Renewing an American City: Mayor Cory Booker

Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, is a former Newark Councilman and community organizer. A Democratic politician and Rhodes Scholar, Booker ran unsuccessfully for Newark mayor in 2002 before winning the 2006 mayoral election with a large majority. Booker is an emerging national party leader and has received widespread attention for his innovative policies in Newark.

The Politic: I want to begin by asking about your incredible educational experiences. As a Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, you have taken a wide array of courses. Which courses have most influenced your worldview and why?

CB: A lot of courses had impacts on me. A lot of my introductory political science classes really were the first to open me up to different ideas and different strands of American political thought and helped me put more meat on the bones that I had of this yearning for greater justice in America. At Stanford there were the powerful classes I took with Clay Carson about the Civil Rights movement; I’ll always remember those and a number of courses that had nothing to do with politics whatsoever. Art classes that just helped me deepen and give more texture to my appreciation of beauty and all of its diversity. I was like a sponge in college. It just opened me up in so many ways and gave more form and meat to a lot of my strong passions and ideas.

The Politic: Are there any theories you learned in college, particularly in some of your political science, economics, or sociology courses, which you believed to be correct when sitting in the classroom, but now question after your practical experiences in Newark?

The skyline of Newark, New Jersey

CB: Yes, absolutely. In my Civil Rights and Civil Liberties seminar we discussed a lot of hot-button debating issues, and one of the first issues I had was that I was so resoundingly against any type of vouchers in education. I thought they were evil and an affront to public education. As I got older and became more nuanced, I realized that public education is first and foremost the right for every child to receive an excellent education, and suddenly I wasn’t so wrapped up in the delivery system, but more in the outcome and the results, especially for disadvantaged youth. I think a lot of my education views have changed since I’ve begun getting involved in education. Even in my education law school class at Yale, a lot of things I thought then, including desegregation issues, which I thought were such a fundamental building block to educational excellence, have changed. I now don’t see desegregation as a critical or key answer to solving America’s education problems. I think you can have predominantly black or white schools that produce the kind of outcomes we want. While my ideal is to have integrated schools and my ideal is that you learn best when you are in an integrated environment, when you have an inner city school that’s all black or Latino, it doesn’t mean that it has to be an inferior school. It can still educate children at high levels of excellence under those circumstances.

Also, in a lot of my law classes, Civil Procedure and others, I had very regimented views about lots of issues. I remember one specific press conference when I was talking about three people, ages 16, 17, and 18 who went around the city of Newark and in a week or two-week period were responsible for about half of our shootings and three quarters of our robberies. It was just an awful mayhem they were causing. I remember the discussion with a prosecutor when we finally captured them about whether to try them as adults. I have to say, if you had asked me at my Yale law class, I would have said about the 16 and 17-year-olds, ‘no way, don’t try them as adults,’ but now it wasn’t so black and white, as I was a mayor of a city and had the responsibility of protecting residents. I think that in law school, a lot of things were very black and white, and in real life, I guess I see that the picture is altered, it’s far more complex, far more nuanced, and that while the decisions aren’t as easy, it’s within that gray area that you can often find the most elegant solutions.

The Politic: Based on your personal experience, what can the academic world do to better prepare students for public service careers?

CB: My best experiences at Stanford, Oxford, and Yale were experiences in which I got to be out in the community doing real work. That was some of the best education I received, and you can’t always get credit for it. I salute Yale Law School for its clinic programs and flexible professors who actually allowed me to go down to Newark to do a lot of my final writing papers on real life situations in Newark. So, I just think that some of the best education you can get is practical experience within the community and as for Yale clinic program, I give it the highest thumbs up, and it actually was one of the reasons I chose to go to Yale in the first place.

The Politic: For 8 years, you lived in Brick Towers, a Newark housing project. Why did you choose to live there for so long, and how has living there affected the way you formulate policies?

