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Booker, Cory Anthony

Cory Anthony Booker

1969—

Mayor

Elected mayor of Newark, New Jersey, in 2006, Cory Booker has garnered national media attention for his dedication to improving what is usually ranked as one of America's worst cities. Booker grew up in comfortable, middle-class surroundings but moved into one of Newark's most blighted, crime-ridden neighborhoods during his law-school years. Often compared to Democratic Illinois senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama, the maverick mayor has prompted predictions that he may one day, like Obama, seek national office.

Born on April 27, 1969, Booker hails from Washington, DC, where his father, Cary, and his mother, Carolyn, were living at the time with Cory's older brother, Cary Jr. Both parents were executives with International Business Machines (IBM) and were transferred to the New York City area by IBM when their second son was still an infant. They settled in Harrington Park, New Jersey, where theirs was one of the first black households in the affluent suburb.

Cory Booker was an outgoing child, and in high school he was dubbed "the mayor" by his schoolmates because he was so friendly. Elected senior-class president in high school, he went on to become student-body president at California's Stanford University, where he also played football. After earning his undergraduate degree in 1991, he completed work for a master's degree and then was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. He earned a second undergraduate degree from there and became active in L'Chaim, a Jewish student organization, though he was not Jewish. He was drawn to the group because of its focus on community service, and was even elected president.

Returning to the United States, Booker entered Yale Law School. He decided to make the city of Newark, New Jersey, his home and, in order to help the community, started a nonprofit legal organization. He moved into one of the city's high-rise public-housing projects, Brick Towers, and began working with a few dedicated, longtime community-activist residents to improve the quality of life in the complex. Like other public-housing developments in the city, Brick Towers was plagued by crime and neglected by both the local government and the landlords. Booker was surprised to learn that the landlords and management companies of low-income housing were often generous donors to political campaigns, and in return for that generosity city and state authorities often ignored the egregious code violations that such projects accrued over the years.

Booker and his activists looked for someone to run for a seat on Newark's city council in order to end this stalemate, and when they were unable to find a viable candidate, Booker was talked into running for office himself. "At that time I had a very negative view of politics and politicians," he told Damien Cave and Josh Benson in a New York Times interview. "So I was going to be the great sort of social activist—a person that makes politicians move toward social justice."

By this point Booker had graduated from law school and was working as a staff attorney for the Urban Justice Center. He won election to the Newark Municipal Council (Newark's city council) in 1998, ousting the incumbent who had been there for sixteen years, and he soon began challenging the city's long-entrenched political establishment. Mayor Sharpe James, in office since 1986, became the target of Booker's strongest criticisms, as did several other members of the old guard. Booker organized marches and protests against the lack of police protection, the abysmal state of the public schools, and the political corruption that had negatively affected the quality of life for many of Newark's poorest citizens. In the summer of 1999 he and other public-housing activists held a ten-day vigil to call attention to the illegal drug trade and succeeded in ousting the dealers and bringing in a permanent police presence to Brick Towers. A year later Booker took his crusade to various other corners of Newark with the help of a used motor home he had bought.

Booker ran against James in Newark's 2002 mayoral race but lost in what was a heated, tough campaign. Booker's bid even became the subject of a documentary film, Street Fight (2005), that earned first-time filmmaker Marshall Curry a nomination for an Academy Award. Booker spent the next few years as a partner in a law firm and working with the nonprofit organization he founded, Newark Now. He entered the Newark mayoral race again in 2006, this time facing off against James's handpicked successor, State Senator Ronald Rice, and sweeping to victory with 72 percent of the vote.

During his years as a community activist and city council member, Booker had been targeted for harassment by various means. An anonymous letter was sent out on one occasion that claimed he was secretly Jewish and secretly Republican—though his political affiliation was Democrat—and he found it necessary to appoint a new police chief as one of his first acts as mayor. "There are people in the Police Department that were really effectuating some of the most vicious things against me, personally," he told Peter J. Boyer in the New Yorker in 2008. "I mean, we had sugar being poured in our gas tanks by undercover officers. We were being followed, constantly. And now that we're in office these are still people who had high-ranking positions in the Police Department."

Booker also recognized the need to reach out to rank-and-file members of the force. "In my first days in office I visited our police precincts and was shocked by what I found," he wrote in Esquire in 2006. "Mold climbed up walls, roofs leaked, stenches filled rooms. In one precinct, police officers would leave the building to use the bathrooms in neighborhood businesses because the ones they had didn't work." He also discovered outdated computers and antique typewriters still in use, and he was told that some officers bought their own computers for their desks. "I was so furious that on my first day in office, I took the computer off my desk in the mayor's office and sent it down to the precinct," he wrote.

In the interview with Boyer for the New Yorker, Booker discussed the particular challenges of serving as Newark's mayor, noting that it was "something I've been aspiring to for years, and you'd think I'd feel this great sense of independence and power. But it's not so. It's the time of my life when I actually feel—maybe not weaker, but more dependent upon others than ever before. And that my success is completely dependent upon how other people are doing."

At a Glance …

Born on April 27, 1969, in Washington, DC; son of Cary (a computer-company executive) and Carolyn (a computer-company executive) Booker. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Baptist. Education: Stanford University, BA, political science, 1991, MA, sociology, 1992; Oxford University, BA, modern history, 1994; Yale University, JD, 1997.

Career: Urban Justice Center, staff attorney, 1997; admitted to the bar of New Jersey, 1998; Newark Youth Project, program coordinator, 1998; elected to Newark Municipal Council, 1998; Booker, Rabinowitz, Trenk, Lubetkin, Tully, DiPasquale & Webster, PC, partner, 2002; founded Newark Now; elected mayor of Newark, 2006.

Memberships: Yale Law School, executive committee; Columbia University Teachers College, board of trustees; Stanford University, board of trustees; Black Alliance for Educational Options; International Longevity Center.

Addresses: Office—Newark City Hall, 920 Broad St., Ste. 200, Newark, NJ 07102-2609.

Selected writings

"The Newark Manifesto," Esquire, December 2002, p. 162.

"The New City: Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Newark, New Jersey," Esquire, October 2006, p. 178.

Sources

New York Times, May 4, 2006, p. A1.

New Yorker, February 4, 2008, pp. 38-51.

Time, May 22, 2000, p. 46.

—Carol Brennan

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