The guy in the thick of it
It was his senior year at Stanford University, and all-American tight end Cory Booker was struggling to maintain a Division I football career while earning grades high enough to get into graduate school. A cerebral political science major with an idealistic bent, he was grounded enough to say that football was his ticket, not his destination. It's what had gotten him to this elite university in California in the first place. But then he had four catches against Notre Dame--and suddenly he was flirting with going pro.
At the same time, Booker was running a crisis counseling hotline in East Palo Alto. A client threatened to jump off a building, Booker intervened, and he had what he describes as an epiphany. "I remember having this profound conversation on the side of the ledge about why he shouldn't jump, and it was almost like a gift to me," Booker recalls. "I'll never forget the power I felt when he touched hands for me to pull him over. And at that moment, I realized, 'What am I doing? I don't want to be a football player. I want to get back to the business of making connections with people through my work.'"
It's a theme that seems to run through Booker's life. With a Rhodes Scholarship, a degree from Yale University School of Law, a commanding 6-foot-3-inch build, and a smile that invites everyone else to respond in kind, Booker, 36, has enjoyed opportunities that most African-American men--indeed, most men--can only imagine: chances at national appointments, offers from white-shoe law firms and investment banks. And yet time and again, events have returned him to what he says is his calling: public service. "I don't think there is anything more noble about my choice," Booker says. "We do what we know; we do what we love. And I love being in the thick of it."
Right now being in the thick of it means running for mayor of Newark, N.J., a once thriving manufacturing town that despite considerable recent investment has never quite recovered from the devastating riots of the 1960s and the white flight that followed.The downtown may have a sleek new performing arts center and a minor league baseball stadium, but the much-ballyhooed Newark renaissance has conspicuously bypassed neighborhoods like the South Ward, a crime-plagued swath of rundown homes and shuttered stores in a city of 12 percent unemployment.
At least this is Booker's argument as he pursues his second, and most likely successful, effort to reshape Newark politics. Four years ago, he narrowly lost to 16-year incumbent Sharpe James in a nasty contest made famous by the Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight. James, 70, emerged as the quintessential machine politician, awash in patronage; Booker was the overeducated carpetbagger who wasn't "black enough" to understand the plight of the people he aimed to serve.
Inside out. This time, with James having dropped out of the race, Booker is the man to beat. And tonight, speaking to voters at his South Ward headquarters, he is treated not as a newcomer but as a native son. The residents have problems; Booker has solutions: He'll put more cops on the street; he'll enforce curfews; he'll give teenagers alternatives to joining gangs; he'll clean up city hall and make it more responsive to constituent concerns. Surely, there are easier promises to keep. But in Booker's eyes, Newark and other troubled cities are "the last frontier of the American dream."