Cory Booker falls to earth: NYT discovers that Newark still sucks under celebrity mayor

Will Rahn Senior Editor
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Cory Booker, the much-praised Democratic mayor of Newark, is facing a growing chorus of detractors who say his national celebrity and skill at handling the press far outstrips his actual accomplishments in the city, The New York Times reports.

From the beginning of his career, Booker has enjoyed a remarkable level of celebrity. His unsuccessful 2002 challenge to then-Mayor Sharpe James, a colorful and wildly-corrupt politician supported by much of the Democratic establishment, was chronicled in the acclaimed documentary “Street Fight.” Elected in 2006, Booker quickly garnered praise from both right and left for his efforts to turn around a city synonymous with poverty and violent crime.

But, six years into his tenure as mayor, Newark remains in dire straits, reports the Times. As he considers a run against popular New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Booker’s administration has come under greater scrutiny from political observers and his many rivals within the state’s Democratic Party.

Under Booker, Newark’s taxes have gone through the roof even as the city sells off buildings, including the headquarters of the police and fire departments. Crime and unemployment are both up, the police force has shrunk, and Booker has proved unable to enact plans to fix the city’s troubled water and school systems.

Aides to Christie say they don’t expect him to follow through with a challenge to Christie, and there’s much speculation he may instead make an attempt at the U.S. Senate seat held by Frank Lautenberg, an elderly and unloved Democratic machine politician.

“There’s a lot of frustration and disappointment,” Assemblyman Albert Coutinho, a Newark Democrat, told the Times. “People feel that the mayor basically is out of the city too much and doesn’t focus much on the day-to-day.

“In fairness, he has had some tremendous success as a result of those travels, but the reality is, a city needs its mayor, needs to see its mayor on a regular basis. It makes people feel that the issues that are important to them are important enough for their mayor to come spend time with them.”

Booker does spend much of his time outside of the city promoting himself and has done well at raising his national profile. Oprah Winfrey has called him a “rock star.” Jon Stewart recently called him the “superhero mayor of Newark” for his much-vaunted exploits, such as the time he reportedly ran into a burning building to save the people inside.

Booker has also uses his Twitter account to great effect, often responding to resident’s complaints directly. Two years ago, as a devastating blizzard blanketed the northeast, Booker even personally shoveled the snow from the driveways of trapped Newark residents while Christie and New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg remained on vacation.

And Booker’s time as mayor is not without its real, tangible accomplishments. New office buildings, hotels and supermarkets have appeared downtown, and the city had its first murder-free month in 40 years in 2010 after a brutal killing in broad daylight. The city’s structural deficit has decreased, and Booker was able to secure a $100 million gift to help the city’s faltering school system from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

But a sense has spread in the city, the Times reports, that Booker cares far more about building his national profile than fixing his still-blighted city. Chafing at the criticism, Booker invited a reporter to tour the city with him, only to cancel so he could make a series of self-promotional appearances in New York City.

“I sat on a panel with Richard Branson,” he tweeted later that day, according to the Times.

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