Feature

The Legend of Cory Booker

Newark’s patron-saint mayor could do no wrong.  So why does everybody hate him now?

By From the October 2013 issue

HISTORIANS OF THE YMCA’s “Youth in Government” legislative simulations will recall that in 2001, after two solid terms in the state senate, your correspondent was elected Youth Governor of New Jersey in a blue-state upset that saw a reform-minded conservative succeed on a platform of tax cuts, school choice, and marijuana decriminalization. 

Less often remembered is that the election banquet that year was keynoted by the honorable (more on this presently) Sharpe James, a grown-up Democratic state senator from the 29th District and, conjointly, 35th mayor of Newark. In my post-victory euphoria, I recall little of the substance of James’s address, save a well-worn line about how nobody thought he would win his first council race in 1970—“not my opponent, not my opponent’s wife, not my opponent’s girlfriend….”
In an amusing twist, it would be James’s own mistress, one Tamika Riley, who helped land him in a federal penitentiary in Petersburg, Virginia, after a court found him guilty of rigging the sale of city land to Riley so she could fence it at a handsome profit. 

Before that fall, of course, wenteth pride. In what would prove to be his last campaign, a hubristic James unleashed the full fearsome might of Newark’s machinery on a carpetbagger from the suburbs named Cory Booker, who had harassed James’s flanks for years from a perch on the city council, and who had the gall to try and unseat him in 2002.

Booker talked like Palo Alto and smelled like New Haven, but he had roused the rabble, convinced more than a handful of battered Newarkers that their once-proud city could be more than a punch line. It spooked James enough that he purged the municipal payrolls of suspected Booker sympathizers, had sanitation workers tear down Booker’s yard signs, and used city cops like mob enforcers to intimidate businesses that dared raise funds for him. Wily old Sharpe fended off Booker ’02—essentially painting Booker as a high-yellow, crypto-Republican homosexual in the process—but the writing was on the wall. James got out of Booker’s way in ’06, and the Rhodes scholar became mayor, taking more than 70 percent of the vote. James took a federal collar, one of many New Jersey Democrats to go down in a decade that was, even by the Garden State’s dubious standards, one of unusual infamy and intrigue. 

There was United States Senator Bob “The Torch” Torricelli, who would end his 20-year congressional career in 2003 amid a campaign-finance scandal. Governor James “I am a gay American” McGreevey would resign the next year for over-determined reasons (his hiring of his woefully unqualified Israeli poet-lover, Golan Cipel, to serve as a homeland security advisor merely mooted whispers about pay-to-play rackets that might have undone McGreevey in any event). And dozens of Democratic state assemblymen, county executives, and party officials were fined or jailed during the Bush years by an ambitious United States attorney by the name of Christopher J. Christie. 

Throughout it all—and even after Jersey governor Jon Corzine piled on to the Democrats’ tough decade, bumbling through his first term, losing a stunner to Christie, and limping back to Wall Street just long enough to become a crook—Booker remained a lone bright spot. He was the subject of a pair of genuflecting documentaries and profile after puffy progressive profile. For do-gooders in the know, Booker’s halo arguably shone brighter than even that of his friend and sponsor, Barack Obama. Hell, yours truly, though no fan of the Illinois senator, was a begrudging admirer of the Newark mayor, and having moved on from Kiddie Guv to National Review, I even kicked around writing a mostly favorable profile called “The Best Democrat.”

Booker was, is, and will ever be a Democrat—a touchy-feely, politics-as-redemption type with both progressive and Blue Dog streaks, whose bad ideas are mitigated only by the fact he doesn’t appear to have thought that hard about them. 

But the key to Booker’s bipartisan appeal was, in large measure, his clinical insanity. The stories are now well known: As a freshman councilman he literally pitched a tent on a crack corner in Newark’s bowels and embarked on a 10-day hunger strike to draw attention to “open-air” dealing. He lived for eight years in the city’s blighted Brick City projects, often bathing in boiled water trickling down from a rubber camp shower, and subsisted on a “food stamp budget” as an act of solidarity with the persistently poor. Having drawn death threats from every two-bit collection of gangbangers west of the Turnpike, as mayor he donned a Kevlar vest on midnight ride-alongs with loyal Newark cops who served like so many Untouchables. In his spare time he shoveled constituents’ driveways, rescued stranded puppies, and even collected second-degree burns pulling a woman out of a burning building.

