The global-warming induced summer has been especially hot and bothersome for municipal kid wonder Mayor Cory Booker (D) of Newark.
Running New Jersey’s largest city of approximately 250,000 people is no easy task, yet there were high hopes when Booker hit the scene in 2006 promising to not only upstage the city’s disgraced and former forever-Mayor Sharpe James (D), but to usher in a renaissance, putting the Brick City on the national map. And Newark, with its less than favorable reputation, sorely needed it amid crumbling schools, decaying neighborhoods and incessant crime. For all its rich North Jersey character brought on by Sopranos revivalism, Newark still had trouble shedding its battered image. Not to mention that James – then earning keep as the state’s highest paid politician as both State Senator and Mayor simultaneously – didn’t help any as years of corruption stifled progress.
The nasty 2002 race between then-Councilman Booker (roughing it in the projects and gaining street cred as The One) and James chipped away at the entrenched political regime, despite below-the-belt accusations from old school Black politicos that Booker – who is Black – was an emissary of White power brokers seeking to dismantle Newark’s African American majority and replace it with yuppies. Booker lost by thin margin, but made good on a comeback promise in 2006. And while Booker enjoys national spotlight, James just finished an 18-month federal prison sentence this past April.
But, Booker’s rise to the top has not been an easy one.
Newark’s murder rate is at its highest since 2006: 35 homicides in June, July and August. Exacerbating that is a budget crunch, leaving police officials to blame department cuts and plans to lay off nearly 200 cops. The Mayor, desperate to plug a gaping $83 million deficit, plans to relieve 1,000 city employees of their duties, all while selling police stations and other municipal buildings in an effort to raise $50 million. Meanwhile, city trash workers block downtown intersections protesting the proposed privatization of trash collection, which Booker argues will save the city $7 million annually. He’s also trying to sell the rather brand spanking new Prudential Convention Center for $150 million.
Yet, politically, Booker still looks good.
Recent political events play to Booker’s favor should city politics get worn and he aims for Trenton. He won’t publicly entertain any thoughts of statewide bids – but, privately, insiders say the conversation is taking place. One longtime Democratic strategist with intimate knowledge says a Booker gubernatorial run “is for real.” The current Republican Governor Chris Christie, fresh from an electoral thumb-in-the-eye to President Obama but groaning from the recent loss of $400 million in federal Race to the Top education funding, should watch his back.
Booker is already positioning himself as an appealing choice for Independent and GOP voters in the state as he’s wholeheartedly backed Christie’s proposed property tax cap (pretty much a near-religious issue in Jersey) and is attempting to balance Newark’s budget while keeping tax hikes low. And, as Politic365.com reported earlier this week, it is no secret that Booker digs school choice for Jersey parents, working closely with Christie on a number of dramatic school reform initiatives.
While kicking it bi-partisan with the Governor, Booker is really set to hit Christie hard in 2014. The recent firing of the state’s Education Commissioner Bret Schundler (a former Jersey City Mayor with some popularity in the state) and the nixing of Newark Schools Chief Clifford Janey, who is supervised by the state, leaves Christie in the funky position of looking more like a deer caught in headlights than a tough, linebacker change agent.
Booker plays the game well, and if he keeps it up, the gubinatorial seat may be his come 2014.