. ”I felt inspired here,” he says, ”like Newark was a calling, not a choice.” At the age of 28, a year after he arrived, he was elected city councilman for the Central Ward, beating a 16-year incumbent by registering more new voters than had even participated in the previous election. It was shortly after his election, honoring a campaign pledge, that he moved into Brick Towers.

Once on the City Council, Booker’s political ideas began to evolve. He embraced more conservative policies, while at the same time adopting provocative, confrontational tactics more often associated with the left. He endorsed school vouchers — a controversial idea in Newark — as well as Giuliani-style zero-tolerance community policing and ”faith-based initiatives,” partnerships between government, churches and the private sector to administer social services. He quickly became frustrated by his inability to get things done on a City Council resistant to upstart reformers. (”Many, many times I got outvoted 8-1.”) He began to stage media stunts to shame City Hall into taking action. In 1999, he pitched a tent and fasted for 10 days in front of one of Newark’s worst housing projects to protest open-air drug dealing.

Booker is now hoping to use this record — strong on drama, slightly weaker on legislative accomplishment — plus his impressive background and the sterling connections he has cultivated along the way to run a highly unusual campaign for mayor. He is not the first politician to sell himself as postpartisan. Nor is he the first black politician to run for office by trying to establish a diverse, cosmopolitan base. But there is something almost defiant about the ethnic universalism that Booker preaches and embodies. And he is one of the first black politicians to try to sell this New Age mix to a mostly black, working-class audience. Despite a recent, much-touted rejuvenation of its downtown, Newark remains largely poor, and though crime rates have dropped, they remain high. Politics in the city tends to be a cozy, insider affair. (Sometimes too cozy, in fact: Sharpe James’s former chief of staff and his former police director have both been convicted on corruption-related charges.) And locals still harbor keen memories of the 1967 race riots that left 26 people dead, more than 1,000 injured and scars on the local landscape that remain visible to this day.

And there is one other obstacle, of course: to succeed on May 14, Booker will also have to persuade Newark’s residents to dump Sharpe James, a politician who represents everything he is not. James, 66, is part of a slowly vanishing but still powerful breed of mayor — radically different from the one Booker proposes to become. A slick politician who favors silk ties, monogrammed shirts and big cuff links, he is respected and feared in town for the way he distributes patronage and punishes opponents. As Prof. Dennis E. Gale of Rutgers explains, James came to power as part of a generation of activist black mayors that included Coleman Young in Detroit, Louis Stokes in Cleveland and Andrew Young in Atlanta, a group that ”fought the good fight against the prevailing white establishment and showed that, yes, indeed, minorities could run City Hall at least as effectively as their predecessors.” But as Clement A. Price, a Rutgers historian, argues, while mayors like James may have managed to break into the white power structure in racially divided cities, they often then ended up replicating, rather than reforming, the machine politics of their predecessors. James represents, Price says, the ”old political style that was successful getting blacks elected but not, according to critics, as good at addressing the problems at the urban core.”

For the time being, however, this style remains potent. James has already been endorsed by virtually every elected politician in New Jersey, including the Democratic governor, the state’s two Democratic senators and eight of Newark’s nine City Council members. He is widely credited with the city’s rebirth: under his tenure, crime has dropped and a number of glittering new developments (including a performing-arts center and a minor-league baseball stadium) have come to town. Many locals seem happy to forgive his brash and combative tactics out of gratitude for his role in Newark’s renewal. Whether they are willing to abandon him for a much younger, radically different alternative, therefore, remains very much to be seen.

Just how radically different that alternative is became clear to me an hour after the Casa Israel event, when Booker, over lunch, started quoting Golda Meir. Seated at a diner in Newark’s Ironbound district — home to the city’s substantial Portuguese-speaking population — Booker held forth over an omelet and home fries, breaking off the conversation every now and then to call out greetings in Greek or Spanish.

All politicians, of course, try to be all things to all people, and even Sharpe James has offered a shalom or two at one of Newark’s few remaining synagogues. But Booker at points seemed to know more about my Jewish culture than I did. He is not just open to unconventional, at times contradictory, politics. He also seems committed to a far-reaching ethnic universalism, which was on marked display at lunch that day.

A churchgoing Baptist, Booker also professes an interest in Buddhism and says that he meditates once or twice a day. He is a lifelong teetotaler, and he became a vegetarian in England after reading Gandhi. ”He said, ‘You have to be the change,”’ Booker explained to me. ”That’s radical, to say you can live your life fully consistent with your beliefs.”

Booker’s intense interest in other cultures feels like more than glib politics; it is a theme that quickly emerges in conversation with anyone who has known him over the years. Booker’s Jewish connection dates back to Oxford, where one night during his first year there he was invited by a friend to a dinner held by a Jewish group on campus called the L’Chaim Society. Booker remembers showing up, he says, ”though I couldn’t even pronounce the name. I entered this room full of Orthodox Jews and was like, ‘O.K., I’m in the wrong place.’ It was like that commercial where you walk into a room and the music stops and everyone turns to stare.”

