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Cory Bookers Battle for Newark
A bold reformer takes on entrenched crime and corruption.
Some politicians shape their election strategies on the campaign trail. Others develop them while poring over poll numbers or plotting with advisors. Cory Booker found his on the streets of Newark. One day in 2004, as Booker strolled near his apartment building with his father, the pair heard shots ring out, and then watched chaos erupt as a pack of teens ran past. Booker rushed toward the source of the gunshots and saw a young man staggering toward him. I caught him in my hands and saw that his chest, his white T-shirt, was filling with deep rich red blood, Booker remembers. Though Booker urged the boy to hold tight and stay with me, 19-year-old Wazn Miller died in his arms, gunned down in broad daylight by a hooded assassin.
Miller might have been another in a depressingly long line of Newark teens murdered and then forgotten, except for Bookers presence. Booker describes that day as one of his darkest, when he feared most for the citys future. It was also the day when he resolved to double his efforts to lead Newark, one of Americas poorest and most violent cities, out of the turmoil that has afflicted it for more than 40 years. Booker invoked Millers murder during a successful 2006 campaign to become Newarks mayor, and today rarely shrinks from describing the harsh reality of crime in New Jerseys biggest city. People are dying on a chillingly regular basis in Newark, and there is no moral outrage, says Booker.
Booker believes that he can revive Newark by bringing to it many of the urban reforms that turned New York City around in the nineties. Since taking office last July, the former Rhodes scholar, who grew up in a largely white, affluent suburb, has made reducing crime his Number One priority and installed a zero-tolerance policing strategy engineered by a veteran of New Yorks drug wars. Hes also pushing school choice to shake up Newarks appalling public schools, and has imported top managers from around the country to combat the legacy of political bossism and patronage that has left Newark with an often woefully incompetent government.
As thorny as the challenge might seem in a city whose residents have seen one broken promise after another since race riots erupted there 40 years ago, Booker and his team are hopeful. Unlike some other faded industrial cities, Newark has potential advantages for the twenty-first-century economy, with a location in the middle of the WashingtonNew York corridor, impressive transportation options, and far lower costs than nearby Gotham. The unrealized potential of Newark is tragic, says Stefan Pryor, Bookers new economic development chief.
Newarks descent into urban dysfunction during the second half of the twentieth century contrasted starkly with the citys largely prosperous early history. Founded on the banks of the Passaic in 1666 by New Haven Puritans, Newark was predominantly a farming community until advances in travel and communication linked it to nearby New York City. That connection spurred Newarks rapid industrialization, making the city by the mid-nineteenth century a home for industries like shoe manufacturing, hat production, and other garment sectors overflowing from crowded Manhattan. A homogenous community of farmers transformed itself into a diverse city of varied neighborhoodsfrom working-class districts, where immigrants toiling in Newarks factories came to live in brick row houses, to gracious enclaves of the rich like Forest Hills, where the citys industrialists built baronial homes.
But within Newarks success lay the seeds of its downfall. As it became Americas most heavily industrialized city, Newark attracted the attention of powerful organized-crime families from New York. Their corrupting influence in the early part of the twentieth century spread from gambling and bootlegging into Newarks unions and manufacturing industries, and eventually into the citys politics. Abner Longy Zwillman, a bootlegger who smuggled through Newark nearly 40 percent of all liquor peddled on the East Coast during Prohibition, bought off enough local officials to take control of the citys politics from the late 1920s until his death in 1959. Mob influence then passed to Ruggiero Richie the Boot Boiardo, a capo in New Yorks Genovese crime family, and Angelo Ray DeCarlo, who famously helped to fix the 1962 Newark mayoral election for Democratic congressman Hugh Addonizio.
Federal investigations into Addonizios sleazy administration later revealed that almost every aspect of Newarks government operated like a racket. Officials fattened the cost of contracts by 10 percent for kickbacks, and city government even used the same bought-and-paid-for auditors as the mob did. Every Newark citizen and firm paid a corruption tax. One 1950s study found that Newark, with some 460,000 residents, had the most expensive government of any midsize American city, spending nearly twice as much per citizen as the average.
By the 1960s, manufacturers had begun leaving for cheaper regions, just as Newark was absorbing waves of unskilled blacks from the rural South, creating a toxic mix of urban decline that exploded in the 1967 race riots. Fearful and without faith in Newarks blatantly crooked government, the middle class fled. The citys population shrank to just 270,000 mostly low-income residentsa 40 percent decline.
Newark never recovered from the eras disorder. A so-called reform movement that emerged in the aftermath of the riots merely exchanged one form of crooked, inept government for another. Addonizios successor and Newarks first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson, promised to clean up the city with billions of dollars in federal and state aid, but government corruption persisted. Gibson himself wound up indicted on charges of handing out a no-show job, and though a court acquitted him in 1982, investigators jailed a host of city officials for misdeeds on his watch.
