Taking It to the Streets

Photo: Mobilus In Mobili

What did you do on your summer vacation? Cory Booker spent his in a tent. Pitched in a garbage-strewn parking lot. Outside a housing project in Newark, N.J. That seems to be Booker's idea of a good time.

"It was one of the most moving experiences of my life," he says. In fact, it was a PR stunt to draw attention to the deterioration of the 550-unit Garden Spires apartments, the kind of place that gave Newark its bad name. The elevators rarely worked. The stairwells reeked of urine. Only two months before Booker's visit, about 40 suspected drug dealers and their allies attacked the buildings' security guards and trapped them in their sentry booths. So Booker spent 10 days and nights under the ballroom-sized tent, refusing food, talking to the news media and hoping to pressure the landlord and the city into cleaning up the place. "I just took a page out of the sit-ins from the civil rights movement," says Booker, '91, MA '92. "I always say I was born in the wrong generation."

Garden Spires residents don't think so. By the time Booker's tent-in was over, the mayor had agreed to beef up the police patrols and build a park in the car lot. A new management company vowed to meet with city officials to help get the place running smoothly. For Booker, who had been elected to the Newark City Council only a year before, it was a striking victory in a city renowned for its political and economic inertia. If not for his protest, "things would be the same terrible way they were," says Elaine Sewell, president of the Garden Spires Tenants Association. "He's doing things that have never been done before."

Pitching a big tent is nothing new for Cory Booker. You might even say it's been his life's work. At Stanford, that meant playing varsity football by day and working as a peer counselor at The Bridge by night. As a Rhodes scholar, Booker convinced his high-achieving Oxford classmates to become mentors to low-income children. He's an African-American Baptist whose best friend is an outspoken Orthodox rabbi; an upper-middle-class, Yale-trained lawyer who chooses to live on one of the worst streets in Newark. With a résumé like that (a black lawyer who speaks Yiddish!), it's not surprising that people are already talking about Booker becoming mayor or governor, or something bigger. "I could show you my seventh-grade yearbook. Literally people were telling me I'd be president of the United States someday," says Booker -- quickly adding, "I always laugh."

Part of what makes Booker's empathy for down-and-out Newark so remarkable is that it's a world away from his own roots. The son of two IBM executives, Booker grew up in the affluent town of Harrington Park, N.J. He was president of his high school class and an all-state football player at two positions. He and his older brother were also the only black kids for miles. "My father says we grew up four raisins in a tub of vanilla ice cream," says Booker.

His parents taught him two lessons that influenced his career choice. One was to be grateful for his privileged life. "Since the fifth grade, my parents always told me, 'Look where you live! You have an obligation to give back,' " he says. (He applies that principle to Stanford too, where he serves on the Board of Trustees and helps recruit minority students.)

The second was more of a history lesson. Though he grew up fairly well-off, Booker's parents had to fight their way into the middle class. They had both done well at IBM: his mother as a personnel director, his father as a salesman. In 1970, they wanted to buy a house in predominantly white Bergen County, N.J. No one, it seemed, would sell to a black family. So Booker's parents, with the help of the Fair Housing Council, found a white couple to impersonate them. That couple toured houses, placed bids and did the negotiating, all with the Bookers' secret instructions.

When it came time to close on a house in Harrington Park, Booker's father showed up, along with a lawyer. "The real estate agent got up and threw a punch at the lawyer," says Booker. "He ended up crying, 'You'll ruin this town!' -- white flight and all that." The owner immediately pulled the house off the market, but when the Bookers threatened to go to the newspapers, they got their house.

Booker says his family lived peacefully in Harrington Park, except for the time a white girl's parents wouldn't let her go to the prom with him. But his parents' struggle to get there influenced his desire to help people in need, like the people of Newark.

He moved there in 1995, when he was still in his second year of Yale Law School. "I wanted to be part of a community, and I knew New Haven was not for me," he says. Between 85-mile commutes to Connecticut for law school, he began working as an advocate for tenants' and children's rights. In typical down-and-dirty Booker style, he moved into a rooming house on Martin Luther King Boulevard, arguably the most dangerous thoroughfare in town.

"I still remember my first month on the street," says Booker. "I walked up to this charismatic black guy my age called T-Bone, who was one of the drug lords. I just said, 'Yo, man, wha's up?' And he leaped in front of me, looked me right in the eye and said, 'Who the blank do you think you are? If you ever so much as look at me again, I'm going to put a cap in your ass.' "

Booker ultimately became friends with T-Bone, and with a lot of other local skeptics who were impressed by his commitment to mending the broken neighborhood. In fact, he became so well-liked that people started urging him to run for office.

"My friends call me 'the reluctant politician,'" he says. "I never liked politics. I didn't think it was the best way to make a difference." Despite his law degree and a stint as senior class president at Stanford, Booker says he always expected to become more of a grassroots community organizer than an elected official. "There's a certain purity to working as a nonprofit activist," he says. "When you step into the political realm, it's murky, dark, disgusting waters." But Booker's supporters finally convinced him to run in 1998.

