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The ‘Heroic’ Mayor and His Local Haters

When Newark Mayor Cory Booker used some Jersey elbow grease to appoint an ally to a vacancy on the City Council last month, a near-riot erupted in City Hall. As a mob stormed the dais, Booker’s council candidate was knocked over and a reporter was hit with wayward police pepper spray. The incident may have lacked the gore and shirt-ripping of the Ukrainian parliament, but it was nonetheless unfathomable for any of New Jersey’s 565 other municipalities.

At the following meeting, Booker faced taunts of “Shame on you!” from two council members—both former running mates, no less. Following the vote, Booker walked out, his lips tight and phone in hand, as boos rained down on him from the rafters.

To think, this is the same guy whom the national media has nicknamed “super mayor,” who has inspired some of the best memes in politics—like one portraying him as a liberal Chuck Norris—and who is considered the most popular, promising, and well-financed Democrat in this very blue state. Any day now, Booker will announce his candidacy for governor—either that, or he’s going to stick around Newark another year and run for U.S. Senate. Polls show he matches up against Gov. Christie better than anyone. There’s even talk of his being the “second black president.”

So how does he respond to open rebellion from the legislative body of his city while maintaining a nearly mythic reputation up and down the Jersey Turnpike and across the country?

By generating new content, that's how.

The morning after the near-riot, Booker took to Twitter. He didn’t mention the brawl, the council meeting, or his long-term political future. But he did declare his “participation” in the SNAP Challenge, in which he would try to live on the budget of a food stamp recipient for one week. He noted that he would post videos of his experiment on the social media site he co-founded, WayWire. Not only that, but Booker would take Instagram photos of his food and blog nightly ruminations on LinkedIn, of all places, while also serving a steady diet of tweets and Facebook status updates.

Spread through Booker's social media universe, which includes a remarkably high 1.3 million Twitter followers, his content was then regurgitated whole by the traditional media, generating some inanity on cable but also some intriguing, important discussions about the role of government in feeding hungry children. Most of all, it provided an excuse for Booker to appear on “Piers Morgan Tonight,” “Face The Nation,” “Today” and “The Daily Show.”

This pisses off some Newarkers to no end. Booker, born and raised in the suburbs, educated at Stanford and Yale and Oxford, has always been seen as an outsider by the old political guard in New Jersey’s largest city. That perception originated with his first mayoral run, which was immortalized in a Oscar-nominated documentary, “Street Fight.” And it’s been exacerbated, his enemies say, over his six years as mayor, with countless trips out of town (actually, the Star-Ledger counted them: 119 days in 18 months), paid speeches ($260,000 in 2011, the paper estimated), famous pals (Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates) and the moneymen who show up on his campaign-finance reports (they live in the 'burbs—and work on Wall Street).

Booker’s ability to reach out beyond Newark has yielded visible successes: Philanthropic money wooed by the power of his personality has brought in several hundred million dollars, funding parks, a prisoner re-entry program, veterans housing, and even bulletproof vests for cops. Booker sat next to Mark Zuckerberg at a buffet dinner at the annual Allen & Co. confab in Idaho in 2010—and just like that, the Facebook founder provided a $100 million in matching funds for Newark.

Besides, if you were Booker, you might want to spend some time in Idaho, too. When he moved to appoint an ally on the council, he was doing so to keep out John Sharpe James, the son of Booker’s nemesis and predecessor, Sharpe James, who did nearly two years in prison for corruption. After it had been revealed that Booker helped investigators (including then U.S. Attorney Chris Christie) with the case against James, the younger James wore a “Cory Booker Is A Snitch” T-shirt. (When I noted to the younger James that the anti-snitching culture is a scourge in urban America, he said he regretted the fashion choice.)

Booker, observers say, has never gotten a fair shake from the old political establishment. James and his father, now back at council meetings as a gadfly, are part of the hard-core Booker opposition, says Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University who wrote “The New Black Politician,” a book about Newark and Booker. “It’s the kind of thing [where] if Cory says the sky is blue, they’d say, ‘No it’s not. It’s yellow with magenta polka dots,’” she said.

During the 2002 mayoral campaign, Sharpe James famously accused Booker, a Baptist, of being Jewish, and ever since, a la President Obama, Booker has had trouble shaking this sense that he is something other. Gillespie cites taunts about Booker’s blackness and sexuality—or both, like the rumor that (gasp!) he had a white boyfriend. His green eyes? He’s white. His single status? He’s gay. The eight years he spent living in the Newark projects? He really lived elsewhere. 

John Sharpe James disputes the notion that there’s an entrenched opposition against everything Booker does. “He’s had time to prove himself to redefine himself—not as an outsider, as a Newarker, and that just hasn’t happened,” he argues.

Going on TV to muse about being a food-stamp recipient in the wake of what was described as a “hostile takeover” of the City Council only perpetuates such criticism. (The vote has since been tossed out by a judge; a special election will be held next year.) “Too busy building a national brand and profile at the expense of governing—that’s a very, very common criticism of him,” Gillespie said. “Some of these things [like the food stamp challenge] are very sincere, but very aggrandizing.”

Booker rejects the idea that he’s in any sort of political trouble in the city. Staffers say he’s still mobbed—with adoration, that is—on the streets, and that internal poll numbers show his citywide support north of 60 percent. Bookers also contends that his opponents have only really blocked him on one big issue in six years: The creation of a Municipal Utilities Authority to handle the water supply, which has dogged previous mayors, too.

The younger James, an Afghanistan war veteran with a purple heart and a law degree, asks fair questions about why there have been a succession of business administrators in City Hall (four over six and a half years) and why taxes have gone up so much (Sharpe James left him a $200 million deficit, says Booker). James also points to the 167 young cops laid off around a year after Booker's impassioned address to graduating cadets at the police academy (a speech documented in a Showtime series about Booker, “Brick City”). “Excellent speaker,” says James. “But when you’re mayor of a large city such as Newark, there a million issues to deal with. And if you don’t take the time to deal with those issues, some have to be delegated, things fall through the cracks. A lot of things have been falling through the cracks.”

The anti-Booker narrative is that the administration has slipped because Booker has spent too many days outside the city and too much time, well, writing 140-character missives. “The average Newarker is not doing that,” James says. “The average Newarker is trying to find work, educate themselves and raise their families. A tweet, an Instagram—that’s entertainment. It’s not the average Newarker’s bread and butter.”

Booker is frustrated that the biggest economic boom in downtown Newark since the 1960s, the new neighborhood rec centers, and a stat-driven efficiency in city government are left out of critics' portrayal of him as an out-of-touch elitist. The police layoffs, in particular, are a sore point, because they can upend his narrative of Newark moving forward. But officer unions across New Jersey have been resistant to budget-cutting concessions in the last few years, prompting layoffs in the suburbs and cities alike—something Booker might actually highlight to help secure the Democratic votes that he'd need to take the governor’s office: He told me he “didn't anticipate the kind of cutbacks Chris Christie would bring into the cities.”

Voters may ultimately decide whether the political strife in Newark reflects poorly on Booker’s leadership abilities or whether it indicates a continued determination to combat corrupted provincialism. After all, it was Christie who, as U.S. attorney, indicted former Mayor James and rode an anti-corruption, anti-establishment message to the governor’s mansion. He did it, however, with a scowl and straight talk. Can Booker do it with a smile and a tweet?

Matt Katz covers Christie for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the award for which "Street Fight" was nominated.