For press events, President Obama has the Rose Garden. Cory Booker has the Oprah machine — and Twitter. On a good day, Booker wins. Though mayor of a rather troubled city, Booker is as talented as Obama at cranking national headlines. Both he and the President are old hands at fielding questions from the national press corps. Both huddle with CEOs. Both have been called leaders of the “Oprah Winfrey wing of the Democratic Party.”
But only Booker, the young and indefatigable mayor of Newark, New Jersey, has wielded a shovel to dig constituents out after a snowstorm, tackled a fleeing crime suspect as though he were on an opposing Super Bowl team, or appeared beside Oprah to break news about the charitable whims of a 26-year-old billionaire.
And only Booker has been known to pump 15 Tweets per hour for a million followers of his 140-character messages, some of which include Bruce Springsteen lyrics, showing a keen aptitude for attracting fans of the Boss.
In fact, Booker succeeds where every past Newark mayor failed. “You could say that he had very tiny shoes to fill,” said James Hughes, dean of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Booker’s predecessors acted more like candidates for prison than for higher office. Five of Newark’s last seven mayors have been indicted on criminal charges, including the last three — Hugh Addonizio, Kenneth Gibson and Sharpe James.
“Booker,” Hughes added, “is one of Newark’s greatest resources.” But as talented, and telegenic, as Booker is, the fate of Newark is iffy. The Great Recession has rocked Newark. Poverty rules in its wards, along with piles of rubble and drug-infestation, and the city, now 54% black, is still licking wounds inflicted a generation ago during the race riots of 1967, which persuaded middle class residents to head for the hills.
Combating crime was Booker’s first priority, and the city has made significant progress. Booker named a second-generation New York City cop, Garry McCarthy, as Newark police director, a move for which Booker took heat. (Long-time resident Amiri Baraka was so incensed by the appointment of a white police director in a predominantly black city that he reportedly gave the Mayor a book titled “How to Recover from the Addiction to White Supremacy.”)