Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s star has been rising for what seems like an eternity. His fame rests largely upon a number of almost absurdly heroic acts, which have varied from harrowing to Hollywood-esque: saving a resident from a burning building, cradling a twelve-year-old dying from gunshot wounds, hunger-striking for better police protection in the projects, sleeping in a trailer for five months to halt open-air drug markets. Along with Booker’s media-friendly persona, these superhero moves have ensured a steady stream of adulation. His first spate of national press came in the spring of 2000—the same year that another attractive young political figure flew from Chicago to Los Angeles for the Democratic National Convention, had his credit card declined at the rental car station, and went home without even getting inside the arena. Yet this summer, Barack Obama will attend the second convention in his honor and compete for another term as arguably the most legislatively successful Democratic president in a half-century—while Booker is little further along than where he started.
In 2002, during Booker’s first run for mayor, the filmmaker Marshall Curry acquired Booker’s consent to participate in the documentary Street Fight by asking, “What would it have been like if someone had filmed Bill Clinton’s first campaign?” Booker lost that election to the slippery Sharpe James before winning in a landslide in 2006. The reality of his mayoralty, however, has dimmed his wattage in New Jersey, and the mess he made on last month’s “Meet the Press”—defending the record of Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital and equating Democrats’ “nauseating” negative ads with ones about the president’s firebrand former pastor—might have finally taken the disappointment national.
Booker and Obama made their names by rejecting the business-as-usual politics of Newark and Washington, respectively. But Booker is still defined more by his promise than by his accomplishments. Although the country’s picture of him has not changed much in twelve years, in New Jersey Booker’s “postpartisan” leadership has met with increasingly diminishing returns. Now, the mayor of a mid-sized city with a media profile that the average senator or governor would kill for may not have much of a political future. “Whom the Gods wish to destroy,” Cyril Connolly famously wrote, “they first call promising.”
FROM THE START, Booker’s career has been unconventional. Though much has been made about the money he raised from the financial services industry, Booker started out by passing up more lucrative professions to move into a housing project and take on slumlords. The conditions around him spurred a run for office, and he won a council seat in an upset. In 2002, Booker challenged James, the four-term incumbent, who eked out victory through a nasty campaign of smears and intimidation. Booker simply brushed himself off and began working toward 2006, when James stood down and he won in a landslide.
Once in the mayor’s office, Booker faced the scourges of crime, poverty, and failing schools. He made some progress with several major economic development schemes (some begun under his predecessor) and finished his first term with impressive drops in gun crime and homicides. Newark’s first murder-free calendar month in over 40 years occurred in 2010. The year ended with Booker getting buried in accolades for digging his neighbors out from a snowstorm. Although America may have wanted Booker to be its mayor, people in Newark were beginning to see things a bit differently. They had been there in the months between the narrow-lens media events.
The real disappointments began in his second term—Booker had been reelected after outspending his opponent 20 to 1—when the “Booker Team,” which arrived with him in 2006, lost control of the city council. Then there were crime waves and police layoffs. That November, 167 officers were let go in the largest reduction since 1978 after Booker’s unsuccessful union negotiations. The dispute worsened because of a hole in the budget—a hole created by Booker’s failure to pass a bond-selling plan.
It seemed that motivational maxims did not make a legislative majority, and Booker’s refusal to get involved in nitty-gritty horse-trading doomed his crime-control agenda. Last year, 429 people were shot in Newark, down from 502 in Booker’s first year, but far from the “national standard for urban transformation” to which he aspires.
Booker’s leadership style has seen its most disastrous effects in the mayor’s warm relationship with Chris Christie. When the Republican unseated Jon Corzine in 2009, state Democrats expected Booker to step up as their new champion—to exchange his rising-star status for standard-bearer. But, even as Christie emerged as a partisan sensation, Booker chose to bolster his holier-than-thou anti-politics brand. Not only did he work with the Republican; he used his high profile to undercut his fellow Democrats. The most egregious incident came early in Christie’s term, as the governor pushed a constitutional amendment limiting property taxes, forcing municipalities to downsize. On the day that no-name Democratic leaders in the state legislature rolled out their alternative, Booker joined Christie at a Newark press conference with a banner blaring, “property tax relief now,” and Christie blasting “professional politicians in Trenton.” The mayor endorsed Christie’s constitutional amendment without even informing the city council. It was the beginning of a political pacifism that has endured through three years of Christie’s siege of state government.
Even a year out from the 2013 election, Booker can’t help but muddle his party’s message. In January, Christie sought to shift the blame for his impending veto of a same-sex marriage bill by proposing a referendum. Democrats accused him of playing politics: The governor’s “let the people decide” sanctimony was contradicted by his actions in 2010, when he reined in the Republican votes that would have sent the bill to the waiting pen of Corzine. Christie responded by claiming, outrageously, “I think people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South.” Yet, when asked what the governor was up to, Booker replied: “In politics, unfortunately, we default to the most cynical view of what a person is thinking and so I don’t want to ascribe any machinations to the governor. He’s got a lot of difficult things on his desk.” It’s no wonder Christie publicly doubts Booker would dare to challenge him in 2013.
Booker’s pursuit of universal popularity has waylaid his grander ambitions, especially now that the White House probably no longer considers him a team player. But then again, President Obama never was one, either, as congressional Democrats were disappointed to learn. His 2004 convention speech is remembered not for its endorsement of John Kerry, or its attacks on President Bush, but rather for its post-partisan rhetoric. Thanks largely to aggressive Republicans, he seems to be thinking differently now, perhaps realizing that rejecting politics is not always the secret to successful governing. In this sense, Obama offers a lesson that Booker might find useful.
John R. Bohrer is writing a book on Robert Kennedy in the 1960s. This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.