- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2000

NEWARK, N.J. Reclining in his plush red love seat and surrounded by the sounds of Curtis Mayfield on the radio, Newark's freshman City Council member, District of Columbia-born Cory A. Booker, believes he can turn his adopted city into something beautiful.
He may be the only one who thinks such a thing is possible.
Nine miles across the Hudson River, twinkling through the window of his penthouse apartment, is rich, successful New York City.
And less than two hours to the south by Metroliner is his birthplace Washington, a city of power.
Mr. Booker tasted a bit of national fame this summer when he faced down drug dealers in his district by setting up housekeeping in the $25,800 motor home he parked on their turf.
Television, magazines and newspapers portrayed him as a 21st-century Davy Crockett who stared down the bear and tamed it.
So what is a man named one of the "Top 100" state and local Democrats by the Democratic Leadership Council, after only two years on the Newark City Council, doing in this place where even the descendants of the city's 33 founding families won't live anymore?
Why didn't he make his political debut in the District?
"Have him come home" and bring those ideas to the District, says D.C. Council member Jim Graham, when asked if he or any other D.C. Council member had ever taken the fight against crime to the street.
The answer is no. No D.C. Council member has boldly gone where no politician has gone before.
Mr. Booker's city's motto is "All Roads Lead to Newark." He has taken that to heart. Newark is where he intends to fashion his political career. Not that he doesn't have a few fights brewing with federal officials in Washington and isn't a frequent visitor here when politics call.
He has his hands full right where he is. No one likes a reformer or a political rookie they always want things for their constituents.
The streets of Mr. Booker's crime-ridden district aren't ripe for gentrification. Teen-agers barely out of puberty hang around outside the shops and on the streets, sporting a cigarette where a lollipop should be.
Summit Street and Sussex Avenue are lined with corner stores that sell stale, overpriced food. Take it or leave it. The shelves of one mom-and-pop store offer expired Entemann's fruit pastries and expired Prince's Pasta.
This Third World misery gets to him, Mr. Booker says.
The one-time NFL prospect and 1997 Yale law grad is certain of one thing: He won't end up in jail, like other Newark reformers before him who gave in to the many temptations the City Council waves at its members.
Two former council members just got out of prison for embezzlement. The city's first elected black mayor, Ken Gibson, was recently indicted on embezzlement and conspiracy charges.
"I can't be corrupted by money," Mr. Booker says.
It would be so easy, he said, to just forget Newark and live the life of Riley. "I've gotten offers for ugly amounts of money from headhunters, but I wouldn't be happy."
His bookshelves speak volumes about him. They are filled with books and studies about urban revitalization and texts on economics. What's missing from his bachelor pad are all the techie gadgets. No computer, no cable TV, no Nintendo nothing of the sort. Only a cell phone, which is at his side every minute of the day.
He is astoundingly Opie Taylor-naive about politics. Reporters can't be blamed if they come away wondering if he has been pulling their legs.
Consider this. Mr. Booker was in Los Angeles in August for the party's convention, where he hoped to talk politics with others who shared his vision of re-creating local government.
"I went to these parties, and I had fun, but I saw these lobbyists everywhere. I asked them about their positions on issues and found out that they are giving out checks to both parties," he said, describing, as shocking news, a practice that goes back centuries.
Or this. He's not even a Democrat, if anyone wants to get technical about it. The majority of his views are either Libertarian or the opposite of what the national, state or even local party bosses say is the Democratic platform.
Is it possible he's never heard of the Libertarian Party?
Evidently so, because when he is asked if he wouldn't be more comfortable endorsing the Libertarian Party presidential candidate, best-selling author and economist Harry Browne, Mr. Booker looks dumbfounded. "Who's he?"

