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Urban Legend

"I would have betrayed all the opportunities I've had if I didn't give something back," says Newark's newly minted mayor. "Inner cities are the last great challenge to this country." (By Steve Hockstein -- Bloomberg News)

"I love you, sister," he replied.

Booker is a Baptist, and his half-hour speech, punctuated with the shouted refrain "Will you stand with me?," ended with a revival-tent crescendo. When he's on a roll, Booker's passion can look an awful lot like rage -- his eyes get fierce and he jabs his finger in the air as though he's trying pop a balloon.

This was opening day, Booker's first few minutes of actual power. But "Mayor of Newark" is a prize that he's been chasing with such epic determination and for so long that it seemed like the crossing of a finish line, too.

Born in Washington, where he spent the first four months of his life, and raised in a wealthy suburb of New Jersey, Booker has been wowing nearly everyone in his path since he arrived in Newark as a freshly minted graduate of Yale Law School, class of 1997. After winning that City Council seat, he ran for mayor in 2002, a nasty cage match in which James, a charismatic and rather savage old-school pol, called Booker an "Uncle Tom" and at various moments suggested that he was white, Jewish, gay and funded by the KKK. Some of James's tactics stunned even his own press secretary. Booker kept his cool, and lost. The whole campaign was captured in "Street Fight," an Oscar-nominated documentary.

"We didn't feel that Cory had lost," says Carolyn Booker, his mother, chatting a few weeks ago during a public-safety forum organized by her son. "We told him that God had a better plan for him. And He did."

That plan apparently was for Booker to regroup after his defeat by serving out his term on the City Council, launching a nonprofit called Newark Now and joining a law firm as a partner. Then, this year, he ran for mayor again, though this time James decided to retire instead of facing a rematch. The two-decade-long James era officially expired a few weeks after Booker won the mayor's race in May, when his slate of City Council members defeated the James slate, which included James's sons.

Now Mr. Promise is Mr. Mayor. Measured by any number of criteria, the city that Booker now runs is in lousy shape. High crime rates, an affordable-housing crisis, crummy schools -- name your urban pathology, Newark has it. For an ambitious politician, the job of reviving this place might be the ideal gig, since the patient can't get much sicker and success, if it comes, will be easy to measure. But don't count on a speedy recovery.

"It'll be interesting to see what happens when Cory Booker has to start saying no to people," says David Rebovich, managing director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics. "And we'll have to see how well he works with state executives, where there are lots of egos and very experienced politicians. These people may like Booker, but that's different than negotiating with him over scarce resources."

For the moment, Booker has more immediate problems. James, he says, has gone into revenge mode. Or maybe it's just exit mode. One city employee reported to a Booker staffer that computer hard drives with city records are being wiped clean of data, and there are reports of document shredding. Booker says he has also heard that cops have been encouraged to take vacation in the coming weeks, traditionally the most violent of the year.

"It's sinister," says Booker, sitting in his law firm office last week. "But Sharpe is one of the only men I've ever known who is a sore winner. So when he loses, you can only imagine."

(James did not respond to a request for comment late last week.)

Then there are the death threats, issued by some local gang leaders and taken seriously enough that for a few weeks Booker was accompanied by two armed security guards and shuffled to a different place to sleep each night.


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