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Cory Booker: hope, hype — and heir to Barack Obama?

by Rory Carroll

The Observer

If Cory Booker were a television character you might think the writers were over-egging things a bit. Tall, athletic, handsome, he is an ambitious politician with a flair for drama. He rescues a woman from a burning building, saves a freezing dog, chases a scissor-wielding mugger, invites hurricane victims to share his home, helps a nervous constituent propose to his girlfriend. He champions the poor, vaults over rivals to become mayor of a benighted city and enlists tycoons to help transform it. He lights up social media and chat shows and is dubbed the nation’s most eligible bachelor. At the age of 44, he wins a Senate seat and plots a run for the White House.

That last sentence is fictional — for now. Booker, the mayor of Newark, is favored to become the junior senator for New Jersey in an October election. After which his name will join those of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden as a mooted Democratic candidate for the top job in 2016. Celebrities already appear on board. Oprah Winfrey has called him “a rock star.” Jon Stewart dubbed him “the superhero mayor of Newark.”

In an unusual move, President Barack Obama has dispatched key members of his election team to guide Booker’s elevation to Washington. The notion of America’s first black president handing the reins to another black man is no longer outlandish.

Booker has made jokey attempts to deflect comparison. Obama, he told one reporter, is “married to an amazing woman and has two kids, and I have dead plants and fungus growing in my fridge.” Thickening the plot, rumors swirl around Booker’s sexuality.

Last week, he declared himself “humbled” after the president endorsed his Senate bid, saying he would be an important partner on the economy and liberal issues. “Cory Booker has dedicated his life to the work of building hope and opportunity in communities where too little of either existed,” Obama said in a statement. “Whether as a college student working in East Palo Alto or as mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, Cory has time and again taken on tough challenges, fought for the middle class and those working to join it, and forged coalitions that create progress — and that’s the spirit he’ll carry with him to Washington.”

Booker himself has scripted his rise and he has made sure cameras have been there each step of the way, earning a reputation as a glossy publicity-seeker. The self-confessed workaholic, a non-smoking teetotaller, lost the 2002 mayoral campaign but an Oscar-nominated documentary, “Street Fight,” showcased his battle against the corrupt incumbent. After he won the keys to city hall in 2006, a Sundance channel documentary series, “Brick City,” starred Booker as a charismatic leader tackling urban blight. His flamboyant style and tweets — he has 1.4 million followers — help keep him in the spotlight. Polls give him a double-digit lead over his Republican rival, Steve Lonegan, in a special election to succeed Frank Lautenberg, a Democratic stalwart who died in June. Victory will intensify attention and scrutiny.

Who is this muscular vegetarian? How does he reconcile poverty alleviation with big business schmoozing? Will he run for the White House? He is someone Republicans should start worrying about “right now,” warned Michael Taube, a columnist in The Washington Times. “His centrist positions would gradually appeal to more and more Democrats and, in turn, quite a few moderate or disgruntled Republicans. For American conservatives, this would be the worst possible political scenario based on Mr. Booker’s wide-ranging personal appeal.”

That the mayor of 277,000 people in a city synonymous with decay, violence and crime should inspire such sentiments even before officially reaching the national stage, is tribute to a remarkable ability to inspire hope and hype in equal measure.

Born in Washington to parents who were among the first black executives at IBM, he was a high school football star with a relatively gilded upbringing. He obtained degrees in politics and sociology at Stanford, a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, then a law degree at Yale. Extracurricular activities testified to a driven young man: Booker ran a peer counseling center, a student crisis hotline and an outreach program to deprived youth.

Even before finishing at Yale, he moved to Newark to launch a political career. Aged 29, he won a city council seat in 1998 and grabbed attention by holding a 10-day hunger strike and living in a tent to protest against open-air drug dealing. He also lived in a motorhome and a slum.

In 2002, a now-defunct magazine, Shout NY, put him on its cover and asked if he would be America’s first black president. But in the mayoral election later that year, the incumbent, Sharpe James, a wily local caudillo subsequently jailed for corruption, denounced his challenger as a closet Republican carpetbagger who was “not black enough” to understand Newark.

Booker exacted revenge four years later by trouncing James’s proxy candidate. He did so with the help of generous donations from rich backers, establishing an enduring partnership with big business that contrasts with his advocacy for the poor.

He racked up accomplishments in Newark. Police reforms and gun-control initiatives led to a 17 percent drop in murders and 27 percent drop in shootings. The mayor was known to accompany police patrols. He cut his pay, expanded affordable housing, reduced the budget deficit and presided over a downtown renaissance. “We are brick city. We are like bricks themselves. We are strong. We are resilient. We are enduring,” he said in his state-of-the-city address this year.

Not all applauded. The New York Times assailed his record in an article that cast him as a better marketer than mayor, saying he garnered media limelight for shoveling snow for constituents while cutting services, raising taxes and neglecting systemic problems.

Booker has defended the headline-grabbing as a way to focus attention on important issues, such as the week he lived on food stamps and provoked debate on hunger and poverty rather than the Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy, which was announced around the same time. “That was the lead story until the food stamp challenge came, and then we were being debated, argued, attacked on Fox News. But people were talking about it!”

Other critics claim his courtship of billionaires — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg contributed $100 million to Newark’s schools — is a philanthropic veil for fiscal conservatism and kowtowing to corporate interests. Booker supports charter schools and privatization and called Obama’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital during last year’s presidential election “nauseating.”

Booker retreated after the president’s campaign slapped him down. No lasting harm was done. The two men are said to get on well and key Obama election strategists are now working for Booker. “Cory both has a good relationship with the president and shows that he can work with Republicans, and that is just what the president needs right now to move his agenda forward,” said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.

Whether he can emulate Obama and swiftly vault from the Senate to the Oval Office may partly hinge on his private life. America may not be ready for a commander in chief whose heterosexuality is questioned. Booker talks openly about dating women and alleged former girlfriends have been named, but rumors persist. The recent discovery of a 1992 Stanford newspaper column he wrote confessing youthful homophobia only fueled the speculation. “So is he gay or what?” asked the feminist blog Jezebel. Aides decline to discuss the issue.

Assuming he wins the Senate race, Booker will be the subject of Capitol Hill guessing games: Will he or won’t he run for president? Despite his line about dead plants and fungus in his fridge, he at times uses a jokey routine to play up comparisons to Obama.

“Let me tell you the distinctions,” he says with a grin. “Obama went to a privileged, affluent, elite law school: Harvard. I went to an inner-city, gritty, tough law school: Yale. When President Obama left law school, he went on to become a community organizer. I went on to be a neighborhood coordinator. And President Obama was born in the United States of America. And I was born in Washington, DC.”

It makes the point: Cory Booker is cut from the same cloth.

A rising political star’s highlights and low points

Best of times: In 1998, he won a seat on the Newark city council, defeating a four-term incumbent. In 2006, he became mayor of Newark, winning 72 percent of the vote.

Worst of times: He has not had a good run of it lately. Carjackings — the signature Newark crime — have gone up for four years in a row, violent crime, which declined in his first years, has spiked again and police and firefighters have been laid off as he has slashed city budgets.

What he says: “I am part of a generation that stands on the shoulders of giants. We were born after the civil rights movement and it is our responsibility to build on that legacy.”

What they say: “He’s an avatar of the wealthy elite, a camera hog and a political cipher who has never once proposed anything to address the structural causes of the problems he claims to care so deeply about.” Liberal website Salon.com

“Cory Booker has dedicated his life to the work of building hope and opportunity in communities where too little of either existed.” President Barack Obama, endorsing Booker for the U.S. Senate.