In New Jersey it seems to be a foregone conclusion that Newark Mayor Cory Booker will win Tuesday’s Democratic primary to face a Republican challenger in an October special election to fill the seat of the late Senator Frank Lautenberg. Lautenberg, the state’s senior Senator, died in June after a prolonged battle with cancer. Booker, a prodigious fundraiser who has been a media darling since his landing in “Brick City,” has swamped his opponents in television ads and cash, and has locked down newspaper endorsements. The boy wonder of Garden State politics appears headed to become the state’s first African-American to serve in the United States Senate.
As I weigh my options I must admit that while I do not know who I will vote for, my vote will not be cast for Cory Booker. This might come as a surprise to some because I was one of his most vocal supporters when he went up against former Newark legend Sharpe James. My support for Booker is well recorded in quotes in the state’s most widely read daily, The Star Ledger, and in The New York Times and out-of-state papers. Despite my previous support for Mayor Booker, my conscience won’t allow me to use my vote on his behalf in this election.
Truthfully, I am disappointed by Booker’s leadership during his two terms leading the state’s largest city. His considerable intellect and charisma aside, there is not sufficient evidence to show that the people of Newark have benefited or are better off as a result of Cory Booker presiding over city hall. When I drive through his city I don’t see signs of a renewed human spirit, instead despair and restlessness is still etched on too many faces in Newark. The city is still gripped by violence and the innocent are still the prey of the guilty. There are still too few good-wage jobs for residents of the city and too many low-wage options, making raising a family in Newark a challenge unless you are a degreed white collar professional, and most likely, white. Despite Mayor Booker’s highly publicized foray into the public education morass, most children in Newark are still deprived of a quality education. And charter schools, a favorite device of the mayor, are insufficient for wholesale educational improvements in the city. Despite the largesse of Facebook founder and Booker pal Mark Zuckerberg, few can honestly “Like” public education in the city of Newark.
Now, some will charge that I am not being realistic in my expectations of Mayor Booker; that no mayor can swing the pendulum that far to produce dramatic change in conditions that have persisted for decades. Well, charge it to my ignorance but that is precisely why I thought we elect individuals who profess to have the answers. My support of Cory Booker was based not on television appearances but personal conversations where I was led to believe that he would focus with laser like precision to ameliorate the ills of the city he has adopted as home. I was convinced that someone of his intellect and persuasion, and personal network, would transform Newark, not overnight, but in the course of two terms. Today, there is little to suggest a transformation and much to suggest stagnation and the suspension of forward progress.
Yes, we can’t discount the effects of a historic recession but the mayor could have planted some seeds that could have flowered once the economy started to recover. And yes, there are the typical physical manifestations of change that all mayors point to with pride but even those will have little impact on the residents of Newark; the mostly poor who continue to be on the outside looking in. A new downtown hotel might employ city residents but at marginal wages and the construction of a new headquarters for electronics giant Panasonic will yield little for the core of the city’s residents. New downtown development, including a new tower for insurance giant Prudential, offers little for native Newarkers and the opening of upscale restaurants is cruel irony juxtaposed against the closing of popular eateries frequented by African-Americans. Local economic life is restricted to mostly low wage jobs, bodegas, hair salons, street vending and criminal activity.
According to U.S. Census data 26.1 percent of Newark residents live below the federal poverty line. Those living near poverty push one-third of the city into economic despair. Newark is the second poorest city in New Jersey, behind one of the poorest cities in America, Camden. In Newark, almost 40,000 African-Americans are considered poor according to census data. The city’s total population is 277,000. There is no work in their city for these residents. Newark’s unemployment rate has hovered between 13 and 15 percent, with Black unemployment catastrophic. There are 30,751 children considered poor in Newark and the child poverty rate jumped 32 percent between 2009 and 2010. The state of New Jersey reports the Newark public school district having a graduation rate of 69%, admittedly an improvement but questions still remain over the quality of education children are receiving in comparison to other districts in the state. The real measure I would argue is outcomes and whether children holding a diploma from a city public school have equivalent career options as their peers in neighboring suburban districts.
The Newark in Cory Booker’s rear view mirror looks little different than the view that was in his front windshield eight years ago. Is this entirely Cory Booker’s responsibility? No. Should he be held partly accountable for conditions in his city? Absolutely. For my taste there has been too much glitz and not enough substance, and the confidence many of us had in his leadership potential has dissipated.
This all seems to have been a wasted opportunity; the one chance for the city to take a giant leap toward renewal and revival. There has been too much entertaining and not enough governing. Cory Booker has entertained us. He has pulled many rabbits out the hat with his uncanny sense of heroic timing. The mayor has played the lead role as angry public servant with his long running tirade against gun violence played out in endless press conferences. His celebrity fixation is the stuff of reality television, not the hard scrabble work of solving urban ills and driving a renaissance. Booker’s outsized, out of state profile is in stark contrast to his diminished presence in his city. Many of us made the trek to Oz to be disappointed by what was revealed when the curtain was drawn back.
Now Mr. Booker is angling to go to Washington based upon the legend of his miracle work in Newark. I do not live in Newark but reside a short 20 minutes from the heart of its downtown. I consider myself a resident of greater Newark and have long been associated with the city through work, family and friends. Contrary to the bad rap it receives, Newark is a wonderful place and its people are genuine, hardworking and proud. My hope is that the next mayor will love them as much as the people love their city. For now the residents of Newark remain behind like a lover scorned.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.