Cory Booker: All American-Wall Street Journal Weekend Interview

The Wall Street Journal

NEWARK, N.J. – “As difficult as it’s been the first year, I’m blessed to be in the most important American fight going on.” Thus spoke Newark Mayor Cory Booker when I sat down with him late last month in his spartan City Hall office.

There were no pictures of smiling politicians on the walls, few personal mementos and minimal paperwork cluttering the tabletops. Mr. Booker doesn’t need any extra distractions. “I’m used to doing a million things and balancing them all,” he tells me. “But a job like this has so many areas that are screaming for attention.”

Mr. Booker is trying to turn around a city plagued by violent crime, poverty and failing schools. Problem cities can be found all over the country, but most of them don’t have mayors like Cory Booker. Only 38, Mr. Booker is the son of African-American civil rights activists and boasts degrees from Stanford, Yale Law School and Oxford (where he was a Rhodes Scholar). His pedigree may instill confidence in outsiders, but it elicits suspicion from many Newarkers who have a hard time seeing Mr. Booker as one of their own.

The former All-American tight end — who greets me with a hand the size of a bear paw — certainly looks like he’s up to the job. But with his vegetarian diet and affinity for meditation, it’s easy to see why some residents have doubts about Mr. Booker’s street cred.

Mr. Booker grew up in the wealthy suburb of Harrington Park, N.J. But soon after coming to Newark in 1997, he moved into an apartment in a drug-infested housing project, looking to provide legal help to the local residents. Five years later he ran unsuccessfully for mayor against the 16-year incumbent, fellow Democrat Sharpe James. Fearing imminent defeat the next time around, Mr. James dropped out of the race in 2006, giving Mr. Booker a landslide victory.

Mr. James had gained a reputation for running the city as a personal playground, and last month he was indicted on 25 counts of corruption. Mr. Booker has been left to clean up the mess left behind, including a $180 million budget gap. That’s led him to make hundreds of layoffs, along with numerous other budget cuts. It has also meant raising municipal property taxes by 8% for 2006, angering many residents.

Mr. Booker is quick to point out that municipal taxes have been cut for 2007 — a policy he hopes to continue in the future. “By cutting the rate [for 2007],” he says, “we began what we hope will be a process of increasing city revenue and improving our tax collection rate.” He also aims at eliminating City Hall’s patronage machine: “It may be like taking castor oil to fix all these problems, but at the end of the day, this city will be financially healthy and people will be better off for it.”

A major part of the mayor’s grand solution is developing Newark’s private sector. “You want to create a more vibrant private sector that’s going to generate more economic activity, more economic dynamism, and create more opportunity for residents.” The city could certainly use it: one quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, and median family income sits at $30,665 — half the state average.

When compared to some other poor cities in the U.S., Newark has distinct advantages. Sitting 12 miles from midtown Manhattan, it boasts extensive rail and highway connections, a booming international airport and one of the busiest seaports in the country — all the infrastructure needed to jumpstart a moribund economy. And thanks to agreements with Continental Airlines, city unions, and new funds to give local entrepreneurs a boost, “We’re creating jobs and trying to build sustainability at the same time,” Mr. Booker enthuses. But as City Hall knows all too well, blue-chip employers like Prudential and Verizon need skilled labor, and in a city in which only 13% of residents have college degrees, Newark’s high-skill workforce will continue to commute from the suburbs for the foreseeable future.

Part of Mr. Booker’s solution to this dilemma is education reform centered on school choice. “It’s the last frontier we have to cross in order to become the most thriving city in America,” he states confidently. “Parents in Newark are more demanding than ever, and they deserve a plethora of options of excellence to choose from that meet the needs of their kids.” Mr. Booker is a longtime advocate of school choice: In 1999 he helped found E3, a prominent education-reform group in New Jersey that pushes for charter schools and vouchers for inner-city communities.

Newark’s public schools enroll around 42,000 students. With frequent instances of in-school violence, decrepit facilities and low morale, the system is in need of serious overhaul. Just 37% of the city’s high-school seniors passed the state proficiency exam in 2005, a statistic that is even more embarrassing considering that city schools spend around $20,000 per pupil — far above the $13,000 state average (itself the second-highest in the country).

