Wednesday, October 16, 2013

My interview with Cory Booker

Congratulations to Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, on his election to the U.S Senate tonight! Hizzoner is only the fourth black man ever elected to the U.S. Senate, and the 9th to serve. I have met two of those nine men: Booker and now-President Obama. I am not humble-bragging; it is unconscionable that a 26 year-old could ever meet over 20% of the country's black senators, not presently, but historically.

Mayor Booker is an amazing man - one of the brightest and most energetic people I have ever met. Here is an interview with and an article about him I did in 2009 for the now-defunct Dartmouth Free Press. (I wasn't humble-bragging in the first paragraph... but maybe just a little in the second...)

Governing Through Community: Cory Booker, an activist in charge
January 2009
By Nathan S. Empsall

As DFP staff writers and progressive foot soldiers across the country will painfully attest, activists can spend years fighting for their pet issues and not gain an inch, only to see a quick snap of a finger from the right person move the issue forward a mile. Now that the right person is doing the snapping in Washington, many of the things we were unable to accomplish in eight years happened in less than a week: the order to close Gitmo, the end of military tribunals, new equal pay protections, and so much more.

Fortunately, the right fingers have been snapping in Newark, New Jersey since 2006, when the city’s 281,000 residents put an activist in charge, electing the then-37-year-old Democrat Cory Booker mayor. Booker visited Dartmouth on January 26 to give a Rockefeller Center speech entitled “How to Change the World with Your Bare Hands,” meet with student reporters, attend an AGORA lunch, and guest lecture a Sociology course. Yet it would be a disservice to the progressive cause for me to write a simple review of that visit; Booker’s career, values, and accomplishments merit an article unto their own. This is a man who no one can call a hypocrite. He doesn’t just fight for the poor; he lives with them, staying in public housing projects rather than the fancy suburbs more common to his old Yale and Stanford classmates.

Under Booker’s watch, Newark has led the nation in violent crime reduction for two years in a row—and he’s done it through increased efficiency and community involvement, not by curtailing civil liberties. Everything the Mayor says, whether to an overflow lecture crowd or a voter on the street, is spoken with a driving, optimistic force. That tone can be surprising, coming from a 250-pound vegetarian football player who doesn’t drink, but Booker’s passion for building strong communities is contagious: “We now are drinking deeply from wells that we did not dig. We are eating fruit from trees we did not plant… We that have all these gifts and these fruits have but one obligation, and that’s to engage in the cause of America and make these promises real. This is the cause and this is the ideal: ‘I am a part of something.’”

Like many of the DFP’s readers, Booker’s activist days started young. As an undergraduate at Stanford, he ran a local crisis hotline and organized after-school programs for kids in East Palo Alto. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he helped run a mentoring program for low-income youth. Then, at Yale Law School, he co-founded a legal clinic to help New Haven’s low-income communities. And if that wasn’t enough, upon graduating from Yale Law in 1997, Booker, like another young African-American leader we all know, chose not to pursue a job at a high-paying legal firm but instead became a community organizer, working at the Newark Youth Project and the Urban Justice Center in New York City.

Booker inherited his passion from his parents and grandparents, themselves activists. In his Rocky lecture, he said his grandfather always told him “that my degree was paid for by the sweat and toil of others, and that I could learn more from the lady on the fifth floor of the projects than in the classroom.” And so in 1998, with these words in mind, the former Rhodes scholar moved into Brick Towers, a high-rise Newark apartment known for its drug trafficking. Booker lived in the tower for two years before running for City Council and did not move out until the building was torn down in 2006, when he moved to an even more violent part of town.

Booker’s stay at Brick Towers was more than just a show of solidarity. As he wrote on The Huffington Post, “To fight for change, I worked with the tenant leader, a woman who is fearsome in her love of her community, and dozens of other residents/American heroes. Eventually, the slumlord was convicted for some of his crimes, the rampant drug trade was moved out of the complex, [and] the day care center in the building was revived.”

Yet Booker, always crashing the gates, says that his first year on the City Council was the toughest year of his life: The police “accidentally” tapped his phones, he and his staff were routinely denied their paychecks, and none of his budget reform proposals ever passed the City Council.

One evening in 1999, after a neighbor challenged him on his growing despair, Booker went home and “just opened up the Bible, and there staring at me was this passage from Matthew that says if you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can [move mountains]—but the next passage says sometimes you have to fast and pray.” Sometimes you have to fast and pray. Booker set up a tent outside the violent Garden Spires apartments and declared that he would go on a hunger strike until the drug dealers cleared out. Although the first night was a fearful stand-off, the stunt gained media attention the next day and hundreds of supporters came to join him. Booker met with the drug dealers to talk things out, and by the tenth day of the strike, the building owner agreed to invest in more security and the Mayor promised more police patrol

Yet despite keeping his promise to increase police patrols, Mayor James was no reformer. Booker ran against the 16-year incumbent in 2002, a race chronicled in Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight. Booker’s campaign was an uplifting one, promising to bring new life to Newark and lower its nation-leading crime rates. Mayor James responded with the worst smears and dirty tricks imaginable, calling Booker a white Republican,” “a faggot white boy,” and a KKK-funded Jew—all on the record. Curry was harassed and manhandled by James surrogates at multiple rallies, and at one point was told he could film anyone present except the mayor and point his camera everywhere but where the mayor was standing. Voter data was stolen from Booker’s campaign headquarters, churches were threatened with code issues when ministers spoke out against the mayor; businesses that hung Booker signs in their windows saw neighborhood police patrols drop; and public housing tenants were afraid to hang Booker signs for fear they’d be kicked out. Yet the media—despite several local reporters fearing for their own lives—refused to dive into the fear and violence, covering it as a “rough-and-tumble” circus.

