The Purple Leadership of Newark's Mayor Cory Booker

If Barack Obama is the most successful African American national political leader in our nation's history, then Cory Booker will be the most important African American Mayor in American history.
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When he ran first ran for office as a young African American, some of the black political establishment accused him of not being "black enough."

When he graduated from a prestigious law school, he chose to do community organizing in an inner city neighborhood where too many black men were either incarcerated or unemployed.

When he ran and won election to his first local office, he rejected the "left" vs. "right" paradigm. He worked with Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, and focused on solutions to problems -- not ideological labels. Defying the purist left ideologues of his Democratic Party, he campaigned for Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic primary.

Of course I could be talking about Barack Obama (who also similarly defied the ideological purists of his liberal Democratic Party base and supported Joe Lieberman remaining a member of the Senate Democratic Caucus). Instead, I am talking about Cory Booker, President Obama's friend and ally, who is in his third year of his four-year term as Mayor of Newark.

Cory Booker's political life story is the stuff of movies. Indeed, his first campaign for Mayor in 2002 was the basis of a 2005 Academy Award-nominated documentary, called Street Fight. (He narrowly lost, 53%-47% against long-time Mayor Sharpe James.)

While at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, he became close friends with a young orthodox Rabbi from the Chabad Lubavitch Hasids in Brooklyn, Shmuley Boteach, and served as president of the Rabbi's "L'Chaim Society," a non-sectarian group founded by the young Rabbi (later to become a famous author and media personality) to serve as a forum for important speakers and to bridge the gaps between people and religious groups from all perspectives.

After graduating Yale Law School, Booker moved to Newark, coordinated a community youth project, and lived for ten years in a notorious Newark public housing project, Brick Towers, and then in a 3-story rental unit on Hawthorne Avenue in Newark's South ward, described as a "drug and gang-plagued neighborhood of boarded-up houses and empty lots."

In 1999, he scored an upset victory for a seat on the 9-member Newark City Council. Shortly thereafter he began a 10-day hunger strike, living in a tent in front of one of Newark's worst housing projects (Garden Spires) to protest the city government's apparent indifference to open air drug markets in that community.

After his narrow defeat in the 2002 Mayoralty race, he announced that night his intention to run again in 2006. He gave up his Council seat and decided to run again for Mayor -- but this time put together a complete slate of Council candidates. He won the election in 2006 by a landslide 72% vote against the former Mayor Sharpe's designated successor -- and, just as important, he swept in with him his entire slate of reform Council members.

Even before he was sworn in as mayor, Mayor-elect Booker filed legal challenges to halt apparent "pay for play" sales of Newark real estate at bargain basement prices to political insiders and developers. In June 2006, his suit was upheld by a local judge.

Since he took office in July 2006, Booker has brought demonstrable improvements in the daily lives of Newark residents. Shocking but true: One of the first things he did was to tell taxpayers the truth. Newark's city government needed more money. He sought and obtained an unprecedented 8.3% property tax increase to invest in Newark's rebirth and renewal. Among his remarkable achievements in less than three years:

* Through new recruits and reassignments, Booker immediately added several hundred new cops on the street, contributing to reduction in shootings and murders by more than 40%. He backed his new Director of the Newark Police Department, Garry McCarthy, when he installed street barricades to seal off the open air drug markets, despite harsh criticism from liberal critics.

* He has been a key member in Mayors Against Illegal Guns -- a national organization of over 225 mayors, including pro-gun control liberals with pro-Second Amendment conservatives, with all committed to eliminating illegal weapons purchased and possessed by criminals to commit crime and kill people.

* He has collaborated with and obtained funding from the private sector, helping to provide support for the first ever community court in New Jersey and the funding of one of wireless public safety networks, including 109 cameras over seven square miles, where 80% of the shootings had occurred in the prior 3 years, that is not only the most extensive such system in the state of New Jersey, but also, one of the largest in the United States.

* He doubled the production of affordable housing, already completing more than 400 units, with more than triple that amount in the pipeline -- and did so by attracting private partners ranging from Jon Bon Jovi to local minority developers.

* His particular focus has been on reconnecting mostly black male ex-offenders with their communities and families. He has created innovative programs, such as the Center for Fathers, to teach them parenting skills, train them for jobs, teach them about alternatives to another cycle of drugs, crime, and prison.

* And like his friend from across the Hudson River, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and Bloomberg's courageous reformer Chancellor of New York City's public schools, Joel Klein, Mayor Booker committed himself to fundamental change in Newark's public school system. He broke with liberal orthodoxy by supporting charter schools and school vouchers, teacher accountability, and performance testing.

I met Mayor Booker for the first time last week. He was one of a small group of political and business leaders discussing key issues and future trends in American politics. The session lasted about 90 minutes. It took me about five minutes listening to him to conclude that I was in the presence of an extraordinary political talent and public servant.

Talk about a "purple" bipartisan approach: He sees and builds bridges where ordinary partisans see and exacerbate breaches. He speaks the truth simply and powerfully about how to solve people's problems, especially the underclass and the powerless, not by more partisanship, but by less.

This guy is the real deal.

If Barack Obama is the most historic and successful African American national political leader in our nation's history, then I predict that Cory Booker will be, if he isn't already, the most important African American Mayor in American history. And I wouldn't be surprised if in the not-too-distant future he becomes an historic national political leader as well.

Stay tuned.

Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98, served as a member of President Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006 to 2007. He is the author of "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America." (Palgrave MacMillan, 2006).

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