When he first ran for office, some of the black political establishment accused him of not being “black enough.” When he graduated from a prestigious law school, he chose to do community organizing in an inner-city neighborhood where too many black men were either incarcerated or unemployed.
When he ran and won election to his first local office, he rejected the “left” vs. “right” paradigm. He worked with Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, and focused on solutions to problems - not ideological labels. Defying the purist-left ideologues of his Democratic Party, he campaigned for Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in the 2006 Democratic primary.
Of course, I could be talking about Barack Obama, but I am talking about Cory Booker, Mr. Obama’s friend and ally, who is in his third year of his four-year term as mayor of Newark, N.J.
Mr. Booker’s political life story is the stuff of movies. Indeed, his first campaign for mayor, in 2002, was the basis of a 2005 Academy Award-nominated documentary called “Street Fight.” (He narrowly lost, 53 percent to 47 percent, against longtime Mayor Sharpe James.)
While at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, he became close friends with a young orthodox rabbi from the Chabad Lubavitch Hasids in Brooklyn, Shmuley Boteach, and served as president of the “L’Chaim Society,” a nonsectarian group founded by the young rabbi (later to become a famous author and media personality) to serve as a forum for important speakers and to bridge the gaps between people and religious groups from all perspectives.
After graduating Yale Law School, Mr. Booker moved to Newark, coordinated a community youth project, and lived for 10 years in a notorious Newark public housing project, Brick Towers, and then in a three-story rental unit on Hawthorne Avenue in Newark’s south ward, described as a “drug- and gang-plagued neighborhood of boarded-up houses and empty lots.”
In 1999, he scored an upset victory for a seat on the nine-member Newark City Council. Shortly thereafter, he began a 10-day hunger strike, living in a tent in front of one of Newark’s worst housing projects (Garden Spires) to protest the city government’s apparent indifference to open-air drug markets in that community.
On the night of his narrow 2002 defeat, he announced his intention to run for mayor again in 2006. He won that election with a landslide 72 percent vote over Ronald Rice, Mr. James’ designated successor. But just as importantly, he also put together a complete slate of reform-minded council candidates and swept them in along with him.
Even before he was sworn in as mayor, Mr. Booker filed legal challenges to halt apparent “pay for play” sales of Newark real estate at bargain-basement prices to political insiders and developers. In June 2006, his suit was upheld by a local judge.
Since he took office in July 2006, Mr. Booker has brought demonstrable improvements in the daily lives of Newark residents. Shocking but true: One of the first things he did was he told taxpayers the truth. Newark’s city government needed more money. He sought and obtained an unprecedented 8.3 percent property-tax increase to invest in Newark’s rebirth and renewal. Among his remarkable achievements in less than three years:
• Through new recruits and reassignments, Mr. Booker immediately put several hundred new cops on the street, contributing to 40 percent reductions in shootings and murders. He backed his new director of the Newark Police Department, Garry McCarthy, when he installed street barricades to seal off the open-air drug markets, despite harsh criticism from liberal critics.
• He has been a key member in Mayors Against Illegal Guns - a national organization of more than 225 mayors, including liberals who favor gun control and conservative supporters of the Second Amendment. But all are committed to eliminating illegal weapons purchased and possessed by criminals.
• He has collaborated with and obtained funding from the private sector, helping to provide support for the first-ever community court in New Jersey and the funding of one of the nation’s most-extensive wireless public-safety networks. The system placed 109 cameras over a seven-square-mile area where 80 percent of the shootings had occurred in the prior three years.
• He doubled the production of affordable housing, already completing more than 400 units, with more than triple that amount in the pipeline - and did so by attracting private partners ranging from rock star Jon Bon Jovi to local minority developers.
• His particular focus has been on reconnecting predominantly black male ex-offenders with their communities and families. He has created innovative programs, such as the Center for Fathers, to teach them parenting skills, train them for jobs, teach them about alternatives to another cycle of drugs, crime and prison.
• Like his friend from across the Hudson River, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, and schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Mr. Booker committed himself to fundamental change in Newark’s public school system. He broke with liberal orthodoxy by supporting charter schools and school vouchers, teacher accountability and performance testing.
I met Mr. Booker for the first time last week. He was one of a small group of political and business leaders discussing key issues and future trends in American politics. The session lasted about 90 minutes. It took me about five minutes listening to him to conclude that I was in the presence of an extraordinary political talent and public servant.
Talk about a “purple” bipartisan approach: He sees and builds bridges where ordinary partisans see and exacerbate breaches. He speaks the truth simply and powerfully about how to solve people’s problems, especially the underclass and the powerless, not by more partisanship, but by less.
This guy is the real deal.
If Mr. Obama is the most historic and successful national black political leader in our country’s history, then I predict that Mr. Booker will be, if he isn’t already, the most important black mayor in American history. And I wouldn’t be surprised if in the not-too-distant future he also becomes a historic national political leader.
• Lanny Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006 to 2007. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.”