Newark languished. By 1986, after 16 years under Gibson, the citys unemployment rate had risen nearly 50 percent, its population had continued dropping, it had no movie theaters and only one supermarket left, and only two-thirds of its high school students were earning diplomas. That year, Democratic councilman Sharpe James ran for mayor as a reformer, claiming that fighting crime had lagged under Gibson and that Newark was now fear city, dope city. Gibson could hardly dispute the contentionboth of his parents were mugging victims in the city during his mayoralty. But little changed under James. The community-college professor turned politician assembled a powerful urban political machine of his own, and scandal marked his 20-year reign, including the jailing of his chief of staff on corruption charges and of his police director for stealing money intended to finance operations against the local drug trade (see The Mob That Whacked Jersey, Spring 2006).
This was the dysfunctional political culture that Cory Booker confronted when he opened up shop in Newark in 1997, seeking to put his skills as a recent Yale Law School grad to work representing the citys poor. Challenged by one of the first Newarkers he met to live with the community he sought to defend, the former Stanford University football star moved into a run-down housing complex in the citys Central Ward, where he and other residents would often go for weeks without heat and hot water. Frustrated by the hardship around him and outraged at the dishonesty and fecklessness of Newarks government, Booker ran for city council as an outsider in 1998 and pulled off an upset, unseating a 16-year incumbent.
A Democrat, Booker nevertheless remained an outsider, often outvoted eight to one by the Newark Democratic political establishment. So he began staging media eventsdismissed as stunts by Mayor Jamesto draw attention to local ills, including camping out on street corners to spotlight the drug trade that openly flourished in the city. Booker also crossed party lines to seek solutions to Newarks problems. With South Jersey Republican businessman Peter Denton, he cofounded the education-reform group E3, which advocated bringing more schooling alternativesfrom charter schools to vouchersto struggling inner-city kids. When I first met Cory, school choice was still very controversial in Newark, says Denton. In black communities, it was understood as something that white Republicans supported. But Cory understood its importance right away and was willing to advocate for it. Booker was appalled to see many of Newarks political leadersthe connected, the elected, the elite, he calls themsending their kids to private schools but condemning poor children to remain in the terrible public schools.
Unable to get the political establishment to pursue the needed reforms, Booker decided to run for mayor. In his first campaign, in 2002, he slammed headlong into Jamess political machine. As recorded in the Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight, Newark police ejected Booker from housing projects where he was campaigning, while a businessman who held a fund-raiser for him had his firm shut down for dubious code violations. James and his supporters shamelessly played the race and religion cards. On the Today Show, James declared that the Baptist Booker was actually Jewish (while at Oxford, he did become the first non-Jewish, nonwhite president of the campuss LChaim Society after befriending the groups rabbi). Calling himself the real deal, James also questioned whether Booker was authentically black. The mayor told Booker, You have to learn how to be African-American, and we dont have time to train you. As transparent as such ploys were, they helped give James a narrow victory. The margin was close enough, however, that when Booker ran again in 2006, James declined to seek a sixth term. Booker crushed a James ally, deputy mayor Ronald Rice, to become Newarks 36th mayor.
In office since last July, Booker must now try to defeat the evils that he has inveighed against. Even as a smattering of office towers, an elegant arts center, and a baseball stadium have risen near the waterfront, Newark remains grindingly poor. Nearly a quarter of its residents live below the poverty linealmost twice the national average. Newarks unemployment rate is double the nations, while the median family income of $30,665 is just half the Jersey average. Social dysfunction is endemic, contributing heavily to the poverty number. The city has a nearly 70 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate, and, as social scientists note, over half of all American kids born without a legal father will arrive in the world poor. Booker has called for a chorus of moral voices in the community to urge an end to behavior that perpetuates poverty and economic isolation.
By rights, Newark should pulse with economic energy, given its advantages. The city is just 15 minutes by train from Manhattan and boasts a truly world-class airport and a port that has replaced New Yorks as the conduit for much of the areas oceangoing goods. It should be a magnet for companies that want to locate in a downtown setting, near mass transit, but avoid Manhattan prices, as well as for young professionals looking for affordable urban living. Cory Booker is the kind of young professional that Newark should be attracting, says Seth Grossman, executive director of the citys Ironbound Business Improvement District.