Newark, New Jersey

CB: Wow, that’s a good question. I moved into Newark and I wanted to live in a community that was really in the fight to manifest the ideas and values of America. The great thing about the Brick Towers community was that there were very heroic people there that really inspired me. I began organizing the neighborhood and meeting people like tenant president Mrs. Virginia Jones, Mrs. Ansby, Mrs. Charlotte Jackson, Mrs. Wright, and a lot of the other folks, who were just such incredible figures. I felt privileged to be in that neighborhood and made a commitment to move into the building.

The eight years I spent living there were in some ways some of the hardest living I’ve ever done, but I think it was the most fortunate community I ever had the privilege to be a part of. I just had such a great neighborhood, with so many great people who strengthened me and fueled my passion to be a part of a larger change movement in Newark. Anybody who promulgates policies and doesn’t understand their real life day-to-day impact, especially for disadvantaged communities, can sometimes do more harm than good. I feel very blessed in my adult professional career that I’ve always lived in the communities that I most seek to serve. This is really about me actually getting the privilege, as I said earlier, and the honor of learning from some of the greatest Americans I’ve ever met. You really do see heroism and I’m grateful for that opportunity.

The Politic: You lost the 2002 Newark mayoral election to the now-imprisoned Sharpe James, who used a relentless and corrupt political machine to defeat you. You could have taken powerful positions in New Jersey state government, yet you chose to remain in Newark to challenge James again. After such a frustrating loss, what kept you optimistic about your chances for 2006?

CB: It was really just that you cannot let a finite defeat undermine the infinite hope you have for your community. Newark is a city of hope, and what kept me optimistic were the amazing human beings in the city. Even people who voted against me, right after I lost, were encouraging me to stick with it and stay in the saddle for another fight. I had people during that horrible election—in the sense of what kind of tactics went on—who made incredible sacrifices. People who lost their jobs or had their businesses affected because they were involved with my political campaign, who dealt with scorn and other kinds of challenges, and for these folks who sacrificed so much, who could’ve gotten a job any other place, to say, ‘all the sacrifices my family and I made, we would do it all again even though you lost,’ that kind of heroism is very humbling and for me to do anything but to keep my eyes on the prize, would be to betray the faith those Newarkers had not only in me but in the potential of their city.

The Politic: You came into office and immediately enacted a series of broad policy changes. You advised President Barack Obama’s transition team. What is the first major policy move you think he should make?

CB: Wow. Again, I’ve been privileged to be talking to the Obama transition team and I have to say the first policy move they should make is the one they’ve already made. Truman said ‘the secret to great leadership is to hire great people and get out of their way,’ and I think Obama is doing just that—hiring great people. I don’t think he’s going to get out of their way. He’s a great man himself and is up to the challenge of leading this team to the goals that are not only set by him but are yearned for by the American people. The most important thing I see as an executive of a large institution is your hiring and who you bring around you, and I think Obama is doing an incredible, incredible job.

The Politic: Anyone in particular?

CB: Well, start with a recent one. I think Sanjay Gupta is a brilliant idea. I have to say I’ve learned a lot about health from him [laughter]. In all truth, I think Sanjay Gupta was a great recent appointment because he’s a great communicator, a world-renowned doctor, and somebody that the American people can connect to. I think some of the biggest issues surrounding public health are preventative health and Americans making wiser choices with what their behavioral habits are, with what they put in their body, and the decisions they might make for their families as a whole. So, from the Gupta decision to even Hillary Clinton, who already has an international reputation and can be, and I think will be, a brilliant secretary of state.

The Politic: Last year Newark public schools had a dropout rate of 28 percent, which is 11 percent over the New Jersey statewide average…

CB: Okay, stop in the name of love! First of all, you can’t even trust the statistics you hear about graduation rates and dropout rates. I don’t even think that we have an adequate way of measuring the gravity of the problem anymore, and that alone is problematic to me. So before we quote an exact statistic, let’s just simply say that there are too many young people dropping out and there are too many young people failing to get a high school degree.