THUS WAS THE stuff of the Cory Booker Legend—except it was all true, lovingly covered in the national press, and a far cry from the union back-slapping, ethnic divide-and-conquer, and suburban grin-and-greet that mark the days of most New Jersey Democrats. While many urban pols, fixtures of the machine archipelago that stretches from Paterson and Newark and Jersey City south to Trenton and Camden, were busy putting their mouths where the money was, Booker was doing just the opposite: A product of tony Bergen County, Booker had stooped to live black Newark’s misery while so many of his urban peers were trafficking in lucrative outrage as a means of rising above it. 

I’ll come right out and say it: There was something eminently Christian, even Christ-like, not just in the selflessness of Booker’s ministry, but in its wild-eyed borderline mania, as if he were a Pope who knelt to wash his flock’s feet, not in a ritual of self-effacement and remembrance, but out of earnest concern for the podiatric hygiene of each and every Newarker.

If these words are hyperbolic, it’s because so was Cory Booker. If they are idolatrous, it’s because, for a while there, so were his fans. So how do you explain that with Newark’s patron saint finally getting his ticket to the big-time—in the form of a greased-skids route to the United States Senate against an indecorous Tea Partier named Steve Lonegan—every gatekeeper of mainstream liberalism from the New Republic to the Atlantic to Salon has gone hard negative on Booker in the run-up to the special election? How is it that his state’s own Democratic hierarchy, desperate for an antidote to Chris Christie, has greeted Booker’s ascendance with cool indifference? How is it that even the Washington Post, the type of a “straight news” arbiter Booker could formerly rely on to cover his feats of strength and daring, has delivered a haymaking backhanded compliment by entitling a recent profile of him “The Perfect Senator for ‘This Town’”?

How come everybody all of the sudden hates Cory Booker?

If you go back and look at the videotape of Booker’s mildly infamous appearance on Meet the Press during the presidential campaign, the answers are all there. In the midst of the greatest political assaults on prosperity since Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign quipped that fretting about the U.S. Constitution was a sure sign you had a million bucks in the bank, Booker had the temerity to tell David Gregory he found the Obama campaign’s demonization of private equity “nauseating.” The Left exploded, naturally, and Booker endured a news cycle of vicious flogging, going so far as to post a four-minute YouTube recantation that plays like a hostage video. But the Left never forgot, and Booker’s “gaffe” bears hallmarks of all of the criticisms, fair and unfair, driving the recent turn against him. 

Most superficially, Booker’s misunderstanding of the stakes of the moment, his devil-may-care decision to go off the talking points in an epochal presidential election in which he was the duly appointed proxy of the incumbent, displayed a comically amateurish understanding of the dynamics of party politics on the big-boy stage. For years, New Jersey Democrats had been annoyed by Booker’s tendency to operate outside the party infrastructure instead of playing for the team. Booker’s MTP freelancing confirmed their prejudices and explains why most of them, including their elder statesman, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, were cool to Booker’s presumed inevitability, which they attempted to disrupt by allowing primary challenges from stalwart Jersey boys Frank Pallone and Rush Holt.

Meanwhile, to wary liberals and progressives, the private equity flub—along with Booker’s history of posh fundraisers with financiers “across the river,” his brief flirtations with apostasies like raising the retirement age for Social Security, and his (pure paper) profits with a tech startup while serving as mayor—set off suspicions that Cory was not One of Us, but would be another senator from Wall Street. Or Cupertino. As the New Republic put it, Booker “has echoed Silicon Valley’s belief that public aims are best achieved at least partly through private enterprise.” Véritable scandale! 