Living in the streets

Since unseating 16-year incumbent George Branch for the poverty-stricken Central Ward seat in June 1998, Mr. Booker has continued to campaign.
From May until December, he will park his RV at the far end of a rarely used basketball court in a neighborhood where crime is greatest.
When he's there, out playing with the kids who run around barefoot and chatting with adults about getting a job and getting off welfare, the broken green concrete turns into a block party.
Everyone has high hopes.
But when Mr. Booker leaves, the drug dealers creep back in. They know his fellow council members disrespect him.
The District's Mr. Graham seems to think Mr. Booker is just pulling a stunt. "I am struggling constantly with nuisance problems, but I don't sleep in RVs… . I think style is … important, but it's no substitute for substance," he says.
"Have him come home," Mr. Graham, Ward 2 Democrat, advises.
That's a thought. Mr. Booker certainly hasn't been having a ball in Newark's officialdom.
Last winter, each time he parked his 1987 Mitsubishi Montero jalopy in one of the reserved spaces in front of City Hall spaces meant for the free shiny Ford Crown Victorias every council member gets as a perk he found a ticket on his windshield.
The point he was trying to illustrate, that public servants should not be treated like Wall Street millionaires, went right over the cops' heads.
"I thought it was too much of a perk," Mr. Booker said. "The median income here is $9,500."
He went to court and had the 15 tickets, worth $410, dismissed. He points to the episode as an example of what he's up against.
Resident Charlene Jackson said Mr. Booker's in-your-face methods have brought life back to the crime-ridden area. But she scoffs when someone suggests he may be the savior of the city and its children.
"I don't view it as him being brave. I see it as someone who cares. Those children [who must survive the streets], they are brave, too," Ms. Jackson says.
New Jersey still controls the city's schools. But the state isn't having much luck improving them. Even though per-pupil spending has risen from $10,000 three years ago to about $13,000 this year, the dropout rate in this city of 267,000 people and 43,924 students is a staggering 45 percent.
Augusto Amador, who also won his council seat in 1998, was once a tight ally of Mr. Booker's. Not anymore. Mr. Amador sees his friend's style as a bit too brash.
"If you don't deliver, people are going to hold you accountable, even with all your eloquence," he said, adding that the ideas of Newark's latest "reformer" are misguided.
The loss of Mr. Amador's confidence may hurt Mr. Booker, but the 31-year-old Rhodes scholar, who preferred to poke around the blighted parts of Oxford, England, instead of sipping sherry with the dons, is determined to turn Newark into a shining Camelot.
Mr. Booker's apartment 16C, with its skyline view of New York City, is owned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He pays $600 a month in rent. He would pay thousands a month if he were living in either of the two cities he turned away from Washington, D.C., and New York.

Baited traps

Newark is a city of ethical and legal traps. Many on the council hold two or three government jobs, high-level positions offering plenty of opportunity for conflicts of interest to emerge.
According to financial disclosure documents provided by the Newark City Clerk's Office, Mayor Sharpe James is a state senator representing Newark; Bessie L. Walker, an at-large council member, works as a division director at the Essex County Department of Citizen Services; Council President and South Ward council member Donald Tucker is a state assemblyman; and Anthony Carrino is Essex County's police director.
Charles F. Cummings, the city's historian, said Newark has gone through several periods of change during its 334-year history, each time with one group dominating the political and cultural landscape.
The first to set the tone of the city were 33 Protestants from New Haven who founded the city in 1666. They wanted to get out from under the thumb of the Puritans.
During much of the past century, Italians controlled the purse strings and power in Newark. The Italian mob also became a major presence, as did a rival Jewish mafia, he said.
Blacks got their turn after the 1967 race riots. More than 100,000 people moved to the suburbs, reducing the population to less than 300,000.
In the past decade, the city lost 8,000 people, according to census figures.
Descendants of the 33 founding families have all moved away.
"They're all gone," Mr. Cummings said. "There are a few … [living] around the state."
One might think the city would be ripe for something of a Williamsburg-like revival, with leaders capitalizing on the history of Newark. But unlike the Colonial city that is now thriving, Newark has demons it can't shake.
Mr. Cummings compares the city to a car that has finally been driven into the ground. "The city is very old and is wearing out."

