When Cory Booker was elected mayor of Newark in 2006 the overwhelming reaction was this is a perfect match. Here is a proud city, battered but never beaten, now being led by a brilliant, motivated and highly educated public servant. Their ambitions and aspirations appeared to be in sync.
Newark has renamed itself the “Renaissance City”, and Cory Booker, the 36-year-old Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School graduate, calls cities: “the last frontier to make real the promise of America.” His often-repeated mantra could be taken as his mission and his vision.
Newark’s problems were upfront and obvious and Mayor Booker offered solutions. What to do about rising crime? “Increase the number of police on the streets and take a harder line on crime.”
WATCH CORY BOOKER DISCUSS SOCIAL MEDIA IN ‘MORNING JOE’ EXCLUSIVE:
The failing schools? “We believe our city can lead the nation in showing what a district and community can do when it pulls together and puts our children at the center of our community focus.” That was the mayor’s proclamation just before he, Governor Chris Christie and Mark Zuckerberg went on The Oprah Winfrey Show announcing the Facebook founder’s $100 million challenge grant for Newark’s schools.
Reviving the city? Last November, the University of Tennessee proudly announced the mayor of Newark would lecture “about the revitalization of Newark.” He would “focus on the turnaround of Newark and its implications for Chattanooga.”
By the time of that lecture’s announcement, which followed well-timed national headlines and recent speculation about a run for the senate, a growing number of Booker’s supporters, including the justifiably wary Newark voters, were beginning to wonder about the mayor’s agenda. Was their city being used to launch Booker into a higher political sphere while Newark’s major challenges including education, crime and redevelopment, worsen or stay stagnant at best?
“I’m a great admire of his ability to communicate, to inspire people. His intelligence is really breathtaking,” observes policy analyst Dr. Ingrid Reed, recently retired as director of the Eagleton New Jersey Project. Reed, like many political analyst, is keenly interested in Booker and his leadership in Newark. “I think this is a very difficult time for Cory Booker.
It’s not clear what his trajectory is and it’s not clear where he stands in Newark.” Reed adds, “He’s struggling in his city with all the problems that we know are not being addressed. He’s smart and he has to be thinking about his options for the future.”
When asked recently by Newark’s Star-Ledger about his future plans Newark’s mayor was non committal. “Right now my focus and my purpose is to do my job.” A job he’s doing while his ratings in Newark have dropped significantly from their stellar heights when he was first elected.
Clement Price, Rutgers Distinguished Service Professor, respected for his contributions and knowledge of Newark, says of the city: “Newark has a long tradition for local provincialism. They are asking ‘are you really a Newarkian? Or, are you going to leave us as some point?’ ”
Booker’s “enormous visibility” in the national media may have added to voter disillusionment based on observations by Price. “There were those who thought Newark was a backdrop for higher expectations and that perception has stuck over the years.” Citing appearances on NPR, Meet the Press and “Oprah’s couch,” he adds. “No mayor from Newark has exploited the media more than Cory Booker.”
Tom Moran, political writer for the Star Ledger says the mayor defends the national attention, his high media profile and out of town appearances despite some local complaints.
“A lot of the black establishment says he needs to spend more time in churches, at street fairs. That he’s out of town too much. [Cory Booker] says that’s not true. His response is ‘hey I raised $100 million.’ ” Still, Moran admits the mayor’s reputation in Newark has suffered. “I don’t pretend to know how he could recover his former popularity,” given the still unresolved issues troubling Newark.
“Crime is on the increase. In first term, he tackled crime. But then had to make major cutbacks. Now that’s all falling apart.” Moran notes, adding, “The other reason people sort of soured on him is because during the  election, he barely mentioned budget crisis. After the election he came out with this gloom and doom.”
Political analysts and writers agree that Booker hasn’t soothed residents’ paranoia about what’s going to happen to their city, which Moran sums up. “There’s a contingent that thinks there’s a white man conspiracy to ‘come in and leave us with nothing.’ ”
But should conspiracy theories or the budget and urban woes, affecting not only Newark but every major city across the country, be a factor thwarting Booker’s yet undeclared future aspirations?
Price thinks he should give careful thought to his next move. “If Mayor Booker has aspirations that would take him to Trenton or Washington, those aspiration will be buoyed or deterred by how people in Newark see his tenure and service.” Adding, that Booker may have “strong backers who make his aspiration possible,” however, “he will still need the civic embrace of the people who know him best. If he were to leave the city for whatever, there will be questions asked of Newark.”
Politics in New Jersey are too unpredictable to place bets on whether Booker runs for a third term as mayor or instead set his sights on the senate or even goes after the governor’s office, according to Reed.
“I think this is a very fluid time right now,” offers Reed. “It’s coming to that point in his leadership where he can’t make promises any more. He’s got to make things happen in Newark so that they can say that yes their lives are different.”
Price’s analysis is that Newark could still be his proving ground. “I think his first term was stained by a culture of celebrity that he helped to cultivate and benefit from. His second term has been more problematic. But I think it has steeled him and made him a more decisive elected official. I think a third term would be seen by many as an act of selflessness and fealty to the task at hand and would convince a lot of people that at the end of the day he cares firsts and foremost about Newark.”
Despite the mayor’s and Newark’s woes, Booker still receives high marks from Moran. “I think the guy genuinely cares about the city. He’s highly energized, hopeful and optimistic, relentless in his desire to get things done.”
The press release from the University of Tennessee noted that “Booker and his administration have made meaningful strides towards achieving the City’s mission: to set a national standard for urban transformation by marshaling its resources to achieve security, economic abundance and an environment that is nurturing and empowering for individuals and families.”
Political pundits might ask if this is still his goal, is it as Newark’s mayor? Or as the state’s next governor? Or perhaps as the sole African-American in the United States senate?