Booker’s friend didn’t show, but just as Booker was turning to leave, the wife of the rabbi who ran the group asked him to stay anyway and join them for dinner. Booker and the rabbi — a former Lubavitcher named Shmuley Boteach, who has gone on to become famous in his own right for publishing books like ”Kosher Sex” — were soon deep in discussion. In the weeks that followed, they started trading books. ”I would give him Baldwin and DuBois,” Booker says, ”and he would give me Hillel.”

The next year, Booker, at Boteach’s urging, became president of L’Chaim — its first (and only) non-Jewish, nonwhite student leader. Boteach has since moved back to New Jersey and has persuaded a few of his high-profile friends — including Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson — to support Booker politically.

Booker’s cultural ecumenism has, on one level, been very helpful in his current campaign, as have his centrist politics and his Ivy League connections. Unable to raise much money in Newark, where most donations go to the mayor, Booker has held fund-raising events in New York, Washington and the Jersey suburbs, many of these with Jewish donors. And the money is flowing in: he has already raised more than $2 million and says he hopes to hit $3 million by Election Day (and this in a town where only 40,000 people voted in the last election). The mayor has reportedly raised about the same.

Booker’s charisma and comfort with sometimes sticky issues of race was on display at one recent fund-raiser at a Midtown Manhattan asset-management firm. Before a talk that would combine references to Martin Luther King with Wall Street vernacular (he would ask for help ”leveraging Newark’s core competencies”), Booker told the conservatively dressed, almost entirely white crowd a story from his football days at Stanford. It fell flat. Smiling, Booker confessed that he was used to a bit more of a response from the folks he talks to in Newark. ”Come on,” he said, ribbing his audience, ”I want you to do like you’ve seen on BET.” It didn’t look as if there were many viewers of Black Entertainment Television in the room, but Booker pressed on. ”I know you’ve seen it. Let me hear you shout out! Testify!” There were a few chuckles. Booker launched into his idealistic campaign speech, asking for help ”to fight to change history in our city,” and a half-hour later, his listeners were writing checks.

This kind of performance has helped Booker attract an impressive campaign staff — a ”best and the brightest” crowd made up in large part of high-achieving friends from Oxford, Yale and Stanford. Inside the ”Bat Cave,” as staff members call his South Street campaign headquarters, the bright-eyed young team includes a former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, a number of Capitol Hill veterans, former high-powered lawyers, an Indian-American investment banker and a public-relations consultant, Jennifer Bluestein, who helped run Betsy Gotbaum’s recent successful campaign for public advocate in New York.

And yet the critical question remains how well all of this will play where it matters most: inside Newark. Booker’s obstinate insistence on being himself — the vegetarian, postracial, postpartisan idealist — may work well much of the time, but it can also occasionally come across as startlingly naïve. Sharpe James has leapt at the opportunity to highlight the differences between Booker and his constituents. He has slammed the councilman for supporting vouchers and other ideas outside the Democratic mainstream and mocked Booker for referring to his sizable outside donations as ”love money.”

The most interesting thing about James’s attacks, however, apart from their vitriol, is the way they reflect an attempt not just to undermine Booker’s authenticity as a Newarker and a Democrat but also as a black man. This strategy has sometimes been overt (as with the rumors that Booker is Jewish or Klan-backed) and sometimes coded (as with the mayor’s new campaign slogan, ”The Real Deal”). But they point to the way this battle between two black politicians has in some ways become a struggle over competing definitions of race. James wants, Price says, to ”suggest that Cory represents a white ploy to wrest the city away from black leadership and turn it into a different kind of town.”

Omar Wasow, a friend of Booker’s from Stanford who is now the executive director of BlackPlanet.com, charges that ”James is trying to take advantage of an old story in the black community — that the kid who does well in school is acting ‘white.’ It is an incredible insult — to suggest that if you’re a well-educated, accomplished African-American you have to turn in your black membership card.” There is no question that Booker provides a far more nuanced approach to skin color and ethnicity than the mayor does, but he bristles when I suggest that he is running a raceless campaign. ”Look,” Booker says, frowning, ”I am a black man who takes a lot of pride in my heritage and my people. I’m out there talking about race, fighting for race all the time.

”I haven’t divorced myself from the tradition of African-American politics, which has always involved innovation and using new tactics for new situations.” He pauses. ”But I don’t want to be a great black politician; I want to be a great politician.”

The decision that Newarkers make in May may revolve around which model of black politics they feel more comfortable with. The Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson argues that James’s attacks on Booker’s legitimacy are an anachronistic throwback to the angry black politics of the 60’s and 70’s. Playing the ”black chauvinist card” worked, Patterson says, ”when blacks were still segregated and your back was against the wall,” but should be less effective today, when many of the battles against the color barrier in American society have been fought and won. In Newark, though, James’s attacks still resonate. This is a city where being a Rhodes scholar can be a liability as much as an asset. As one local activist told me, ”We are clear about who Rhodes was — a millionaire from South Africa who was responsible for apartheid.” Booker has begun to establish his appeal to a national audience — in the last year his list of supporters has come to include Bill Bradley, George Will, Jack Kemp and the New York rainmaker Michael Steinhardt, who recently declared Booker his ”favorite politician” — but until May 14, the only question that matters for Booker is whether he will be able to convince enough voters to join the growing crowd.