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."
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.
Booker is earnest, yet quick with a laugh; unassuming, yet confident. To spend time with him is to hear a lot about spirituality. A Baptist, he says he becomes "more Christian" by understanding other faiths. So he has studied Judaism and Hinduism and is learning more about Islam. "You see the divine core in all these religions, you see the beauty and the power and the possibilities, then you yourself gain a deeper reverence for God," he says. At Oxford, he was the unlikely president of the l'Chaim Society; a fellow member credited Booker with making him a better Jew.
As an athletically gifted black kid growing up in a virtually all-white suburb, Booker was popular, but he was also "acutely aware" that he was different. From that experience, he says, "I think I learned lessons of compassion." His parents drove him hard--"from him to whom much is given, much is expected" was a familiar refrain--but he was never inclined to rebel, he says: "Even at the earliest ages, I found myself playing the role of the big brother, the guy who was trying to look after people."
He got to Stanford as a two-position all-American and sat on the bench the first year. The academics were also a challenge. "I used to joke that I got to Stanford because of my 1,600 and my 4.0, but it was 1,600 receiving yards and 4.0 yards per carry," Booker says. "So I felt that I really had to apply myself." That, by all accounts, he did. Jody Maxmin, a classics professor at Stanford and a longtime friend, says she could work hard until midnight, but "Cory could make you think you could be going to bed at 2 a.m. and doing two hours more good."
In 2002, Booker would need that determination in spades. Not surprisingly, he had trouble raising money in Newark, where as many as 5,000 voters work for the city government. So he tapped Wall Street bankers, even Barbra Streisand and Oprah Winfrey. His fundraising fed perceptions that he was a tool of outsiders, as well as wild rumors that he was white, Jewish, and gay. This year, running against a state senator, Booker's campaign is more sophisticated. He has courted and won the support of the unions and even hired some of James's former aides.
Yet even with the wind at his back, victory is not assured. Which perhaps is why Booker brings up yet one more of those people who seem to enter his life at just the right time. He was representing an impoverished tenant, suing her landlord over an eviction order. He urged her to settle: They had an attractive offer, and going to trial risked losing all. But there was a principle at stake, and the client wanted to fight. So Booker pushed on, hoping the case would lead to broader reforms. But then suddenly, the woman died, and he despaired that he had been unable to make her case. Until he realized that, once again, he had gotten it all wrong. "I thought God had put me here to help this poor woman, but he had put this poor woman here to help me, to show me what life in many ways is all about," Booker says. "And that is that the real dignity in life is not winning the battle; it's being in the fight."
Born: April 27, 1969.
Education: B.A., M.A., Stanford University; Rhodes scholar, Oxford University; Yale University School of Law.
Quote: "There is a boundless reservoir of power in all of our communities, a power not conferred by the powerful but at ready access to anyone willing to claim it."
This story appears in the April 24, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.