Cory Booker: Newark's Mayor Fights for a Revival

His hands-on approach to tackling crime makes him one of America's Best Leaders.

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Newark, N.J.—When he failed to bring down crime in this famously troubled city as much as he'd wanted to during his first year as mayor, Cory Booker decided to take a more hands-on approach. He started accompanying police on street patrols—every night, until 4 a.m. "It was something I vehemently discouraged," says Newark Police Director Garry McCarthy, who didn't want the mayor micromanaging his cops.

But Booker, a Yale Law School graduate and former Rhodes scholar, persevered. "I wanted to show people that I'm willing to work as hard or harder than anybody in city hall," Booker says in his downtown Newark office, "to get the word out to police officers that I was challenging them to show my level of commitment."

The message got through. Police productivity increased. Sick days declined. And most crimes, including homicides, have fallen sharply from 2006, the year Booker was elected. The episode captures the 40-year-old Booker's lead-by-example ethos: "My mom used to say that who you are speaks so loudly that I can't hear what you say."

These days, lots of folks outside Newark are talking about Booker's quest to rescue the city, which Harper's magazine dubbed "America's worst" in the 1970s. Though leading a population of only 280,000, Booker snags invitations to appear on Meet the Press and other national newsmaker shows and starred in Brick City, a five-part documentary on the Sundance Channel. He has around three quarters of a million Twitter followers. But Booker insists he's as locally focused as ever, turning down an Obama White House offer to lead its new Urban Affairs Office and pledging to run for re-election next year. "My belief in what's possible in Newark is far grander now than it was when I started this job," he says. "We are five to 10 years away from a massive tipping point here."

Big changes. That moment can't come fast enough for impoverished and drug-plagued Newark, which never recovered from the deadly 1967 riots that sent middle-class whites packing. Having assembled a team of experienced technocrats—McCarthy is a veteran of New York City's Rudy Giuliani-era police force, while Booker's deputy mayor for economics led the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. after the 9/11 attacks—Booker has already made big changes. Police department reforms and the installation of hundreds of security cameras around the city have helped cut the murder rate by a third, and shootings have dropped even more sharply.

Beyond dealing with crime, Booker has personally raised $25 million from private donors for Newark's charter schools fund—much of it from well-known philanthropists like John Walton, the son of Wal-Mart's founder—fighting the teachers union every step of the way. He has doubled the city's affordable housing stock and has moved public-housing residents from aging high-rises to new townhouses with green spaces. And he has opened or refurbished almost a dozen city parks. "It doesn't feel like a low-income city anymore," says Jennifer Jacobs, who has worked as a Newark public-housing manager for 22 years. "It just feels more normal."

Booker has also cleaned up the corruption synonymous with his predecessor, Sharpe James, who's serving a 27-month prison sentence for fraud and conspiracy. It was an unsuccessful 2002 run against James—who claimed that Booker, a black Christian, was Jewish and that he would "have to learn to be an African-American"—that first garnered Booker national attention.

Booker's reforms have attracted some new businesses to Newark, but the recession and the city's reputation keep many others away, despite $10-a-square-foot commercial space. "If someone described to you an area that's 10 miles from New York on a major transportation superstructure, with a port and major airport, you'd say, 'Heck, yeah, I want to be there,' " the mayor says. After improving the city, Booker's next big job is persuading those people to follow through once they learn that he's describing Newark.

  • Full list: America's Best Leaders