The Politic: Newark is launching an innovative program in partnership with the National League of Cities to reduce dropout rates. What is unique about this program and what other steps are you taking to improve school attendance?

CB: Well, we’re doing a lot of things to try to empower at-risk young people to succeed, but this program is unique first of all because it really is an evidence-based model of success, and we’re pulling the best ideas for dealing with at-risk kids from around the country right now and implementing them here in the city of Newark. This is new and I don’t think our dropout prevention programs have been anywhere as superior as the ones we’re embracing now. In addition to that, we have programs geared toward kids coming out of incarceration so that a 16-year-old that might have caused me a nightmare, now when they come home there are actually programs that we have implemented. One such program is the Y.E.S. program—the Youth Education and Employment Success Center—here in Newark. These are some of the things we are doing, and in addition to those, we’re doing what I just I said about Yale: giving real life experience and education at the same time. We’ve embraced programs with housing components and expanded their offerings here in the city of Newark and ones such as YouthBuild, in which kids get hands-on construction training and even pre-apprenticeship training while also getting their G.E.D.

The Politic: You have taken heat for supporting vouchers and charter schools when the rest of the Democratic Party is almost unanimously opposed to them…

CB: Oh no! No longer!

The Politic: As Newark gains back more local control over its school system from the state, how will your plan be able to use vouchers to help the poorest students with the least involved parents, who many Democrats argue are normally hurt most by voucher plans?

CB: Well, first of all I used to be in the wilderness of the Democratic Party. I used to be a lone person, but now there are hundreds of elected leaders, more than that, on our side. When at the Democratic National Convention, we had the Education Equality Project meeting, all of us were there and it was just a tremendous showing of people that are saying that the Democratic Party has got to be more innovative and more reform-oriented in the way it approaches educational issues. I have no loyalty to vouchers, I have no loyalty to charter schools, I have no loyalty to traditional models. I have loyalty to outcomes: how can poor, often minority, marginalized young people succeed? That is ultimately what I am all about, and right now we have catastrophic failures all across America in these populations. It’s unacceptable and unless we have the courage to embrace innovation and always be about an evidence-based model for the future that focuses on what is working and what is a proven success, it will continue.

The problem right now is that we keep pouring more and more money into institutions that are failing to educate our children. New Jersey has over a $20,000-per-child expenditure. That’s almost more than twice what California spends per child. We can be having more success. There’s no more time for excuses, but there are too many people who are wedded to traditional models. In Newark right now we’re working on a two-prong strategy: we’re focusing on charter schools and expanding charter schools of excellence, and we’re focusing on public school reform and we’re doing some significant things there. The reality is that tax credit scholarships—which you might call vouchers—the tax credit scholarship bill that we’re trying to work through the Senate may or may not succeed, but I’ve got to educate children today. I have parents that come into my office during my open office hours in tears because their children are stuck in schools that have literally 70 to 90 percent of kids who can’t pass all three minimum basic competency tests. This is an affront to what we say we stand for in America and equality of opportunity, and we’ve got to be courageous enough to look around and say there’s got to be a better way to do this and get better results.

The Politic: You recently blogged on your website that Newark is setting the national standard for violent crime reduction. When you came into office, Newark had its highest murder rate in a decade, yet after only 2 years as mayor, Newark’s murder rate is now near its all-time low. What are the factors driving this reduction and what can other cities learn from this?”

CB: This is an area I’ve spent a lot of energy and time on. I really do believe that this resignation that many people have—the violence of inner cities—is just wrong. So, the first thing for us as a city was getting everybody focused on what our priorities and goals are. So, we said to foundations, to corporations, to community groups and churches that if we are all going to do this, everyone has to get involved. We were able to get involvement from foundations, corporations, and a new police foundation, which is funding technology and anonymous tip lines.

