As Cory Booker (pictured) cruised to victory in Wednesday’s special election to fill the late New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg’s seat, what legacy has Newark’s mayor left behind in the state’s largest city?
During his two back-to-back terms in office, starting in 2006, Booker has made headlines with a hands-on approach. With 1.4 million Twitter followers (his city has less than 300,000 residents), Booker shoveled snow from a constituent’s father’s driveway after she Tweeted to the mayor’s account asking for help. In April 2012, he saved a woman from a house fire. And after Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey, Booker invited Newark residents without power to stay at his home.
The backdrop for those feats is a majority-black city (PDF) which has a reputation as one of American’s deadliest, and where two out of five children live below the poverty line. The city was rocked by civil disturbances in 1967 from which many say it has never completely recovered.
In an interview last month with Slate, Booker framed his tenure this way: “You can’t look at the totality of the picture and simply ring the bells of transformation and success. That being said, there are things that we have accomplished in a very short period of time that are incredible, that are beyond the expectations of most, changing these historic trends that have gone on before the civil disturbances of the 1960s.” Among the accomplishments he cited were doubling the production of affordable housing and the opening of the city’s first new hotel in 40 years: the Courtyard by Marriott on Broad Street. Also, under his watch the city’s population grew for the first time in 3 decades, reaching over 277,000 residents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Furthermore, Newark led the nation in violent crime reduction from 2006 through 2009, according to Booker. City Data reports that the murder rate peaked at 105 per 100,000 residents in the same year Booker came into office, and by 2011 the city saw a rate of 94. In March 2010, the city even experienced its first murder-free month, something it hadn’t seen since 1966. However, late this summer a spate of shootings saw 10 people dead in as many days.
So, how will his legacy fare, given all of that? “Newark is a very poor city. That fact limits what any elected official can accomplish,” observed Roland V. Anglin, director of The Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers University in Newark. He told NewsOne in an email:
The mayor immediately before Booker, Sharpe James, can point to the development of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Prudential Center as anchor projects that will cement his legacy. The James administration stayed around for 20 years, and voters probably asked [then], “Have things changed for the better?”
Cory Booker brought new ideas about neighborhood security, economic development and prisoner reentry to the table. Booker also tried to modernize the city’s administrative infrastructure. While not headline-grabbing, his push to bring city government into the digital age may well be one of his more tangible legacies. He also made hard choices by cutting spending, and in the process, angering many residents who lost their jobs in city government.
Booker did not solve poverty in Newark, nor did he usher in a mecca for the “creative class” as some now refer to upwardly mobile professionals. Booker did create a stable climate where philanthropy and the private sector now feel comfortable investing in the city. Booker also made strides in crime reduction, but young males of color still kill each other far more than is acceptable. But one thing about Cory Booker, he is leaving Newark better than he found it, and that is the acid test of leadership.
Whether the upward trend continues largely falls on the shoulders of whomever wins the election to become the city’s next mayor. That contest will be held on May 13, 2014. The candidates include North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., former Attorney General Shaver Jeffries, Central Ward Councilman Darrin Sharif, West Ward Councilman Ron Rice and Newark City Councilman Ras Baraka.