Street Fightin' Man

As part of my rigorous prep work for writing a profile of Cory Booker, Newark's incoming mayor, I watched "Street Fight," a documentary ...
by | May 31, 2006

Street_fight_2 As part of my rigorous prep work for writing a profile of Cory Booker, Newark's incoming mayor, I watched "Street Fight," a documentary about his 2002 run against Sharpe James. It's an Academy Award-nominated film that's easily recommendable to political junkies. (You can order it from the director's Web site.)

Booker, now 36, has the perfect dream candidate's resume. An All-American in high school, he attended Stanford on a football scholarship and then, Clinton-like, won a Rhodes scholarship and went on to Yale law school. A product of suburban New Jersey, he moved to Newark and it wasn't long before he'd unseated an incumbent city councilman. Soon he had his sights set on James, who had been Newark's mayor since 1986.

The movie allows plenty of time for allegations about James' dirty tricks. Fliers appeared claiming Booker (an African-American Democrat) was a white Republican carpetbagger under Jewish sway. It's hard, as with most such negative campaigns, to know whether the fliers were in fact products of the James campaign, or to know how many of the allegations of police and code enforcement intimidation brought against Booker supporters were true.

But James is caught blatantly lying on tape about Booker's fundraising and his own supporters, and director Marshall Curry is regularly manhandled by police for attempting to film the mayor because the mayor believes he's one of Booker's guys. Uniformed police and firemen are shown tearing down and destroying a large Booker sign that had been hanging over a prominent intersection.

Even James' own press secretary, a Newark outsider, suffers professional embarrassment over the blatant and sometimes violent hostility his campaign displays toward the media.

Booker, by contrast, appears to be yet another slightly behind the times politician who wonders whether he should follow his handlers' advice and get down and dirty enough to fight in this campaign. He waves off the recommendation of his own press secretary that he forget about loading down his debate points with any facts and figures to back them up.

Advised by his pollsters to go negative, Booker is reluctant to leave the high road. In one hilarious moment, he insists that you can smack a guy in the face -- but do it with dignity.

Curry had amazing access. He seems always to have been in Booker's apartment when the candidate was blowing off steam by working out after an event. You won't be left wondering whether Booker is a briefs or Clinton-like boxer man.

There's well-edited footage of Booker out knocking on doors, showing an easy flair for bilingual joshing with voters and kids from across the social spectrum. At one point, a group of kids are surprisingly excited to run into Booker on the street. One little girl shows her hands to the camera to prove that she's touched the man, saying they now smell like him.

Curry asks her to describe his scent and she says he "smells like the future." Four years later, she was right.