Politics

But What Did Cory Booker Actually Accomplish in Newark?

He promised to rescue his troubled city as mayor. Did he deliver?
by | December 2013
Cory Booker was elected to the U.S. Senate in October.
Cory Booker was elected to the U.S. Senate in October. Emile Wamsteker
 

Did you hear about the time Cory Booker chased down an armed robber in front of city hall? How about when he ran into a burning building to save a woman’s life? Or when he shoveled snow from residents’ driveways after a blizzard? All true. He also rode with cops on night patrol, answered citizen complaints over Twitter and lived for eight years in a high-rise apartment where many low-income tenants rely on federal housing assistance. The story of Booker’s two terms running Newark reads like a tall tale or even a comic book: Cory Booker, Supermayor.

But Booker has moved on. In October he was elected to the U.S. Senate. With his departure from Newark comes an important question: Beyond the headline-grabbing heroics, what did he actually accomplish?

For much of the last half century, Newark has been the quintessential failed city, scarred by decades of disinvestment. By many measures, those troubles persist. Almost a third of the city’s population lives below the federal poverty line. The local unemployment rate is nearly double the national average. And the murder rate remains about where it was before Booker was elected mayor.

Yet Booker argues that Newark has already turned a corner. “When I became mayor,” he says, “our city had a reputation nationally for crime and corruption. Our population had been declining for 60 years. Businesses were leaving.” Seven years later, he believes, the city’s image has changed. “You don’t have to convince people anymore about the promise of Newark. You don’t have to twist people’s arms to get them to be a part of it.”

It’s every mayor’s job to be a cheerleader, but there is evidence to support Booker’s rosy outlook. New grocery stores and hotels—the first in decades—have opened. Panasonic North America relocated its headquarters downtown, as did Audible.com, which provides audio information and entertainment. Prudential Financial is building a new tower. The city reported $1 billion in real estate development in 2011 and 2012—about a third of all development across the state in sheer square footage. Another $2 billion is in the pipeline for the next two years. Bolstered by a growing immigrant population, Newark finally bucked its 60-year depopulation trend in the 2010 Census. What Booker couldn’t do with city resources, he sought to accomplish through public-private partnerships, attracting millions in philanthropic investments to further his policy agenda.

In one sense, Booker did what all mayors try to do: fight crime, reduce poverty and expand economic development. Yet no other city of Newark’s size could claim a mayor with Booker’s national name recognition, a Twitter audience of 1.4 million followers, and friends that include Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. In short, Booker brought unusual resources to bear on his city’s problems. Could the Supermayor rescue a national symbol of urban decline? It was a challenge Booker seemed to embrace wholeheartedly. “We started with a vision,” he said in his state-of-the-city address in March, “that Newark would set a national standard for change—for transformation.” This is the story of how Booker tried to set that change in motion.

Because Booker became mayor in 2006, his first term straddled the Great Recession, which meant dwindling sales and property tax revenues. To move the needle on an array of social ills, he would need money. But as in much of urban America, there wasn’t a tax base sufficient to fund the services the city demanded. In fact, when Booker came into office, he inherited a $118 million budget deficit.

“We knew we could not simply get out of this in the traditional way,” he says. “Even just cutting our budget, which we did—we’re spending less money today than we did seven years ago—we knew we had to find new ways to bring resources to our city.”

Capitalizing on his own personal celebrity, Booker turned to philanthropists, developers, businesses and government partners to implement a series of policies that his city couldn’t afford on its own. He made a pitch for investing in a place that many on the outside knew only as a symbol of urban decline.

Newark may have more than its share of unfortunate attributes, but there’s much to recommend it: six colleges and universities with more than 60,000 students and faculty; the fifth-busiest airport in the country; a regional transportation system that includes light rail and an Amtrak station; the nation’s fourth-largest seaport; and the headquarters of such national corporations as Prudential, Manischewitz and the electric utility Public Service Enterprise Group.

The case for investing in Newark, effectively articulated by Booker and his staff, has translated into a host of new private development projects. For example, the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group put down $110 million for construction of the Teachers Village, a mixed-use building that will house three charter schools and condos above them. In surveys of Newark teachers, Goldman Sachs found that many choose to live outside the city because they can’t find quality housing, something the village may change. The project is part of a “virtuous cycle,” says Goldman Sachs Vice President Margaret Anadu. What was once a vacant parking lot is becoming an active civic space bringing young educators to live and work downtown. The village is only a small piece of a larger real estate boom, which includes two hotels, four grocery stores, several trendy restaurants, a remodeling of the city’s only movie theater and, in the next two years, an estimated 2,500 units of affordable housing.

