Cory Booker is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. But based on his more than 1 million Twitter followers from across the country, there’s a good case to name him America’s Favorite Mayor.
Besides being extremely accessible to his constituents on Twitter (often responding to pleas for help obtaining a job with a “send me ur #” message), he’s also been responsible for helping to change the public image of Newark and the quality of life for its residents by bringing multi-million dollar investors like Oprah Winfrey and Mark Zuckerberg into the city. And when he’s not busy running the city of Newark, he moonlights as a superhero. Seriously.
The mayor has been known to join city police on late-night patrols and even chased down a suspected bank robber on his way to his inauguration ceremony. Just last month, Mayor Booker raced into a burning building and saved his neighbor’s life, suffering smoke inhalation and second-degree burns on his arms and hands in the process.
But the Mayor hasn’t missed a beat. Recently, EBONY caught up with Mayor Booker to discuss his health, heroism and his hope for the city he loves.
EBONY: How’s your hand? Any permanent damage?
MAYOR CORY BOOKER: It’s really fine. I feel really thankful to God to be alive. It could’ve been much worse. But really, I’ve had worse burns in the kitchen.
EBONY: And the woman you saved, how is she doing?
CB: She’s going to be all right but she suffered much greater injuries than I did. She was in there longer than I was and her lungs took a beating from all of the smoke inhalation. But she has such a strong spirit and lots of family and friends around her supporting her, so she will be fine.
EBONY: You’ve described the moment you didn’t think you’d get out of the fire as a time where you got really religious and had a “come to Jesus” moment. What did you mean by that?
CB: It was a feeling of panic. I was calling out to the woman [trapped in the burning house], but she wasn’t responding and I couldn’t find her. There were flames on one side and on the other it was pitch black from all of the smoke and I couldn’t breathe, so I just felt that I was sort of done for. At that moment, I felt my spirit just surrender to the larger power of the universe. But then I heard [the woman] call out to me and it was like her voice saved me because it made me focus and enabled me to find her and get her out of there.
EBONY: That is really amazing. You were both in real danger in that house and the outcome could have been very tragic for you both. Why do you think your life was spared?
CB: I really appreciate you saying that because, reflecting on it all, it seemed like I arrived just in the nick of time, she called out to me just when I was giving up. God delivered us from that [fire], so He definitely has a larger plan and I’m just a participant in it. There is an orchestration at work that is bigger than me. I don’t know what God has planned for me or you or anyone, but I do know that in darkness you discover an indistinguishable light. [This situation] helped me to understand that more deeply. Life is not an accident, and I just know I’m extremely grateful to be alive.
EBONY: Risking your life to save another person is not an isolated event for you. There are countless examples that the public is aware of where you have sought out to help individuals on a personal level, whether it was holding a 19-year-old gunshot victim as he laid dying, or chasing down a bank robber or shoveling an elderly man’s driveway after a snow storm. This seems like great evidence of a spirit of heroism and a deeply caring nature. Where does that come from?
CB: Well, I don’t feel these [events are] so unique. I’m in a city which, unfortunately, reveals the heroism in a lot of people on a daily basis. I get to observe human character and human love regularly and I don’t think it’s unique to me. When we were out there shoveling snow, there was an entire van full of volunteers with me. When I chased down that bank robber on my first day [in office], there were two security guards with me. When a retired guy goes into a lawn that’s overgrown in the neighborhood and starts mowing it, he’s the hero of the neighborhood that day. The guy who works a full time job but still manages to coach little league, he’s a hero. And there are firefighters who do what I did, but they do it every day. I can go on and on. I just live in a city that I’m lucky to be the mayor of and as a result my acts get a little more attention, but it’s not unique.
EBONY: Back in 2009, President Obama offered you a White House position, but you turned it down because you said you’re committed to Newark. You’re a Washington, D.C. native, Stanford and Yale graduate, so where does that commitment to Newark come from? Why Newark?
