Cory Booker recalls 'gut checks' on road to becoming Newark public servant

L.A. Cicero Booker

Before speaking Thursday evening in Cubberley Auditorium, Newark Mayor Cory Booker spoke to students in a course co-taught by James Steyer, and Robert Reich, right, that examines civil rights in the 21st century.

After studying at Stanford, Oxford and Yale and racking up what his father called "more degrees than the month of July," Cory Booker found himself in an unlikely spot: living in a rundown high rise in one of the worst neighborhoods in Newark, N.J.

It wasn't a string of bad decisions that led him to his new home on the violence- and drug-riddled strip of Martin Luther King Boulevard. Instead, it was a first step taken by a budding community organizer searching for a way to fix a shattered neighborhood. And it wound up launching a political career that landed him the job of mayor two years ago after a bruising election battle that drew national attention.

Booker, a Rhodes scholar who earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Stanford in 1991 and a master's in sociology a year later, said his inspiration to shed the comforts of his upbringing in an affluent Newark suburb came from the work he was doing for a legal advocacy group helping kids in Harlem.

"I was thinking, 'I could do this, I could do this,'" Booker told an audience that filled nearly every seat in Cubberley Auditorium on Thursday night. Sponsored by the Haas Center for Public Service, his talk was part autobiography and part call to public service.

"I said, 'My home is New Jersey. My city is Newark. I'm going to Newark right now."

Booker was a Yale Law School student at the time, commuting between Newark and New Haven, Conn., and trying to figure out exactly how he could make a difference.

Word was that if you wanted to get something done in his new neighborhood, you had to meet Virginia Jones, the community's unofficial overseer who dispensed folksy wisdom and advice from her fifth-floor apartment in a housing project across the street from Booker's place.

He knocked on her door, introduced himself as a Yale law student and said, "I'm here to help you."

She blew past him in the doorway, and he followed her downstairs into the street.

"She wheels around and says, 'You want to help me? Tell me what you see around you,'" Booker recalled.

When he was done ticking off the block's inventory of drug dealers, junkies and ruined apartments, the woman shook her head and said there was no way he could help.

It wasn't that the problems he noticed were insurmountable. It was because he only saw what was wrong, she told him. "That was one of many gut checks I had," Booker said. "I felt like I got lesson Number 1."

Pushed by a "bold, audacious vision of America" and a philosophy to "never accept where the nation is," Booker started trying to bring together public and private groups to lower crime rates and make the neighborhood more attractive. But through his community organizing, Booker said he realized there was a level of corruption in city government that made it tough to get things done.

So he ran for city council in 1998, becoming the youngest member of the board at 29. His election didn't come easy. His foes painted him as a carpetbagger who was out of touch with the real problems of his district. The attacks were a prelude to what would come when he ran for mayor four years later.

Although his first year as a city councilor usually found him on the losing side of budget fights and community improvement programs, he figured the resistance to his ideas was coming from City Hall's highest office. In 2002, he decided to take on Mayor Sharpe James—the nemesis he mentioned by name only once during his 90-minute talk.

James was Newark's second black mayor, a 16-year incumbent credited by his supporters with overseeing a renaissance in New Jersey's largest city.

But Booker saw James as the man in control of Newark's machine politics. Because of James' bad management, the city's schools, police department and neighborhoods were falling apart, Booker said.

The battle between the upstart politician and old-guard mayor grabbed national headlines and was chronicled in the Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight.

James accused Booker—who is also black—of accepting money from the Ku Klux Klan. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson campaigned for James, and the contest between the two black candidates continued to be infused with racial overtones as the incumbent insinuated that Booker wasn't black enough to lead Newark.

Booker's campaign office was broken into, his billboards were vandalized and his supporters said they were threatened and harassed by people who sided with James.

After focusing his campaign in the city's streets, where he knocked on countless doors to win support and counter the claims being made against him, Booker wound up losing the race by 6 percentage points.

"We lost in glorious fashion," he said.

The exposure he received during the race led to big-money job offers and opportunities to take the lead of several nonprofit organizations.

"But Newark was my purpose," he said.

He mounted a second campaign and won handily over Deputy Mayor Ronald Rice. (James did not seek re-election to a sixth term. Recently, he was convicted of five counts of fraud and sentenced to 27 months in prison.)

Since Booker's election, Newark leads the country among large cities for reductions in shootings and murders. His administration has revamped the city's police department, boosted affordable housing, earmarked millions of dollars to park improvement programs and created job programs for teenagers and recently released felons.

Booker said he will run for mayor again when his term is up in two years and has no plans to run for higher office.

Asked after his remarks what advice he has for people who want to follow his lead and give back to their communities, Booker said his path doesn't have to be followed literally.

"You don't have to go live in a high rise to make a difference," he said. "You are a public servant no matter what you do."