Before Mr. Booker can pursue any sweeping reforms, though, he must wrest control of the district from the state, which took over in 1995. “My goal is to turn the clock back to the ’70s and vest control in the mayor to appoint school board members that can drive an agenda for reform,” Mr. Booker says with hope. “Elected school boards often hit the lowest common denominator . . . they are not the way to get courageous, driven change.”

Mr. Booker emphasizes that until local control returns — which, thanks to recent moves by the state, could be within “16 to 18 months” — his powers are limited. But that hasn’t stopped him from cultivating donors to start thinking about charter schools for the future. Last month, he flew to Seattle to meet with representatives of the Gates Foundation. “We had very strong conversations,” he reports. “I told them, ‘If we can grow KIPP schools and overachieving charter schools [in Newark], it will be much easier to show that [school choice] can work, because you’ll see results a lot quicker than in a place like New York, which has around a million school-aged children.’”

Many charter-school donors won’t touch Newark until Mr. Booker gains control. Without a powerful leader to ensure accountability, they fear, the city is simply a black hole for outside funding. “The Broad Foundation and others don’t want to invest in cities that don’t have mayoral control,” Mr. Booker says. “So mayoral control has to be one part of the strategy to bring resources into Newark [schools].”

Mr. Booker realizes that educational turnaround will take a lot more than charter schools. Across the country “you’re seeing teachers unions allowing merit pay, or unions allowing more leeway in the hiring of good teachers and the firing of bad teachers.” In Newark, he predicts, multi-pronged reforms could quickly create “an abundance of excellent schools that can empower our kids to create a 21st century knowledge-based economy, plus keep a lot of residents here.”

Meanwhile, Newark’s high crime rates are a pressing crisis. Thanks to the zero-tolerance policy of new police director Garry McCarthy, a no-nonsense former NYPD crime strategist, most major crime categories are down in the mayor’s first year. The high murder rate, however, hasn’t budged.

“These homicides are principally drug-related,” Mr. Booker says, explaining that his next step is to tackle New Jersey’s draconian drug laws. “You lock up a nonviolent offender, now they have a criminal conviction, and it becomes very hard for him to get a job. . . There’s no hope of joining the productive economy, so it’s very easy to get sucked back into the narcotics trade.” Mr. Booker hopes reforms to the drug laws can “liberate the economic potential of ex-offenders so they can rejoin society instead of going back to criminality.”

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the 1967 race riots that helped reduce Newark — along with other U.S. cities — to a burnt-out wasteland. In many ways the city has moved beyond the racial tensions of the late 1960s. But Mr. Booker, often accused of not being “black enough,” is no stranger to Newark’s lingering racial problems. Former Mayor Sharpe James once said of him, “You have to learn to be African-American! And we don’t have time to train you all night!”

“That’s such a shallow brand of racial essentialism,” Mr. Booker retorts. “New Jersey is a state with 14% African-American population, but the prison population is 60% black. That’s a racial reality that impacts my city that we have to deal with.” Moving beyond the problems of 1967 doesn’t mean “ignoring race,” he says, but asking whether you “can you build a community where diversity is its strength . . . or will it tear us apart?”

My time with the mayor is coming to a close. Mr. Booker’s ambitious schedule has prompted him to regularly call meetings as early as 6 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m. — “not the smartest way to maintain balance,” he admits — and now he has to run.

As a final question, I ask him whether he has national political ambitions. Booker hopefuls claim he has all the charisma of a Barack Obama with the gritty urban experience of a Rudy Giuliani. Laughing, he says: “I think the greatest impact I could make would not be through running for Congress, the Senate or the presidency, but as mayor of a big city where I could create models on the most crucial issues of our country’s future: Education, public safety.”

He thus repeats the same assurance he has given to those Newarkers worried that he’ll one day jump ship for a more prestigious office in Trenton, or Washington. “I know what I’m doing in 2010,” he tells me. “I’m running for re-election.”

Mr. Sahner is a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Journal this summer.

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