CB: When I was just a twenty-something, I came to Newark and I found a connection to the city in a spiritual way. I found a connection here and people here that reminded me so much of my roots and my own family. My great-grandfather had a community of people who helped him pay for college and I know I am who I am because people in my community made sacrifices for me and those are the kind of people who I found in Newark. I found a community of people still struggling to make real the American Dream and I want to help with that. So many of us are drinking from the fountain of liberty that we did not dig, so I’m here to do my part for this city that gave me a chance and a shot to help lead the community in very difficult times.
EBONY: As an alumna of Hampton University, it’s such an honor that you will be giving the commencement speech at Hampton’s graduation this Sunday. What words of wisdom can guests and graduates look forward to in your speech?
CB: Well it’s my pleasure. I have a lot of connections to Hampton one of my chiefs of staff was a Hampton grad, so I’ve been touched by Hampton and I’m humbled to be asked to speak. I’m still working on my speech, but I’m hoping to share what’s at the root of Hampton and really all [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] HBCUs, that we are all a part of a larger historical narrative. We are a central part of the evolution of the American spirit. We all play a role in that and we are all standing on someone else’s shoulders, yet we view ourselves as small when we are large. That has to change.
EBONY: You lost the election for mayor in 2002 only for you to come back again and win in 2006. But even in your electoral victories and being in your second term as mayor, public service is often a thankless and highly criticized job. How are you able to keep going and keep viewing yourself as “large,” as you say, even when circumstances or even other people tell you that you’re small?
Mother Teresa was asked in an interview, “How do you judge success?” And she answered something like, “I wasn’t called to be successful, I’ve been called to be faithful.” So, remembering that is how I’m able to keep perspective and keep going.
I’m going to have setbacks and failures; I’m not going to see change right away all of the time or most of the time. But everybody I’ve ever respected has failed at one thing or another. I’ve definitely fallen on my face. But I’ve also had a comparatively easy life. John Lewis and I were just featured on the [PBA] show “Finding Your Roots,” and here I am being compared to this legendary civil rights activist who has lived through a time and a remarkable amount of oppression that this generation just hasn’t known and I haven’t know. We aren’t storming the beaches in Normandy, or dealing with the Great Depression or the strife of segregation or enduring massive violent battles in our country. We still have great problems and challenges in this generation, but we have not been asked to show the same level of courage as past generations. So I just feel we’ve been given a unique opportunity to learn from the lessons of the past and I just want to live a life that proves worthy of those lessons. That’s my focus.
EBONY: Forgive me, I have to ask this question because too many ladies out there would kill me if I didn’t: are you hoping to settle down and start a family in the near future?
CB: [Laughs] What “ladies”? Did my mother put you up to this? [Laughs] I just I think everybody wants to have that settled life and even God wants us to “have life and have it more abundantly.” Everybody wants to find their soul mate and I’m no different. That’s definitely what I want in the future.
EBONY: Last year you mentioned being too busy to date. Have you found that soul mate yet or are you still looking?
CB: Still looking for that soul mate.
EBONY: And what are you looking for in a soul mate? You know, when you’re young, you have these long lists, but when you get older it’s just like, are they breathing? [Laughs] But, I want somebody that has a deep reverence for God and compassion for other people at their core and doesn’t take themselves or me too seriously. Someone who is just a positive person.
EBONY: Will you ever run for President of the United States?
CB: Well, they say that the way to make God laugh is to make plans for yourself. But if you asked me in 1996 if I’d be running for mayor of Newark, I wouldn’t have believed you, so you just never know. But am I planning a run for President? No. My goal and my hope is that I’m living on purpose; that’s more important than position.
EBONY: What do you hope your legacy will be?
CB: Well, it’s not about me and my legacy is not personalizing it my hope is that when I’m finished being mayor I’d like for our city to set the national example for urban transformation. In 2006, Newark was crime ridden and now people are looking to it for hope. People weren’t investing in our city and now we’ve got the biggest Parks expansion and the most economic development since the 1950s. In the worst housing market bubble, we’ve still been able to double the amount affordable housing production.
The city is making incredible strides and people can really see now that in Newark, hope is on the horizon. l want Newark to be an emblem of change in this country.