A five-minute tirade recently unleashed by a Newark resident against Mayor Cory Booker may not have surprised anyone had it remained a local TV news clip. “We are hurting here, this crime is killing us, blood runs on our streets,” the woman moaned to a reporter, responding to a late-summer murder spree. “The sham that has been portrayed about this city, that we’re getting better . . . that is a lie!”
But her accurate charge that murder in Newark “has gotten worse under Booker’s tenure” may have come as a shock to the national audience watching on YouTube. After all, the narrative told about the mayor by the media, even after two terms, has been a ceaselessly positive one of urban revival. Journalists have remained smitten with a man who seems so well-meaning and whose personal story—as a mixed-race, Yale-educated Rhodes Scholar who replaced corrupt longtime mayor Sharpe James—is so attractive. The result is that important questions have been ignored during Booker’s race for the U.S. Senate seat left open by the death in June of his fellow Democrat, Frank Lautenberg. Foremost is whether Booker has even been a good mayor.
When entering office in 2006, Booker took over a city that, despite being a short commute from Manhattan, had been declining since the 1967 riots. His first reforms looked promising: He cut city hall patronage and partnered with the Manhattan Institute on a job reentry program for ex-offenders. He broke ground on several charter schools and convinced his friend Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, to donate $100 million for future ones. Over time he managed to secure an additional $300 million in philanthropy for other Newark causes.
Perhaps most important were his police reforms. Recognizing New York City’s success at crime-prevention, he hired as director of the force a former NYPD officer, who boosted enforcement on narcotics and fugitives. This, mixed with Booker’s well-advertised willingness to personally patrol the city at night, helped slash murders in 2008 to 67, a six-year low.
But Newark’s success dipped when Booker cut the police force by 13 percent in 2010. Already on the rise again, murders shot up to nearly 100 the next year, and have remained around there since. Indeed, during Booker’s seven years as mayor, Newark has suffered a violent crime rate slightly lower than during the previous seven years but a murder rate slightly higher. Per capita, it’s still America’s seventh-deadliest city.
Along with the reduction in the police force, cuts were made under Booker to numerous services, from elder care to the fire department to parks and libraries. Together they amounted to a 25 percent cut in city employment, which might have seemed laudable to small-government types had it not come as property taxes rose by nearly half.
So where did all this new revenue go? Largely into Newark’s wasteful bureaucracy. City councilors earn more than anywhere else in New Jersey and enjoy a greater personal budget than some of the state’s largest cities. Aging water and sanitation utilities have resisted privatization and run annual deficits in the tens of millions. And like other cities, Newark has an enormous employee benefits system, spending $17,000 per-worker annually for health care, for instance. State aid—which once came in at three-quarters of a billion dollars a year—was cut substantially. Booker, to his credit, attempted to rein in spending on the municipal workforce but largely failed, because of city hall and union resistance.
Booker’s building legacy—always important to mayors—has fared better, with billions in new development. But while some of this was driven by his ability to sell private investors on Newark, a majority has been state-subsidized. His economic development czar told the New York Times that much of it would not exist without these subsidies.
Meanwhile, Newark under Booker has underperformed in the more reliable indicators for economic health—unemployment has risen from 8.5 percent when he began to the mid-teens throughout the recession (currently 14.2 percent); population has remained stagnant; and job growth is among the worst for large U.S. cities.
With this said, it’s hard not to commend Booker’s spirited effort—which has been the subject of admiring documentaries and reality shows—to save a troubled city. But what kind of senator would he make? This will depend less on his enthusiasm and leadership skills than on his policy views, which seem deliberately vague. Some have argued that he will resemble a “New Democrat,” comfortable with the role business can play in spurring growth and alleviating poverty. Others—including Republican opponent Steve Lonegan—tag him as just another urban machine politician, prone to corruption and overspending.
This first view is supported by Booker’s early reputation as a budget hawk and reformer. But along with his tax increases, information that has surfaced during the Senate campaign lends credence to the latter. Not only have his dramatic personal tales deflated under scrutiny, such as the one where he watched a gunshot victim die in his arms (police reports later confirmed the boy died in the hospital), or his oft-told encounters with a supposed Newark drug-dealer named “T-Bone” (Booker supposedly admitted to inventing the character). Ethical questions have also arisen.
Several weeks ago the New York Post reported that Booker received $689,000 in severance pay from his former law firm, only to steer millions in city contracts to them. Booker also appeared to have an odd relationship with tech startup Waywire. He had a multimillion-dollar stake in the ill-defined young company, which employed a family member of a campaign supporter. When this raised suspicion that the enterprise amounted to an indirect payment from tech donors, Booker quit the company and gave his shares to charity.
Of course none of this will likely keep Booker from Capitol Hill, given his lead over Lonegan in what remains a very Democratic state. But it does show how myth-making narratives about likable leaders, once believed by the press, can remain impervious to facts on the ground.
Scott Beyer is a freelance writer traveling the United States for a book on revitalizing major cities. He blogs at BigCitySparkplug.com.