Booker’s strategy for seeking help took many forms. It wasn’t just about selling the city to businesses. It also meant leveraging financial support from the philanthropic sector. To do so, the city hired a philanthropy liaison, Jeremy Johnson, whose position is paid for by an outside funder, the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers. Newark is one of the only places in the country to designate someone on staff with the explicit role of engaging foundations for the funding of public projects. “You really need the leader of your city to believe that philanthropy can help and can work in tandem with government,” Johnson says. Booker had explored the possibility of leveraging private foundation money when he launched a community service nonprofit called Newark Now as a municipal councilman in 2003. By the time he became mayor, he knew he wanted to expand upon that effort.

So far, Johnson has raised $48 million for the city through private foundations. One result is a prisoner re-entry initiative, which serves as a complement to the administration’s emphasis on zero-tolerance policing. In Newark, some 1,700 people are released from state prison and another 1,400 from the local jail every month. These ex-offenders have rap sheets that act as barriers to employment, which explains why many return to criminal activity. “You have a generation of young people who are ambitious and talented,” says Cornell Brooks, who heads the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, “but who have the temptation of the street and the allure of college side-by-side.” Early on, Booker looked for ways to tip the scales in favor of college and employment.

Through the philanthropy office, Newark leveraged grant money from the federal government and a private foundation to open an Office of Re-entry in 2009, which applies data analytics to track job placement and recidivism rates for people in the re-entry program. As of October, the office had interacted with more than 2,000 ex-offenders who came to the city voluntarily for help with writing résumés, acquiring interview appropriate clothes and finding stable housing. It had placed more than 1,200 of them in unsubsidized jobs that earn more than $9 an hour, nearly $2 above the minimum wage. The recidivism rate for program participants has been about 30 percent, half the rate for the average state parolee. Of course, the numbers of people returning from prison and jail still dwarf the number being helped. “It’s at a scale so much huger than what was there before,” says Ingrid Johnson, the director of the re-entry office, “but it needs to be bigger.”

The re-entry office is emblematic of what’s worked under Booker and what’s at risk with his leaving—it’s still dependent on the goodwill of outsiders who wanted to see Booker and Newark succeed. Johnson’s position, for example, requires outside money—federal funds allocated through the Workforce Investment Act—and her office relies upon short-term revenue sources and private-public partnerships. “I spend a good amount of my time at the beginning of each year chasing down money,” she says.

Although the hiring of a philanthropy liaison has helped bring in private money for the public good, those funds are minor compared to the estimated $400 million attracted by Booker himself. “The mayor was a walking fundraising machine,” Jeremy Johnson says. By far the best example of Booker’s skill in attracting private money was his dinner conversation with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at a retreat in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 2010. The talk resulted in $200 million for changes in the city school system, half donated by Zuckerberg and the other half raised separately by Booker. The money helped pay for a teacher contract that included performance-based bonuses for highly effective teachers. In some cases, what the Booker administration sought from outsiders went beyond money. It included physical labor and technical expertise. That factored into his strategy for addressing the city’s green space problem—Newark ranks at the bottom among big cities in terms of parkland acreage per capita. As a solution, Booker invited the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation nonprofit, to turn three unused municipal tracts into playgrounds and a riverfront park. The trust not only raised money for the projects, but helped with the design and construction.

Although the nonprofit already had a long history of operating in Newark, says Adrian Benepe, the trust’s vice president for parks, “things really ramped up both in terms of the number and scale of projects” when Booker came into office. “He was very open to these kinds of partnerships,” Benepe says. “In some cities it’s a struggle because of the political structure or the lack of trust of outsiders.” By working with the trust, Newark was able to add or repair 50 acres of open green space, the largest parks expansion in a half-century.

But Booker’s willingness to engage outsiders for help has come at some cost. “For a lot of people, that’s the criticism: Not only was he an outsider, but he brought in outsiders,” says Clement Price, director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University. To some degree, the outsider critique takes on personal and racial dimensions. Booker grew up in a middle-class African-American family in Harrington Park, a suburb about 20 miles northeast of the city. As former Newark Mayor Sharpe James once quipped during a campaign event, “You have to learn to be black and we don’t have time to teach you.”

