Cory Booker Just Needs A Hug
by Dax-Devlon Ross
At a speaking engagement last fall Newark Mayor Cory Booker was asked if, after eliminating 1,200 city-related jobs and raising city taxes by 8% in his first 90 days in office, he wasn’t stealing a page from Machiaveli’s The Prince. In response Booker is said to have smiled and replied that he would ‘rather be loved than feared.’ Judging by a story on his ongoing efforts to avail himself and his staff to constituents through what he calls “office hours,” it would seem that he’s literally killing himself to do just that: win the affection of the ordinary Newarker by proving he’s the anti-Sharpe James.
Briefly, The New York Times is running a series of articles on Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s first year in office. The fourth article in the series, Through Mayor’s Opens Doors, Many Problems, Not All Solved, assessed the success of Booker’s “office hours” project. Since last fall, the mayor and his staff have been periodically meeting with city residents in a Malcolm Shabazz high school classroom for several hours. At first, these meetings with the mayor took place every two weeks. Of late, they’ve been occurring on a monthly basis. In a nutshell, constituents arrive at the school, register, are sent to an auditorium where a movie is playing and they wait for an opportunity to meet with Booker. When their number comes up they head to a classroom and air their grievances with the mayor himself. They come looking for jobs, looking city services, looking for solutions to family problems, and the mayor, to his credit, listens. On a few occasions Booker has been able to set up job interviews for folks. Other times he’s reached into his pocket to provide bus fare back home. But while this sounds like a great idea– a means of creating transparency in a city government that has been shrouded in secrecy for at least twenty years– Booker is finding that simply holding “office hours” is not enough to satisfy the people. They want action. They want results. And for those who aren’t seeing either quickly enough, they want someone’s, namely Booker’s, head to roll. According to the quotes attributed to frustrated constituents, many who haven’t seen their desired results– a job in most cases– come to fruition have already pledged their vote in the 2010 election to Booker’s as yet unnamed opponent. So much for giving their young mayor credit for doing something hardly any big city politician would do: meet with ordinary constituents in a non-election year.
Let’s take a look at Booker’s history of radical showmanship. First there was the outdoor vigil with the elderly. Then the move into the project building. Then the run against the incumbent Overload himself, Sharpe James, in 2002. Then, immediately after the election, the run after a mugger in broad daylight and in front of cameras. But this latest story– sitting with people for hours and hours after a presumably long day at the office– is perhaps his most extreme endeavor to date. Like so much of what has come to define Booker’s tenure in Newark (as both candidate and now office-holder), the idea of making himself accessible sounds not only admirable, but desperate. Unlike the Booker critics who’ve labeled him a “Trojan Horse,” I am of the belief that Booker’s efforts to ingratiate himself with the downtrodden are genuine. But genuineness does not discount one’s yearning for acceptance and validation or the lengths one is willing to go attain them. The search for validation, to be loved in particular, is not an uncommon trait among politicians. Even Nixon’s biographers trace an incessant need to be loved by the faceless, nameless multitude through the veil of the isolated, stoic President. What makes Booker’s brand of longing unique is his exceptional background replete with awards and honors of the highest order, a background that sparked considerable animosity in the ’02 election. It is this access divide that he is constantly trying to bridge, this shadow of exceptional opportunity that he is always trying to outrun or atone for, that is fascinatingly telling. In short, his prodigious pedigree– All-Pac 10 football player at Stanford, Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law graduate– bear the marks of an ambitious overachiever seeking something other than just knowledge, but institutional affirmation.
That being said, Mayor Booker is torn between a need to continue proving that he is the anti-Sharpe on the one hand, and his need to be accepted by the very people who “loved” Sharpe James on the other. What he fails to grasp, as far as his actions are concerned, is that the reasons why people loved Sharpe are antithetical to his political agenda and philosophical beliefs. Sharpe appealed to the self-interest of Newark voters. He was incendiary and reactionary, but he understood the psychology of downtrodden people for whom symbolic gestures of strength (brazenly speaking his mind), courage (standing up to the establishment), and virtue (partying with the people) every so often go a long way. Sharpe deployed symbolism to make people feel as though he was one of them. He knew he was limited in what he could do but he did not let his people know this. Rather than level with people, he pointed to meddling outside forces who were against Newark, Booker among them. Booker, meanwhile, is killing himself to prove he actually cares and in doing so is revealing the limited power he has to change things.
Booker’s mistake so far has been underestimating the effect of Sharpe’s shrewd, skilled manipulation of the people for the past two decades. He helped (not by himself) create a climate in which people came to expect something for next to nothing, a culture in which quick fixes– petty cash pay-outs on voting day, a cushy job for a supporter, etc.– are valued over long-term reform. Moreover, Sharpe might’ve loved his people, but it was as a narcissist loves an admirer. He might dance with the people, have a drink with the people, even engage in affable banter with the people, but he was always positioned himself as the center, the head-honcho, and he never let that fact be forgotten. Mayor Booker, to his credit, wants true democracy for Newark. He wants transparency and accountability. More significantly, he believes this is what the people want.
Sharpe James found his unpopularity outside of Newark politically expedient and, like Marion Barry in D.C., exploited the “Us Against the World” attitude to the utmost extreme. Mayor Booker, on the other hand, wants to be all things to all people. He wants development downtown and hi-rises all over town. He wants to be friendly with Trenton and to stay in the good graces of New York institutions like the Manhattan Institute, Wall Street and the New York Times, which has taken an unusual interest in him for several years now. At the same time, he wants the jobless and disenfranchised people of Newark to love him as well. This, I’m afraid, is an impossible aspiration. If he’s going to truly change the existing order, he’s got to be willing to be unpopular not just to those who misunderstand and/or distrust him for personal reasons, but to those he’s spent the last several years attempting to prove his authenticity to. This list includes liberal Democrats and Republicans (George Will)as well as everyday Newarkers. At a time when he’s trimming the fat off the city payroll, meeting with hundreds of jobless, unskilled constituents to hear their grievances only leads them further down the Primrose Path.
Mayor Booker’s own defense of the criticism his “office hours” project has been receiving is two-fold. First, he insists he never makes any promises and that people hear what they want to hear. Second, he affirms their validity by saying they give him an opportunity to hear people’s grievances and stay in touch with their lives. These are both valid retorts and are both ways of saying he’s not the indifferent Sharpe James who only used people when he needed to get re-elected. The problem is James didn’t get elected five times by dumb luck. He won five times, and this is particularly true of the ‘02 campaign, because he understood the fickle nature of unsophisticated voters for whom the ballot is more often their lone resource of retribution against office holders, than it is a means of getting what they want and need. In the ideal world Booker’s efforts should roundly applauded. In our world, they needed to be quietly eliminated.