The guy in the thick of it
His leadership style has been called "post-racial," but Booker's worldview has been deeply informed by the civil rights background of his parents. Both IBM executives and social activists, they dragged Booker and his brother to rallies and forced a redlining issue by having a white couple pose as them when they looked for houses in the all-white suburbs. "The stories I would hear from my parents were often of the ugliest pictures of America," Booker says, "but my parents raised me to believe that I had to be a part of this unfolding story, and that the best way to do that was to be a part of the struggle."
Politics was not, at first, part of the equation. "I had a lot of negative energy toward politicians," Booker admits. "So many people are involved in politics because they are looking for position instead of purpose. And for me, the purpose came first and the politics in many ways is serving that." The purpose was to start a nonprofit corporation aimed at supporting tenants' rights. To understand the tenants better, Booker took up residence on the top floor of Brick Towers, a graffiti-splattered public housing project where he lives to this day. When he moved in, the sidewalk was an open-air drug bazaar. Booker's first challenge was to get the city to do something about it.
He led tenants in a letter-writing campaign, then took the management company to court. Soon, the project had police protection. In 1998, urged on by tenants, Booker reluctantly ran for a City Council seat, upsetting a 16-year incumbent and becoming the council's lone vote on a number of controversial issues.
None of it, he says, might have happened without another one of those characters whom "God seems to send to me just at the right time." That would be Virginia Jones, the then 74-year-old tenant president of Brick Towers, who lost her son to a shooting in the building. Jones took a dim view of the choirboy upstart with the fancy degrees and the big talk of reform. "She said, 'If you want to help me, then tell me what you see around you,'" Booker recalls. "I said, 'I see a crack house, I see drug dealers'... And she said, 'Well then, you can never help me.'"
Booker, who incorporates the story into his stump speeches, said he was taken aback until he realized that this eccentric gadfly had a wisdom that betrayed the obvious. "She said, 'Boy, you need to understand that what you see outside of you is a reflection of what you see inside of you, and if you're one of those people who sees only problems, darkness, and despair, that's all there is ever going to be. But if you are one of those people who sees hope, opportunity, and love, then you can be somebody who makes a difference.'"
Getting religion. That kind of optimism is what keeps Booker going, he says, and from the look of things in Newark, he's going to need every drop of it. For strength, he meditates and works out. And he draws inspiration from big-city mayors like Martin O'Malley, who has made sweeping changes in Baltimore, and community leaders like Reuben Greenberg, who as police chief of Charleston, S.C., pioneered programs to reduce juvenile crime.