The police director came in and we just completely transformed the management of our agency on everything from making sure we had more police on the streets and crime scenes, to creating special task forces and narcotics modules. We now have cameras all over our city. A lot of powerful management strategies have helped us to get our city police department moving forward. There’s no one quick switch to these problems. The biggest key is getting everybody focused on working toward a solution. Internally in City Hall, it’s about managing the police agency in the most optimal fashion and using strategies from other cities that you see working, as well as designing your own to deal with the problem.

The Politic: A July 1, 2008 New York Times editorial titled “Newark’s Cory Booker at Midpoint” wrote that Booker has “yet to change the perception of longtime black residents […] that he is an outsider.” Are there grounds to this opinion and if so, what have you done to change this perception?

CB: Well, I don’t know about the ‘insider/outsider thing.’ I do know, unlike the New York Times, what our polls say. Our internal polls have tracked us from anywhere from 70-something percent—we won with 73 percent—all the way to 81 percent support. That’s consistent along racial groups. So while there is a small political faction in the city, really represented by the Sharpe James crew, so to speak, that’s very vocal and wants to make this about identity politics or about the politics of geography, the reality is that most Newarkers seem to be very encouraged by the progress we’re making here in my administration. They also realize that we have work to do to fill the commitments we’ve made to the people, and I hope that over the next year and a half, I will have shown the residents of this city enough progress that they believe I merit a second term.

The Politic: Is there any public servant, past or present, whose career you would like to emulate?

CB: The public servant who is the archetype of all I do, and I’m staring at her statue
right now that sits on my desk, is Harriet Tubman. She would have died without anybody even knowing her name, which is one of the reasons I like to recognize her, because the greatest Americans are not the people we read about in history books but who were ordinary Americans willing to do extraordinary things for the cause of our country. She was a woman who just lived a life of consistent sacrifice and realized that no person can be free until everyone is. I think that we all, especially those of us who live lives of comfort and privilege, need to realize that our nation is unfinished. In other words, we drink from wells we did not dig. There are so many people that we have an obligation to continue to fight for and put forth our measures of sacrifice.

The Politic: You’re more than halfway through your term now. What do you think has been your biggest failure and what has been your greatest success in office?

CB: You know, as for the failures, I can’t even judge them as that. We have made mistakes, but every one of them has been valuable. There have been tactical mistakes: we cut taxes in my second year and then the next year we ended up with an even bigger budget crisis than we thought. That might have been a time to keep taxes level and realize that we were going to need those resources in the future. Time will tell if that was a right decision or not, but it definitely put us in a severe strait for the coming year. I can go through a whole bunch of minute mistakes I think we might have made; none of them latch up to the point of some great mistake, but I will tell you, there is one general theme: I think I could’ve worked harder in my first year, as I was being attacked, and worked harder to turn those people that might have been from the Sharpe James camp from foes into friends.

Now, in my second and third year, I’ve done a much better job, and even though people might have behaved badly, I still go to them humbly and say ‘we can work together. Let’s find a way.’ I’m not saying that’s generally what we do with everybody, but I think we could have worked a lot harder in taking the position of statesman as opposed to perpetuating the back and forth that was going on from an election. I still don’t want to declare success in anything. I just want to say that we’re an administration that’s making tremendous progress. I’m proud of the progress we’re making in affordable housing, in building parks, in reducing violent crimes. I’m very proud of the progress we’re making in attracting philanthropy to the city of Newark to do things like educational innovation and police foundations and our greening initiative for our city, but we still have a ways to go until we can declare success, and I think I’m going to need another term indeed.

The Politic: Any last words of advice for young people considering public service careers?

CB: My thing is that no matter what you do for your occupation, really, your role in life is to be of service. So, being of service to one’s family, raising your kids, giving them time and attention is where it starts, but it can’t end there. I think that all of us — whether you’re a corporate lawyer, an investment banker, a police officer — all of us must go above and beyond as our ancestors did in serving the cause of America, and I hope that we all do more and give every measure of our commitment to our country by serving others.

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