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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)

Growing up, Cory listened to his father's recordings of Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, which he memorized, studying their cadence. He heard a lot about the blood his ancestors shed to win his relatively cushy life. He developed what he once called a "leadership complex."

"I feel like I was born on second base," he says. "My parents, they weren't even born in the dugout. They couldn't afford tickets to the stadium. They gave me everything I could dream of, raised me in one of the country's wealthiest suburbs, rooted me in the culture of this country, black culture. I would have betrayed all the opportunities I've had if I didn't give something back."

Booker was one of a handful of blacks at Northern Valley Regional High School -- but far from being a marginalized minority, he was class president his senior year and a standout tight end on the football team.

"He was the kind of guy who slowed you down when you hung around him because he'd say 'hi' to everyone," says Chris Magarro, his best friend, whom he met in fourth grade. "The kids, the teachers, the janitors. Everyone."

He played football at Stanford, too, and heavily into his overachiever phase, he also worked at a suicide prevention hotline, won the student body president job and earned stellar grades. He recalls that the toughest question during his Rhodes scholarship interview was something along the lines of "Are you real?"

After Yale, he moved to Newark in the hopes, he says, of becoming a community activist in the tradition of Marian Wright Edelman. He claims that becoming a politician wasn't on his agenda.

This is preposterous, of course. Booker has been told for years that he will one day be president of the United States. But part of his origins legend is that he entered that city council race only after proddings by colleagues and because he concluded that political power was needed to turn Newark around.

Winning the mayor's job has naturally increased talk of the greater vistas and higher offices that await. It's the one subject that actually seems to irritate him.

"It frustrates me because it's as though this challenge isn't important," he says, "when really this is the greatest challenge facing this country. Not Newark, specifically, but inner cities in America. If you think about it, besides some rural areas, inner cities are the last great challenge to this country, to be what it says it is."

Star Trek

Booker's law-firm office is covered with old maps of Newark that he bought on eBay. There's a framed cover of an old Newsweek magazine about black mayors near a windowsill, and a statuette of Harriet Tubman on his desk. On a bookshelf, there are some serious tomes as well as a "Spider-Man" box set.

"It's a special edition DVD," Booker says, giving a tour. "Don't touch it."

He's a "Star Trek" geek who gave up television during his recent campaign because it was draining away time. His only slip off the wagon, he says, were episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which he watched on his laptop.

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