The campaign quickly became the center of American black politics. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton came to stump for James while Cornel West and Spike Lee threw their support behind Booker. James ultimately won, but by just six points, He declined to seek a sixth term in 2006, and was convicted of five counts of fraud and sentenced to twenty-seven months in jail in June 2008.

Booker, however, did run again in 2006 and was elected by the largest margin in Newark history. The Rhodes Scholar, a man given to quoting Gandhi and Langston Hughes at the drop of a hat, took office in June 2006 while still living in a building with sporadic heat and non-existent hot water. During an interview period with student newspapers before his lecture, I asked Booker how he stayed accessible to the public now that he no longer lives in Brick Towers. He bragged about starting Newark’s first city TV and radio stations, an interactive website, and a 311 line, but what impressed me most was that he holds occasional office hours for 6-8 hours at a time. Clearly Booker can’t give a job to everyone who asks or release every grieving mother’s son from jail, but often, listening to a person or referring them to other sources can be enough. At the very least, having office hours keeps Booker connected to his citizens’ immediate concerns.

Equally unorthodox are Booker’s law enforcements methods. Increased police efficiency, new shift rotations, and unprecedented levels of community involvement are one thing, but it’s not every mayor who spends several hours each night joining his police officers for ride-alongs and talking to addicts on street corners. But where orthodoxy has failed, unorthodoxy often works, and under Booker’s watch Newark has led the nation in violent crime reduction for two years in a row and become the fastest growing city in the Northeast.

The Mayor is certainly not one to rest on his laurels. He hopes to improve downtown Newark by building affordable housing for artists and creating a jazz renaissance, ultimately bringing in 10,000 new residents without displacing any of the current tenants who he says believed and stayed in Newark through all its tough times. Booker’s vision includes funding for parks, green-spaces, and new education initiatives like charter schools that close if they don’t outperform public schools.

Booker’s love for the city and for its people is palpable. Nothing makes him angrier than when a reporter or comedian advances the old stereotypes of Newark as a decrepit, depressing slum. As he told several student reporters, “I was inspired by the hope in Newark long before I became mayor. I fell deeply in love with the city because of the community, because of the people there who had this enduring, unyielding sense of hope and vision of what Newark is about… The people in my community are so inspiring to me and sustain me in times that I thought the mountain might be too high to climb or the challenges too great.”

It is not his politics that have allowed Booker to move Newark so far forward in such a short amount of time, but his values and his energy. His philosophy of government is one of community and of hope. Hope, he says, is “recognition of the darkness but still believing the light can overcome, no matter what.”

“This country is going to necessitate a tremendous amount of sacrifice and commitment from ordinary people to make our country real… This could be the Joshua generation. While Moses did not make it to the Promised Land, this generation can.”

Booker’s vision is rooted in history and in the belief that we all share not only a Declaration of Independence but also a declaration of interdependence:  Speaking of his own darkest times, Booker told me, “I just remember, it’s not about you at that point, and you realize, as much as you might think you’re capable and confident, how dependent you are on the strength of others. This realization of interdependency was such a gift to me.”

Racial diversity, Booker says, is an important part of this community. He hopes that rather than looking past our racial differences, we will come to embrace them. As he told me, “To not understand the racial complexities of our nation is to miss the opportunities within and the strongest power that comes from being a diverse nation… The benefit of America is our diversity, and if we’re going to accept that truth, we have to deal with the racial disparities in our nation.” In his Rocky lecture, he added, “I want a country that has rich Irish heritage and rich Korean heritage that I can go and experience and luxuriate in.”

The New York Times Magazine profiled Booker in an August 2008 article about the generational shift in black leaders. Older civil rights leaders like Reps. John Lewis and James Clyburn continue to serve as visible reminders of a past we long to forget, but younger leaders like Booker and his friend the president have begun to challenge them in primaries and offer newer, broader ways of thinking. Yet Booker also told the Times reporter, “I want people to ask me about nonproliferation. I want them to run to me to speak about the situation in the Middle East. I don’t want to be the person that’s turned to when CNN talks about black leaders.”

The Mayor of Newark will never be asked about nonproliferation or Ehud Olmert’s war crimes, but maybe Cory Booker will be. It is easy to see him as a Senator, Cabinet officer, or even, after last November, President. Yet all of that is beside the point, for if his philosophy of government through community is correct, then it is not Cory Booker’s individual future that matters, but our collective future. The Rocky lecture was packed to the gills. Only one student left before the Q&A, a time usually reserved for dozens to make a polite exit. Perhaps this bodes well for our generation’s answer to the President’s call to public service. One can only hope.

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