1. Booker was a high-achieving kid.
Booker is the son of Carolyn and Cary Booker, two of the first black executives at IBM. He was born in Washington, D.C., but raised in mostly white community about 20 miles north of Newark. He went to Stanford University on a football scholarship.
In California, Booker played with the likes of Brad Muster and Ed McCaffrey — now retired NFL players — and served as senior class president. Apparently fond of a packed schedule, Booker also led a student-operated crisis hotline and helped organize a program that provided student mentors and volunteers to East Palo Alto, Calif. Here's why that last bit, in particular, matters.
A little over half the residents of East Palo Alto were black and many of them were poor when Booker would have been attending school nearby, due largely to restrictive property covenants and redlining in the 1980s and 1990s. To be clear, it's a place where those real estate practices — once widespread across the United States — left a legacy scarcely acknowledged. They severely curtailed property values creating a spiral of limited tax revenue, a lack of funding for schools and public services, a scarcity of jobs and then, soaring crime. That's the very situation Booker would later face in Newark.
While taking all that in, Booker managed to earn both his bachelor's and master's degrees and was named a Rhodes Scholar. Booker headed to Oxford University, earned an honors degree in American History, then Yale University's Law School where he earned yet another degree and helped run a free legal clinic for low-income area residents.
After law school, Booker worked as a staff member and attorney for nonprofit groups focused on urban issues and youth then launched his first bid for public office. Then, in 1998, Booker defeated a four-term incumbent to claim a slot on the Newark City Council.
2. All of Booker's political dreams didn't come true right away.
Once installed on the council, Booker spent a lot of time making proposals that went nowhere but earned the admiration of people who think big cities should be working labs for policy and program experiments. Booker began a still warm relationship with those who are proponents of school reform, school choice, public-private development partnerships and the like.
In 2002, when Booker launched a campaign to replace the city's four-term mayor and for much of that, simultaneously state Sen. Sharpe James, all of the above became central issues.
James and his surrogates claimed that Booker was a kind of closet Republican or Democrat in name only trying to say and do what was necessary to get elected in a blue city with a lot of residents of color. There were even claims Booker took money from the KKK, the Taliban and was part of some kind of alleged Jewish conspiracy to take over the city's government. And, most of all, there were a lot of insinuations that Booker, a kid of the suburbs, was a carpetbagger without real understanding, membership or fealty to black Newark. It was that personal.
James beat Booker by seven points.
3. A gang once put a price on Booker's head.
4. Booker has a real thing for drama, not so subtle messaging with a political purpose and Twitter.
While still in law school at Yale and helping out with that free legal clinic, Booker opted to live in Newark, in a poor neighborhood. Yale, a two-hour drive from Newark on a good day. When Booker graduated, he remained a resident of the same deeply distressed community, in a tent. Then, he moved into a high-rise housing project where, as the New York Times put it, "heat, hot water and elevator service were often in short supply." Booker lived in the building from 1998 to 2006. Some doubted that. Booker and his neighbors said most nights that's exactly where he was. And, Booker remained until he and the building's other residents were evicted by the Housing Authority with a promise to replace the building.
Booker said then and has said many times since that among his reasons was a desire to draw attention to the open-air drug dealing, danger and lack of basic public services people too poor to leave the community had to live with and that the rest of Newark basically ignored. To aid his cause, Booker once engaged in a 10-day hunger strike.
The stuff above helped to attract the attention of a documentarian who made the Oscar-nominated film, "Street Fight," about Booker's failed 2002 bid for Newark mayor.
Did we mention that some of these moments were captured by a second documentary crew during the making of "Brick City," a Peabody Award-winning film about attempts to reshape Newark?
Now, we haven't even mentioned the most dramatic moment of all yet.
In April 2012, Booker dashed into a burning Newark house next door to his own. When he emerged, Booker had his next-door neighbor in his arms, had second-degree burns and was suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation. Booker and the neighbor both went to the hospital. But, he did take a moment to reassure those who were worried that he was all right, via Twitter.
Booker sometimes takes a ribbing for all this earnestness followed by tweeting. But, this stuff really happened. And in a city where residents complained for years about a city government that treated their most serious needs like interruptions, Booker called for and did something very different. Plus, it's kind of hard to keep ignoring pothole complaints when the mayor is out saving women from burning buildings in the night.
5. As mayor, Booker's reforms were just what lots of conservatives, right-leaning and centrist Democrats think can fix a tax-revenue poor city with large needs. But, the results may not be ideal for brochures.
In 2006 and again in 2010, with James out of the picture, Booker was able to leverage all the relationships that made him so vulnerable in that first election attempt, to develop a campaign war chest that dwarfed his opponents. Both times, Booker claimed the mayor's office. And a whole roster of city council candidates that shared Booker's thinking took office, too.
Once there, Booker slashed his salary twice and boosted city worker pay. Then, to right the city's budget problems, Booker required one-day-a-month furloughs for civilian city employees and two percent pay cuts for managers with six-figure salaries. Booker was a finalist for the World Mayor Prize and the city won the recognition of the Government Finance Officers' Association for the work to balance the city's books. Plus the previous mayor, James, had been sent to federal prison.
Booker was making Newark interesting, a place where one could be something more than delusionally hopeful again. But there were very loud whispers and stories about how much time the mayor of Newark spent across the bridge in New York.
Then, as the second term gave way to the Senate campaign more information emerged. Booker's Silicon Valley friends had made him part owner of a tech start-up. The New Yorker and other publications reported that significant portion of Zuckerberg money and matching funds were being spent on the services and recommendations of a number of consultants on good terms with Booker and the school reform officials he hired. Critics described the arrangement as an Ivy League -form of corruption.
Plus, once in the Senate, Booker hinted that he was a Democrat willing to raise the retirement age for young people before backtracking and established himself as a defender of Wall Street.
6. Booker has the capacity for introspection and self-deprecation, too.
Yep. He's a modern guy. So he not only thinks this way. He shares it.
When Booker graduated from law school he wasn't immediately sure he should forgo a six-figure salary and private-sector legal or lobbyist career. Those are the kinds of options Booker had. But Booker felt he had a calling, public service.
"Most people think that these high-density poor neighborhoods, predominantly people of color, just came about through some accident of history, but they were the conscious creation” of institutional racism, Booker told an audience at a Stanford event in February. Dismantling this is where Booker wanted to put his energy. But it came with the risk of political failure, penury and leaving a lot of lives unchanged. Booker also told that Stanford audience that his mother asked him a question that drives him today. "What would you do if you could not fail. Answer that question and do that."
But, he also said that during his tenure on the Newark City Council he was a self-righteous "jerk." He didn't bother with coalition building, regularly got outvoted on the nine-member council eight to one.
Not convinced? When Booker was still mayor of Newark, Booker and another potential VP candidate — a certain guy from New Jersey who has made a new career of supporting the Republican presidential nominee — made the video up above. Those guys from Jersey! Challenge: Try not to laugh. It's pretty good on the self-deprecating humor scale.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post inaccurately described the size of Booker's family.