There are other ways Booker doesn’t quite fit in. In a city where just 12.5 percent of the population has a college degree or more, he wears his advanced education on his sleeve, quoting aphorisms by the Dalai Lama and Plato on his Twitter feed, reciting the poetry of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou in speeches, and warning that Newark’s gang violence might bring on a decline reminiscent of the Roman Empire; it’s everything one might expect from a mayor with a bachelor’s degree from Stanford, a master’s from Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar) and a law degree from Yale.

Booker’s image as an outsider led to his largest policy defeat, which came in 2010, when he proposed the creation of an independent water authority to pay for more than $500 million in infrastructure repairs. The municipal council refused on the grounds that the city shouldn’t cede direct control of its water system to an outside group. That same resentment and distrust of outsiders came into play when the city offered incentives to Panasonic North America, which benefited from a $102 million tax break to build its new downtown headquarters. It also applied to the selection of Booker’s department heads, many of whom were recruited from other cities. Former Council President and interim Mayor Luis Quintana argues that Booker erred by hiring his first police director, Garry McCarthy, from the New York City Police Department. “I always believe that within the city,” Quintana says, “you can find talent.”

A related strain of criticism, again prompted by Booker’s frequent networking outside the city, is that he hasn’t been around enough to manage day-to-day affairs. “Cory has been an absentee mayor, basically,” says Ron Rice Sr., who represents Newark in the state Senate. Last year Newark’s paper of record, The Star-Ledger, reported that over an 18-month period, Booker was out of state and out of the New York City metropolitan area on 21.7 percent of the days. The newspaper gave examples that typify Booker’s national celebrity status, such as appearing on The Tonight Show and Meet the Press. Although Newark was a topic of conversation in those interviews, it’s up for debate whether his television appearances advanced the city’s agenda. “Was he looking after his own profile or was he looking after Newark?” asks Price, the Rutgers professor. “It’s possible he was doing both.”

For the first time since 2006, Newark will head into a new year without Booker as mayor, and it’s not yet clear what that means for a place he once swore to make a model for reversing the fortunes of declining American cities. “In a nation looking for hope and light,” he proclaimed at a state-of-the-city address in 2010, “Newark will provide promise and a new urban paradigm.”

Has it fulfilled that vision? It’s impossible to miss the string of “firsts,” whether it’s the first population gain in 60 years or the first new neighborhood supermarket in decades or the first park to give residents recreational access to the Passaic riverfront. Entire new municipal departments have sprouted up, reflecting a different set of policy ambitions—not only the hiring of a philanthropy liaison and the creation of a prisoner re-entry office, but also a new sustainability office and the establishment of a community planning department. The city is poised to pass an overhaul of its zoning code, the first update of its kind in more than 50 years. “He’s tried to modernize the machinery of government,” says Roland Anglin, a professor of metropolitan studies at Rutgers.

Despite the fact that Booker’s tenure was marked by the pursuit of funding sources outside Newark, he also presided over a restructuring of the budget that found more revenue in the city. The most recent budget—adopted this summer—uses less in state aid and other one-time infusions of cash, such as property sales, while reducing homeowners’ property taxes by 13 percent. At the same time, the budget generates more revenue than even in pre-recession times because of improved tax collection rates and a shift in the tax burden that demands more from commercial property owners. After years of spending cuts, including layoffs in 2010 for 160 police officers and 1,000 municipal employees, the city is adding back 50 cops and five firefighters. There is also a new revenue stream—a rental car excise tax projected to raise $3 million next year.

Those gains may explain why a poll in late 2012 gave Booker a 70 percent favorability rating among likely voters in Newark. In the U.S. Senate campaign, Booker received endorsements from former political adversaries such as ex-mayor Sharpe James and city union leader Rahaman Muhammad. Just before the election, Whole Foods announced that it would build a store in downtown Newark—something Booker says is a sign of the city’s new reputation as a community on the mend.

Juxtaposed with those milestones are the periodic updates that suggest Newark has a steep climb before anyone deems it the model city Booker envisioned. In late August, the city saw 10 homicides in 10 days. The number of robberies in 2011 and 2012 was greater than at any point in the last decade. The unemployment rate has dipped slightly from last year, but it’s still hovering well above the national average, around 14 percent. The proportion of children who live below the poverty line remains staggeringly high at 43 percent.

“I think Cory has complicated legacies that he will leave,” Price says. But at least by one measure, he adds, things are better now. “Newark was everybody’s favorite casework of a failed city. Now people have become interested in Newark as a recovering city.”

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