“The room is packed,” recalls Joseph Shenker, chairman of the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell. “You had every major hedge-fund, private-equity person.”
Booker holds the guests spellbound, using the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam” — “fixing the world” — to describe Ackman’s generosity. It’s a notion Booker has adapted to Newark, and the moneyed elite are buying in.
“One of the things Cory Booker has done is turned Newark into a national cause,” says Shenker, 55, who remembers watching TV footage of the 1967 riots there that left 26 dead. “He has made it a serious issue for the United States.”
Midway through his second four-year term, Booker has raised more than $250 million in donations and pledges for a city whose previous three mayors were convicted of or pleaded guilty to felonies after leaving office.
Benefactors view Booker as somebody they can work with after decades of corruption, says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Mining a network stretching back to Stanford University and Yale Law School, the mayor is promoting Newark as a lower-cost alternative to New York and overseeing nonprofit groups as they fund everything from security cameras to midnight basketball tournaments.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million for education to aid a school system that’s been under state control since 1995 and where just 61 percent of students graduate high school. The Silicon Valley billionaire chose Booker’s cause of school reform in 2010 after meeting him at the Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Billionaires Nicolas Berggruen, founder of investment firm Berggruen Holdings, and Leon Cooperman, chief executive of the New York- based investment partnership Omega Advisors, are among others funding what Booker pitches as “a city of emergent hope.”
Developers are responding by turning long-vacant land into corporate headquarters, factories and housing, with more than $700 million invested.
“The feeling is, if we can turn Newark around, we can turn anything around,” Sabato says.
Booker’s money and clout have not yet resolved the social ills that plague his city of 277,000, where 86 percent of residents are black or Hispanic.
Newark suffers from the 10th-highest poverty rate among major U.S. cities, and crime has remained stubbornly resistant. In 2012, through Sept. 2, murder was down 17 percent from a year earlier, but rape had soared 29 percent.
“Has the city turned around?” asks Brad Tuttle, author of “How Newark Became Newark: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of an American City.” “Everybody would say no.”