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Urban Legend
How Cory Booker Became Newark's Mayor: By Being Almost Too Good to Be True

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 3, 2006; C01

NEWARK, N.J.

Cory Booker, who was inaugurated on Saturday as this city's new Democratic mayor, likes to tell stories, and nearly every one of them will make you sick. Not nauseated sick, but something that is both deeper and more fleeting -- the feeling that you are a cynical, selfish jerk and you ought to be ashamed, and you are ashamed. But only for a few minutes, because that's how selfish and cynical you are.

Here's an example. Let's call it Briefly Sickening Cory Booker Story No. 1.

It's August of 1999. Booker is a fed-up, 30-year-old City Council member, thwarted at every attempt at reform by four-term mayor Sharpe James. Newark's decay and despair, and the inability to do anything about it, stress out Booker so badly that he's getting migraines and back spasms. After a particularly violent crime at a particularly drug-ravaged high-rise apartment complex, Booker decides it is time for drastic measures.

He buys a tent, pitches it next to the complex and goes on a hunger strike. For 10 days, he fasts and sleeps outdoors in one of the grimmest neighborhoods in one of the country's grimmest cities.

"It transformed my life," Booker says, sitting in his office last week, where he was preparing his inauguration address. "Within 24 hours, people were saying, 'You're not sleeping out there alone,' and eventually there were dozens of people sleeping under this huge wedding tent. The first morning of the strike, we had a prayer circle of four people. By the end, there were enough people for us to form a circle around the two buildings. Priests, rabbis, Latinos, blacks."

The media showed up, Mayor James relented -- just a little -- and Booker started eating.

"It really changed my perceptions about power," says Booker, who is wearing a blue oxford shirt and a yellow tie and speaking, as he always does, like a man in a rush. "It's not about the office that you hold or the money in your bank account. Real power never stems from agencies. It stems from spiritual power."

You see? Have you ever heard a more sickening story in your whole life? The commitment, the risk, the lesson about "spiritual power" -- it's all so unnervingly selfless and noble that it makes whatever you are doing seem halfhearted and inane.

Long before winning his current job, Booker was touted as an African American politician with limitless potential, the next Barack Obama, plus GQ looks. And that is a problem for the rest of us. If life is a high-school test writ large, this former Rhodes scholar with Clintonian charisma is single-handedly wrecking the curve.

Second-Round Victory

Booker's inauguration was held at a spiffy downtown arts center with a few thousand seats. The event felt more like a church service and pep rally than a swearing-in. The stage was packed with members of the City Council, family and assorted well-wishers, and the hall was filled with Booker's friends and most ardent fans. The audience gave him one standing ovation after another, and they cheered sympathetically when he flubbed a line he was supposed to repeat as he took the oath of office.

"We love you!" a woman shouted, during a lull.

"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.

"I was like the vice president for a while there, moving around to undisclosed locations," he says, chuckling for a moment. "But you know, I don't want to hear about it anymore. At some point, I shut it off because I have faith both in my security and the larger universe, that I'm here for a mission and it's not to be taken out by a gang member in the next few weeks."

When Booker talks about "the universe" he means God, whose name he often invokes in speeches. It's just part of what gives him a choirboy aura. He doesn't smoke or drink, he rarely swears and does not eat meat.

Plus, he lives amid poverty, in a semi-notorious Newark complex called Brick Towers. It was the scene of a 24-hour drug bazaar when Booker moved in back in 1998 and the target of one of his first crusades as a community activist. He was encouraged by an elderly resident and local dynamo named Virginia D. Jones.

"He kept calling me and calling me, asking for my help," says Jones, who was one of three people holding the Bible at Booker's swearing-in. "I said, 'Why should I help you? Everyone else I helped was a turncoat.' "

Because of their effort, Brick Towers is better off these days, but it's still not exactly paradise.

"I pay $600 a month, which seems like highway robbery at the moment," says Booker, "because I haven't had heat or hot water since November."

Wait. The new mayor of Newark hasn't had a hot shower since November?

"I boil water. First I used pots, but then a friend of mine came over one day and she said, 'Have you ever heard of a camp shower?' And now there's this sack that hangs in my apartment" that provides hot water.

'The Greatest Challenge'

Briefly Sickening Cory Booker story No. 2. (No. 3, if you count the boiled water story, which you probably should.) Booker is 3 years old. His father has driven with him to Newark for a dental appointment. Cory sees a man painting his house, then gets an idea.

"He said to me, 'Dad, let's paint the whole place,' " says Cary Booker, talking at the same public-safety forum few weeks back. "Newark was really dark in those days. He wanted to paint it so it would look better, be a good place to come to visit. I said, 'No, son, we can't do that.' "

Like other Booker stories, this one seems made up. What are the odds? Newark's 6-foot-3 prince of the city eager to spruce up the place before he's old enough for kindergarten.

But Booker senior and his wife weaned both of their sons -- there is an older brother, Cary Booker II -- on African American history and an ethos of civic-minded sacrifice. Husband and wife both took jobs with IBM in Washington, through an initiative to expand the company's ranks of black executives and salesmen. When the family relocated to Harrington Park, a north Jersey suburb, they had to join forces with the state's Fair Housing Commission and outmaneuver a real estate agent who tried to shunt them from the all-white neighborhood where they wanted to live.

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.

The sense of monastic focus is underscored by Booker's lack of a wife or girlfriend. He'd like to marry, he says, but he isn't going to rush the search for the right woman. You get the sense that a soul mate isn't currently a priority. He seems like a guy who's been lusting after the keys to the car for a lifetime, and driving it is pretty much all he wants to do.

If he can leverage his celebrity to help with the city's turnaround, great. He was chided by James during the first mayoral race for raising so much money in New York and Los Angeles, and for having celebrity allies like Barbra Streisand in his corner. Whatever works, he says.

And he knows the honeymoon of fawning coverage is about to end, that any failure or slip will bring a barrage of negative attention.

"Everybody has already written that Cory Booker is the next great black hope," he says. "When something goes wrong, people will be motivated to write the story that I'm not. I can't let my self-esteem be controlled by the vicissitudes of coverage."

Sweet Smell

Briefly Sickening Cory Booker story No. 3 (or No. 4).

It's Saturday, just before Booker's inaugural address. Two video screens descend from the rafters of the performing arts center, and on them flickers a scene from "Street Fight."

It's nighttime and Booker has sprinted across a street to shake hands with voters. In the crowd is a little girl, swooning.

She just met Cory Booker, she shouts into the camera. "If you don't believe me, smell my hands."

Smell your hands? "What does Cory Booker smell like?" asks director Marshall Curry.

She waves her hand in front of her face. You expect "cologne" or "pizza" or something like that.

"He smells like the future," she says.

Back onstage, the screens roll up. On cue, that same girl, no longer so little, walks out and faces the enraptured crowd.

"I can still smell the future," she says, introducing Mayor Cory Anthony Booker, "and the future is now."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company