Is America ready for Cory Booker?
Booker is a Stanford University graduate (where he played on the varsity football team), a Rhodes scholar, a Yale-trained attorney, a former Newark, NJ City Council member and now the Mayor of that city.
Booker comes from upper-middle class roots. The son of two IBM executives, he grew up in the affluence of Harrington Park, NJ. He starred as an all-state football player at two positions in high school. He served as his high school class president. He and his older brother were the only black kids for miles. While at Stanford, he was elected class president again.
He'll tell you that his parents taught him two lessons that have shaped his life and his career choices. One, because of the privilege you enjoy, you have an obligation to give back. Two, the struggle to move into the middle class in racist, white America was no small accomplishment. The combination of these two parental directives explains a lot about Booker today.
While at Yale Law School, Booker moved into a boarding house in the roughest part of Newark so that he could be close to the people of the inner city. Booker spent his summer vacation in 1999 camped out in a tent that he set up in the garbage-strewn parking lot of a Newark housing project to draw attention to the deplorable conditions. As a result of his efforts and the publicity they attracted, the 550-unit Garden Spires apartments were dramatically improved.
In October 2006, Booker published "The First 100 Days," a report on his comprehensive strategy to revitalize Newark that outlines. . .
- Creative approaches to improving public safety that involve community members at the heart of things
- An aggressive economic development plan to revitalize the city's economy for everyone
- Creative new attempts to strengthen families while nurturing children
- A cutting edge commitment to reform local government and how it affects citizens
- A model program to accommodate the city's ex-offender population at re-entry
It is quite a plan.
But then, he is quite the leader.
His unique commitment and perspective have contributed to the passage of strong laws designed to protect the poor. Thanks to his efforts, slumlords do jail time if they repeatedly fail to make their properties habitable.
The following quote comes from Stanford Magazine (March/April 2000) concerning Booker's natural ability to connect with everyone:
Booker does have a way of winning over his skeptics. When he was at Oxford, he stumbled into a meeting of the L'Chaim Society, a Jewish social and political organization. "I felt like I was walking into a scene from Yentl," he says. Within minutes, Booker had joined the discussion. By the end of the evening, he and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach were dancing with the Torah. The following year, Boteach asked Booker to run for president of L'Chaim. "Cory said to me, 'But I'm not Jewish, and I'm black,' " says Boteach. "I said, 'So what? You embody all the ideals that I want to represent.' He has a unique ability to treat everyone with decency and make them feel important." Some of L'Chaim's members objected, vehemently, to a non-Jewish president. But when the election came, Booker had become so popular -- and so serious about Judaism -- that he ran unopposed.
"I found in Judaism that I can touch and feel spiritualism," says Booker, who still considers himself a devout Christian. "You are supposed to shake your fist at God and demand justice in the world. That's so much at the core of who I am and at the core of the African experience in America."
Today, as he provides leadership for Newark, Booker resides in a public housing project among his city's poorest people.
I have a feeling that the public policy coming out of his office and from the Newark City Council under his watch will be groundbreaking and just what his city needs and what the whole country should pay attention to.