One model of what the entire city could look like already exists in the thriving Ironbound neighborhood. Ironbound began reviving in the mid-1970s as waves of immigrants, many of them Portuguese, brought stability and a measure of prosperity to the area. Today, the neighborhood attracts out-of-towners, including hip New Yorkers, to its 170 or so mostly Brazilian, Portuguese, and Spanish restaurantsthe most vibrant dining scene in Jerseyand to a sizzling nightlife that features everything from samba to fado, the traditional Portuguese folk music. Median family income in the district is 20 percent higher than in the rest of the city; its poverty rate is some 25 percent lower.
But Newarks well-deserved reputation as a dangerous city, with a murder rate much higher than New Yorks, has blocked any broader revival. Today, some 100,000 suburbanites commute into the citys downtown to work but zoom home after dark. Crime has thus far defeated a 30-year effort to pitch Newarkwith its historic, nineteenth-century brick architectureas a low-cost alternative to New Yorks bohemian neighborhoods. In one recent incident, the director of an arts group that has led an effort to fashion artist enclaves in Newark quit after getting attacked in the groups headquarters. A new director agreed to work in the city only if provided with life insurance. The demand was no joke, he remarked. I am a man with a young family.
Crime has also kept Newark from capitalizing on the boom in information and financial services that has reenergized neighbors Hoboken and Jersey City, bringing good jobs and talented residents to those former industrial cities. Only 13 percent of Newarkers have college degrees, compared with 32 percent of the residents of Jersey City, which benefited from a strong dose of reform in the 1990s under former investment banker Bret Schundler.
Booker is keenly aware that the citys prime challenge is reducing its crime rate. Everything hinges on that, he says, including future economic development and reviving neighborhoods. In his first move after taking office, he ordered police to flood the citys highest-crime areas to stem gang violence. To lend a hand on hot summer nightsin a move that James would surely have labeled a stuntBooker even donned sweats, grabbed a basketball, and journeyed into gang territory, where he challenged local kids to pickup games.
More substantive efforts have followed. Booker has hired as his police director a top NYPD cop, Garry McCarthy, who led Gothams successful battle against the drug trade in Washington Heights, which combined stepped-up street patrols with community outreach, including cajoling landlords into fixing up abandoned buildings. Though criticized for bringing in a white outsider to run the police in a majority black city, Booker hasnt flinched. He and McCarthy are reorganizing Newarks oft-criticized department, long wracked by graft and ineptitude. The Newark Police Department has introduced a narcotics squad, a first in its history, and set up a special unit to chase down fugitives. We used to have people released from jail and violating parole, and we didnt bother to seek them out, Booker says incredulously. In its first two months, the new unit apprehended 75 fugitives.
Booker also believes that instilling respect for the law is crucial in driving down crime. Newark has thus instituted sweeps of illegal gambling establishments, which for years have operated with impunity. The message has to be sent that no one is above the law, one of Bookers deputy mayors said of the crackdown.
Next, Booker is turning his attention to enforcing quality-of-life crimessomething hes passionate about. Driving with his police escort recently, the mayor watched as occupants of the car in front of them hurled trash out of their window. Ordering his escort to pull over the car, the mayor rolled down his window and berated the offenders. I told them that what they did was an act of violence, he recalls.
Bookers rigorous quality-of-life enforcement doesnt meet with universal admiration in a city where crooked cops have often given the police a bad name. But the new mayor is resolute. I am sensitive to the issue, he says, but we need to turn up the heat in the city, and I am fully ready for any backlash.
Booker and McCarthy will need such determination. Though shootings fell in Bookers first six months in office, murders spiked, making it clear that even the New York playbook on fighting crime will find Newarks lawless streets a tough test. If you look at a map of crime in Newark, says one criminologist, what strikes you is that unlike cities like New York or Boston, where there are trouble spots that police can focus on, Newark is like one big hot spot.
Lousy government at the state and county level in northern New Jersey has intensified Newarks crime woes. The county prosecutors office responsible for Newark has the worst conviction rate of any of the states 21 counties, doubtless because its a haven for political appointees who arent necessarily qualified investigators or prosecutors. Jerseys attorney general stripped one recent county prosecutor of duties after the indictment of four of her investigators on misconduct charges.
Moreover, local judges in Newark have a reputation for setting bail low and putting dangerous criminals back on the streets, where they often create more mayhem, while they await trial. In one recent case, Newark police arrested a man wearing full body armor and touting an arsenal of illegal weapons; he also had a long criminal record. The judge set bail at a mere $1,300. This guy was either hunting someone or being hunted, and putting him back on the streets was the worst thing you could do, says a criminologist. A few weeks later, the guy was found dead.
As if all these difficulties werent enough, Booker has also faced direct threats from gang members. Shortly after Bookers election, guards in a state prison uncovered what looked like a plot against the mayors life. A letter reputedly written by a gang leader exhorted followers to get that dude.