The Left has other knocks on Booker. Slate’s contrarian ad absurdum, Matt Yglesias, points out as a for instance that union ultras and defenders of the K-12 status quo hate Booker for his support for charter schools and the like. There might be something to that, but the more relevant and damning fact is that Booker hasn’t achieved much on education at all. Most prominently, he has been slow to spend the $100 million gifted to Newark by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010, frittering a chunk of it on a community survey so poorly designed it had to be redone, and keeping plans for much of the rest of it sufficiently secret that he drew a (successful) ACLU lawsuit. Meanwhile, Newark’s dropout rate remains above 30 percent. 

Nor has Booker been able to make an impact commensurate to his passion in the areas of poverty and crime. He likes to claim credit for a major reduction in murders between his first and second years in office, but killings have actually increased each year since then, and combined with depopulation, now occur at a higher rate than they did under bad old Sharpe James. Likewise, property crimes and assaults have fluctuated during Booker’s tenure, with no clear downward trajectory, and the overall crime rate is actually substantially higher now than it was when he took office. And Newark is still perilously poor, with nearly a third of its residents living below the federal poverty line. Booker’s economic record since 2006 looks bad, of course, because Newark, like the rest of America, was battered by the recession. But Newark’s unemployment rate spiked well above the national average, peaking at over 16 percent, with no noticeable “Cory Booker effect” to make it stand out from other similarly plagued cities. Indeed, by some measures, Newark fared worse during the downturn than comparable cities, moving from the fifth poorest city in New Jersey in 2008 to the second poorest in 2010. 

SO IF BOOKER hasn’t been able to actually raise up Newark, what has he been able to raise up? Some say Cory Booker. 

In August, Booker told NBC news that he wanted to be a “a hands on, pragmatic, change agent in Washington and in New Jersey…disrupting broken systems, disrupting status quo.” He even name-checked Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as paradigms. But another New Republic writer, Noam Schieber, soon thereafter dismissed any suggestion that Booker would be a disruptive force in the Senate. “What Booker has in mind when he alludes to being an agitator,” Schieber wrote, “is agitating for the cause of himself.”

For what it’s worth, I think the suggestion that Booker is self-serving is unfair. Still, what Booker lacks in material greed he makes up for in a kind of metaphysical greed, the do-gooder’s insatiable rapacity for Good Karma. And it is this, as much as any of his other flaws, that I suspect is starting to wear. 

This is the inevitable, misanthropic reality that the longer we are exposed to a personality like Booker’s, the more his Acts look like an act, the more his gestalt seems like a shtick. In short, he grates, especially on Twitter, which he metabolizes like a termite. His tweets range from incessant updates on the conduct of mundane retail politics (at least one pothole, leaky water main, or downed power cable is dealt with each day), to self-help jargon (“We’re all more connected than we know, more interdependent than we realize, more alike than we imagine & need each other more than we admit”), to the downright tautologous (“By changing nothing, nothing changes”).

The Twitter seminars, like the midnight ride-alongs and the ghetto stunts, are all part of the Legend of Cory Booker. The reality of Cory Booker is that he’s a hyper-enthused Good Samaritan with a municipal support structure and a national stage, who also happens to be, net-net, an okay mayor of Newark, and who probably won’t be more than okay as a United States senator. 

Indeed, he could wind up being significantly worse. Forget for a minute that he’ll be a reliable vote for the Obama/Reid agenda; any Democrat Jersey sent to the Senate would be. The problem with a Senator Booker is that none of what was refreshingly authentic about his arrival in Newark is scalable to Capitol Hill. Pitching a tent in a conference committee isn’t going to back Mitch McConnell off entitlement reform, and providing personalized Twitter responses to earmark requests and lobbying calls won’t have the charm of the potholes and power outages. 

No, Booker’s most singular trait, his unbridled enthusiasm—usually naïve, frequently formless, and always endearing—will be wasted in grown-up Washington. But as a former office holder, I’ll tell you this: He’d make a hell of a Youth Governor. 

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About the Author
Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.In the interest of full disclosure, he was a philosophy major and does not have a trust fund.