Cory Booker, Newark, N.J.’s superstar mayor, seems to be everywhere: delivering diapers during a record-shattering blizzard; headlining Aspen lectures on the future of cities; commenting on the Trayvon Martin case. Now, Booker is angling for his biggest platform yet: a U.S. Senate seat.
For much of the last decade, Booker has embodied the modern urban leader’s best attributes: a forward-looking idealism seemingly unburdened by race. He’s built a massive presence on social media and television, and he pals around with Oprah and Gayle King. He’s campaigned for President Barack Obama and, arguably, in some circles has more influence than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. And as confirmation of his political prowess, in August he won the Democratic primary for the aforementioned Senate seat.
Until a few months ago, Booker, 44, had been carefully navigating mounting questions: Would he challenge Christie for the governor’s seat in November? Would he build his national profile—and fund-raising base—from Newark’s city hall and make the leap for the White House in 2016 or 2020? But the death last June of Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey’s Democratic senator, presented a rare opportunity. “Many of the issues I care about—immigration, ending mass incarceration in America—are issues that can best be fought at the federal level,” Booker says.
The Brick City mayor is the son of IBM executives who fought to integrate a historically White neighborhood in suburban New Jersey. At Stanford University, he played tight end, and for his senior thesis delivered a revisionist take on Booker T. Washington. He won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. Next, he went to Yale Law School and, after graduating, moved to Newark. For several years, he lived in a Newark public housing development and by the late-1990s, he’d won a seat on Newark’s city council. In 2002, he challenged Newark’s second Black mayor, Sharpe James, but lost. Booker successfully toppled the James regime in 2006. His election was in many ways a sign to investors that Newark is back. Here’s proof: On a 2010 The Oprah Winfrey Show, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg announced plans to donate $100 million to revive Newark’s public schools. Said Booker at the time: “Newark is going to change the paradigm for urban education.”
Booker regularly tweets to nearly 1.4 million followers about food drives, visits to crime scenes and even shoveling snow. He insists that about “95 percent of the tweets are all my thumbs pounding,” although some are scheduled. There’s little doubt Booker is heading somewhere. The question is, where? It’s hard to know when he actually sleeps. “I can’t say I’m a model of balance,” he says one recent Saturday afternoon, during a rare break from campaigning. “I hope to have the richness of a full life, which means not just work but also time for family, intellectual inquiry and spiritual growth. Sometimes I put too much pedal to the medal on work. But we should all be working for greater balance.”
It’s astonishing that he’s managed to bluntly address the volatile issues of the day—e.g., race and inequality—and still be untarnished by social media-fueled criticisms. Booker enjoys a remarkable halo. That positive star power is why big-money donors from Washington to Hollywood are clamoring for his attention. It also explains why he’s doing so well in the polls. If he wins the upcoming election, Booker will be the second African-American in the current U.S. Senate when he takes office.
His experience managing a majority-Black city will certainly bring useful insights to the Senate. Says Booker: “When you look at the racial disparities in America, it should be a call to the consciousness of our country . . . I’m never one to shrink from pointing out the racial disparities, gender disparities, and we should have leaders courageous enough to identify problems and create solutions.”
It’s hard to predict where Booker will ultimately land. He refuses to seriously address questions about his long-term political prospects, and has made references to his aspiring to become “president of the New Jersey Star Trek Association.” That’s a joke, of course. Publicly, Booker shows none of the crude ambition common with politicians. His Senate bid is driven by an idealism that feels unusual today, and he dismisses suggestions that he take a better-paying job in business. “Life is not about position,” he says. “It’s about purpose, and my purpose is not to be in politics; it’s to fight to make this country a better place.”
That’s exactly the kind of refreshing voice America needs.