Even as Booker zeroes in on crime, hes had to deal with a raft of troubles left over from the previous administration, among them a surprise $44 million budget hole uncovered by state auditors. The audits have revealed a fiscal mess in Newark under James, with unpaid invoices going back years, questionable allocations, and estimates that the city is failing to collect some $80 million a year in taxes. Prosecutors in Newark are investigating last-minute spending by the James administration, including more than $80,000 charged to city credit cards for trips to Brazil, Marthas Vineyard, and Puerto Rico. Booker had to plug the late-year budget gap with a property-tax increase that enraged homeowners.
Booker has sought to import more professional management. In addition to McCarthy, Booker tapped Pryor, a friend from his Yale Law School days who previously led redevelopment efforts for lower Manhattan, as economic development chief. Pryor was instrumental in engineering Hartford, Connecticuts Livable City Initiative, which sought to involve the private sector in revitalizing that citys downtown. While vice president at the New York City Partnership, a business group, Pryor also headed up a program that used business-style initiatives, including merit pay and bonuses, to reward public school teachers and principals. In Newark, among other initiatives, Pryor wants to lure more banks into the mortgage market to increase homeownership in a city with one of the lowest ownership rates in the country. The culture of homeownership has not arrived in Newark, Pryor says. We want to encourage more individual wealth creation.
Booker also wants to slash the citys workforce by 10 percent to 20 percent. He has already fired more than 60 people at city hall, many in patronage jobs, and cut 425 jobs in the Newark Housing Authority, after a federal investigation found that the agency, a longtime source of political cronyism, was padding the payrolls with money designated for capital projects. With refreshing candor, Bookers housing chief defended the firings by noting that the housing authority wasnt a jobs program.
Such efforts have sparked controversy, however, for most of those dismissed are African-American Newarkers, while new appointees have hailed from all walks of life and races. Booker discounts the critics, saying that hes tired of racial politics and of leaders wrapping themselves in kente cloth. But in a city where race and political connections have often been the key factors in public-sector hiring, Booker knows that his outside appointees will face close scrutiny.
What may be Bookers greatest challenge is waiting in the wings: reviving Newarks atrocious school system. Right now, Booker doesnt have control of the schools; the state took over the Newark system after a damning 1994 investigation found widespread mismanagement and corruption in the elected board of education. Since then, the state, under a court order, has poured billions of dollars into the citys schools, so that Newark now spends nearly $17,000 per pupil a yearabout 75 percent more than the national average.
Yet the money has done little good, since the state has pursued few educational innovations and hasnt taken on entrenched educational interests (above all, the teachers union), which still control much of the system. Student performance has continued to plummet. High school achievement rates have virtually flipped, from almost 70 percent of graduating Newark kids passing the states high school proficiency exam when the state took over, to only about 30 percent passing it now, says Richard Cammarieri, a member of the Newark schools advisory board. E3 executive director Dan Gaby bluntly describes the system as in crisis, estimating that it spends an astonishing $1.3 million for every qualified student it manages to graduate from high school.
Bookers first order of business if he gets control of the system, which remains an open question, will be to appoint a strong chancellor, along the lines of the Chicago schools chief or New York City schools chancellor. He wants to bring to Newark many of the promising education reforms he sees around the country: closing and replacing chronically failing schools (Newark has some 30 of them), letting parents choose which schools within the system to send their kids to, and inviting more operators of successful private schools into the city to run charter schools. I have stopped going to lotteries for admission to charter schools because I was so saddened to see parents who have run out of options for their children, Booker says.
Booker has thrown his weight behind a state bill, sponsored by Democratic legislators, that gives tax credits to companies that contribute to a scholarship fund for Newark students who want to attend private schools or jump to public schools in better-performing districts. Critics, especially the states powerful teachers union, have branded the scholarship money a surreptitious voucher program that will eventually harm public schools, and the states governor, Jon Corzine, has yet to endorse the legislation. But Booker responds: Who can object to a pool of money that will give poor children the same opportunities as middle-class kids?
Booker could have even tougher education battles to come, especially in ending seniority rules that allow veteran teachers to pick where they want to work, regardless of performance, and rewriting bureaucratic regulations that make it tough to fire bad educators. If you cant change those things, you will fail in any effort to fix this system, says Gaby.
In less than a year, Booker has brought big changes to Newark, but he is struggling against tough oddsan entrenched political culture of patronage, corruption, and ineffective government and an urban population with greater social problems and an even higher crime rate than Rudy Giuliani faced in New York City during the nineties. Booker says that hell have the staying power to win. Ive been inspired by people who havent given up on their community, he says, remembering his old neighbors in the Central Ward, who could have abandoned the city but chose to make a stand. Now Booker is making his own tenacious stand in Newark, and the citys future may depend on his success.