Empowerment and suspicion

Mr. Booker knows he is seen as a carpetbagger. He feels the pressure of being an interloper from four-term Mayor James and his fellow council members.
His desire to revitalize schools with vouchers, giving parents choice over where their children go to school, and a belief in charter schools pit him against entrenched powers that don't want to change what he says is "a crumbling system that's failing."
"A parent should be empowered to choose an Edison school or a magnet school over a public school," Mr. Booker says.
Even those Mr. Booker is trying to help are suspicious of him. They still see him as just another politician using the city as a steppingstone.
"He doesn't even know anything about Newark. I have been living here since 1979 and I still don't see a change," said a Brick Towers resident.
One elderly resident looks at Mr. Booker as something of a savior.
"He's opened up a Pandora's box," said Virginia Jones, 73. "We have elected officials who just care about themselves and themselves alone… . They get bought out and forget where they came from."
Moving into the HUD complex was part of his plan to show a commitment to the community, said Mr. Booker, who makes $52,984 plus $18,000 a year in expenses for what is classified as a part-time job.
Mr. Booker is in a battle with HUD to keep the federal agency from tearing down the structure that is home to hundreds of families. That shows voters that the usually level-headed Mr. Booker has a temper.
"He was getting all riled up before he even knew what we were going to do, which hasn't been decided," said a Washington HUD official who has been following the Brick Towers case.
He scoffed at Mr. Booker's decision to live among the poor, saying it is just a political ploy.
"He's got a steady income many of [the other tenants] don't," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
With just a tinge of bitterness in his voice, Mr. Branch says he has no hard feelings toward Mr. Booker for knocking him out of his long-held council seat.
Yet, the former boxing trainer isn't going to give the freshman council member much credit, either.
"I haven't seen all these changes he talks about," Mr. Branch said.

Outsider, outside help

"It was people on the outside who supported him. They spent a lot of money on the race. He needed the help,'' Mr. Branch said.
That is true. Most of the $140,000 Mr. Booker raised in his 1998 campaign came from outside interests. He said he had no choice because no one in the political establishment of Newark wanted him in office.
During the campaign, rumors were spread that Mr. Booker was really white, was probably gay and was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The charges are improbable, but they continue to have a lingering effect on Mr. Booker, who says he doesn't have a thick skin.
There are 4,726 registered Republicans and 32 independents in Newark. The Democrats hold all the aces with 51,614 registered Democrats and 66,518 "unaffiliated," voters. Political insiders say unaffiliates are actually unregistered Democrats.
A resident who has been knee-deep in Newark politics for decades said Mr. Booker threatens to shake up the stymied political culture of the city, which encourages cronyism.
"Elections in Newark are a popularity contest," the resident said, asking not to be identified. "It's all about who can make the most deals with the most people."
Mr. Booker is different, the resident said, because he "came in like a barnstormer" and didn't have any connection to the 40-plus years of machine politics.
The gangbusters style Mr. Booker has acquired in tackling the city's problems probably came from his parents and some pivotal moments in his life.

Privilege and possibilities

"I told all of my children that first of all, to whom much is given much is expected," said Mrs. Caroline Booker. "Second of all, do what you enjoy."
The Bookers lived in the District from 1964 to 1970 and owned a house in Southwest from 1991 to 1999.
"We worry about him every day," said his father, Cary. Their civil rights fight to buy into an all-white neighborhood in Highland Park helped spur their son to do what he does, he said.
So did being told by a white girl's parents he could not take her to the prom because he was black. "It was a very painful experience," he said.
John Pearson, the coordinator of the Rhodes scholarship program at Stanford, said he recalled Cory as someone who "got into everything."
"Cory is very curious about communities," he said.
Those who say Mr. Booker is just a political opportunist are wrong, says Rabbi Shmuel Boteach, who got to know Mr. Booker at Oxford. They forged a friendship that continues today.
The rabbi described a night in 1993 when Mr. Booker put aside studying for exams to be by his new friend's side all night.
"So here we had one Jewish guy and one Baptist studying Jewish text the night before my son's circumcision," said Mr. Boteach, explaining that it is Jewish custom to stay up the night before the circumcision of a newborn son, reading ancient Jewish text.
Mr. Boteach, who now lives in Englewood, N.J., said Mr. Booker is not like other politicians because he actually cares about what he talks about.
"He's not scripted… . I have even encouraged him to do other things," Mr. Boteach says.
He notes his friend is somewhat "naive" to the world of politics.
"Cory's such an authentic guy … politics isn't like that," the rabbi says.

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