Cory Booker roots for the underdog. His sympathies are easily aroused by those who must overcome great odds, those who are predicted to lose. For years, the activist and former Newark city council member has seen them every day, outside his Brick Towers apartment window. The down-and-outers, the outcasts, the disadvantaged, the shunned—they remind him of a certain feeling, one he himself still carries.
For Booker, being an underdog is something he learned. And like any education, it began early, in his African-American childhood. In the racially tense early 1970s, Booker’s parents fought heavy local opposition to moving their family into an all-white neighborhood. They were greeted with stiffly crossed arms and cold shoulders. “The most challenging thing,” Booker now reflects, “was being a kid who grew up different.” As a young boy, other children asked if they could touch his hair or compare their late summer tans with his black arm. “All innocent gestures,” he says, “that constantly reinforced my difference. Being different was constantly on my mind.”
Booker credits his parents for helping him to navigate difficult times. “I was very fortunate,” he says, “to have parents who were very aware of the challenges I would face. They believed in embracing difference. They gave me a sense of being unique and taught me that I had a great destiny to fulfill.”
His parents also gave him a sense of patriotism. “They believed in the ideal of America,” he explains, “as a country in struggle, a country in progress, a country of heroes.” Booker’s parents “commanded us to be soldiers, heroic players in this national story.” Booker’s acute sense of his own difference, along with his parents’ motivational prodding to be a catalyst for change, crystallized during his years away at Stanford, Oxford and Yale. “After high school,” Booker recalls, “I believed it was my charge to go change the world.”
It was in the last two years of commuting to Yale that Booker immersed himself in the Newark projects—working with community leaders, lobbying for tenants’ rights and obtaining police protection for the most crime-ridden neighborhoods of the city. He employed his skills and talents as a lawyer to force slumlords into court, fighting for those who couldn’t fight for themselves.
In 1998, challenged by the people he had committed himself to, he decided to run against a 16-year incumbent in Newark’s Central Ward. At 29 years old, he became the youngest ever Newark council member elected to office. Four years later, he ran against his 16-year incumbent boss, Mayor Sharpe James. It was, politically speaking, the quintessential street fight.
Booker, a Democrat since childhood, was painted by his opposition as an “out-of-towner,” with no loyalties to, nor understanding of, the city’s intricate needs. At every turn, they pushed him into corners and alleyways. Booker’s opposition attacked his character. They called him an “opportunist” for trying to make a difference. They said he was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Some even desperately labeled him a Republican—this for being a staunch, free-thinking Democrat who, on the issue of school vouchers, believed that for the benefit of Newark’s children, at the very least, an open and honest dialogue could be beneficial.
Attempts to marginalize Booker fortified his resolve to fight back. His supporters pointed to his passion for serving the disadvantaged of society and to his unique style of leadership that fostered new ideas and larger visions. He continually carried his inspirational story to the people, promising them futures filled with community activism and real changes through the empowerment of neighborhood leaders. An upset loomed like a storm on the horizon.
Then James, with his demise nearly in view, threw every ounce of his political weight against Booker, calling on party and union heavyweights for desperately needed endorsements. The old party favorites came through, dutifully backing up the mayor. In the end, James staved off the storm. The winds died and the status quo remained in office.
But Booker would not quit. After losing his bid for mayor, he wrote in Esquire magazine of his determined commitment to the people of Newark, his “plan and pledge” to work with them in improving their city and the pronouncement of a newly conceived catalyst for change. Booker ended the article with the pledge “until I run for mayor again.” To keep disturbing the status quo, in 2003 Booker created a nonprofit organization dedicated to the social issues facing Newark, called “Newark Now.” Its mission, stated on its website, www.newarknow.org, is “to empower and equip Newark residents with the tools and resources to transform their communities through neighborhood-based associations and tenant organizations.”
In an article published by PoliticsNJ.com in March 2003, three years ahead of the next mayoral election, Booker was quoted as saying, “We need to get out there, tell people the truth. Let them get to know me.” This early call to his supporters was prompted, Booker said, by “perversions” of the truth committed by his opposition in the 2002 elections.
What perversions? One was a charge against him from the mayor’s office—appearing on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal on May 8, 2002—declaring Booker “a Republican who takes money from the KKK.” Booker did receive funds from Republicans eager to stimulate a political debate on school vouchers. At the time, Booker seemed capable of deflecting such inflammatory accusations by calmly explaining them as “a smear campaign to make black people fear blacks who criticize the status quo.”
Today, more than two years later, Newark’s Mayor James denies any such smear campaign tactics. “I do not involve myself in labeling persons or name-calling,” James maintains in a brief interview. “I run on my exemplary record in office of having moved Newark from one of the worst, most troubled cities in America to what is now a ‘destination’ city.”
James believes his last 18 years as Newark’s mayor properly demonstrate his allegiance to its residents. “Booker raised millions of dollars from out-of-towners and the far right,” James says. “I see this as an attempt,” he continued, “to buy and sell Newark for personal gains. It’s also an attempt for these out-of-towners to take over the city.” James is alluding to the recent conservative interest in urban politics. “They’re not satisfied with taking over Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” James says. “Now they need bragging rights by taking over a true urban city for propaganda purposes, and Booker is their Trojan horse.” And on that horse, James quickly points out, rides the “founding father of the school voucher movement.”
Any insinuation that he would align himself with the right causes Booker immediate consternation. “I’m flabbergasted…” Booker trails off, almost at a loss for words. Then, his voice heavier and slower, filling with conviction, he says, “It’s a fantastic fiction. It’s all a desperate attempt by politicians to preserve their power.”
He’s still incredulous. “I’m an African American, have been all my life. I’m a staunch Democrat, named a few years ago as one of the Democratic Party’s biggest ‘rising stars.’ I don’t look to engage in the politics of personal destruction. I have this one burning mission right now,” he explains, with a skip in his voice, “to help the city of Newark in achieving its profound potential. And I intend to remain in that struggle, whether in elected office or in some other public way.”
That struggle causes Booker’s impatience to surface. He is frustrated with the injustices he perceives, and he sometimes feels he hasn’t done enough. “I pound my fists on a daily basis,” he says. Yet one thing remains clear—Cory Booker is not going anywhere. Newark is his home. By the next election, he will have lived and worked in this city for more than a decade. But the “out-of-towner” label doesn’t appear to be going anywhere either. The in-crowd will constantly use it and remind him of it as well.
But Booker’s focus is elsewhere. “When I was young,” he says, “I always gave attention to those who were different, who were outsiders, who were not part of the crowd.” Today, he pays attention to the disadvantaged person’s struggle on the street. Then and now, his way of reaching out to others has helped him in taking action. His way of connecting to the spirit of thousands of disenfranchised voters—underdogs, by society’s standards—has helped him to lead and inspire a movement that is predicted to lose, but determined to win.
P. Steven Ghiringhelli is a Rutgers-Newark student with a minor in journalism and media studies.