His opponent was George Branch, a 16-year incumbent and a pillar of the city's Democratic machine. It was an ugly contest. Unsigned campaign literature called Booker a "white nigger" and a "tool of the Jews." His car windows were smashed and his life threatened enough times to make him afraid to go out alone. But he knew he wanted to represent the city's most disenfranchised residents -- the people he'd been working with for three years. So he spent the majority of the campaign knocking on nearly every door in the Central Ward. Booker defeated Branch in a runoff by 500 votes.

"I've met other politicians who, in front of me, are like, 'We're with you,' and as soon as the news cameras go away, you never see them," says Newark resident Jeneene Butler, who met Booker when she needed help getting a relative into rehab. "Cory is there. This man can go anywhere in the world and make three times what he is making here, but he has decided to improve the lives of other people. I just feel lucky that I am a part of it."

Booker may have mixed feelings about being a politician, but he's clearly a natural. He's one of those charismatic people who seem to know instinctively how to break down barriers with strangers, whether it's making small talk with City Hall security guards, picking up children at a holiday turkey raffle or touching a homeless mother on the shoulder as she asks for directions to a food kitchen. Though he's lost some hair and put some weight on his 6-foot-3-inch frame since his wide receiver days, he's still a handsome man who knows how to use his imposing physical presence to his advantage.

"He's a hugger," says Stanford biological sciences professor Donald Kennedy, whom Booker once hoisted in the air on the sidelines of a Cardinal football game. Booker was one of a series of students who lived in an apartment under the garage of the Stanford president's residence when Kennedy held that office. "He has a very deep social conscience," says Kennedy, "but more than that, he's really interested in people. He doesn't just taste them, get their flavor and spit them out."

That up-with-people attitude has affected Booker's political style. He's drafted a few laws in the last year, most notably one that would make slumlords do jail time if they repeatedly fail to make their properties habitable. But he spends most of his days and nights simply meeting with constituents and trying to solve their day-to-day problems. That might mean breakfast with a man whose house was robbed, an afternoon planning a jobs program and an evening at a youth basketball game.

While Newark has experienced something of a mini-renaissance in recent years with its new performing arts center and plans for a new stadium, Booker is less interested in that kind of window dressing. "I don't want Newark to become like Atlantic City, with wonderful monuments but the residents still searching for a better quality of life," he says.

Which is not to say everyone in Newark loves him. He's made some enemies by being impatient and, to some observers, baldly ambitious. His penchant for the grand gesture -- like the tent-in -- strikes some city officials as grandstanding. In one of his most in-your-face acts, Booker refused the city-owned car that is a major perk for council members. Booker declared that his $58,000-a-year salary was enough compensation in a poverty-filled city. Some councillors were annoyed at being shamed by the young upstart.

"To go in and say in his first sentence, 'I don't want that, and you shouldn't have it either,' is not an easy thing for them to take," says Robert Curvin, a political scientist who lives in Newark. "And it's questionable whether it's the most important ground in which to plant the spear. But he is a man in a hurry, and the more he keeps rushing, the more he proves that he can do it."

Booker does have a way of winning over his skeptics. When he was at Oxford, he stumbled into a meeting of the L'Chaim Society, a Jewish social and political organization. "I felt like I was walking into a scene from Yentl," he says. Within minutes, Booker had joined the discussion. By the end of the evening, he and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach were dancing with the Torah. The following year, Boteach asked Booker to run for president of L'Chaim. "Cory said to me, 'But I'm not Jewish, and I'm black,' " says Boteach. "I said, 'So what? You embody all the ideals that I want to represent.' He has a unique ability to treat everyone with decency and make them feel important." Some of L'Chaim's members objected, vehemently, to a non-Jewish president. But when the election came, Booker had become so popular -- and so serious about Judaism -- that he ran unopposed.

"I found in Judaism that I can touch and feel spiritualism," says Booker, who still considers himself a devout Christian. "You are supposed to shake your fist at God and demand justice in the world. That's so much at the core of who I am and at the core of the African experience in America."

So where will the street-corner politician go from here? "It's only the beginning," says Kennedy. "People are going to work awfully hard for him to run for statewide or national office within 10 years." Booker brushes aside such predictions. "If I start running for another position now, I'd betray the people who put me in office."

Anyway, he has more immediate concerns. "Could you put in the article that I'm in search of a wife?" he asks. Part of the problem is that although he left that rooming house a few years ago, he moved right across the street, into a high-rise housing project. "It does have its perks. My rent is $600 a month, and I have the best view of Manhattan," he says. "But people are afraid to come back there. That's a great litmus test for a relationship, don't you think? If a woman would come back to my apartment."

Read a November 2010 update on this story.

Marc Peyser, ’86, is a writer at Newsweek.