Booker’s Got His Work Cut Out for Him

by Dax-Devlon Ross

I came across this long profile of Cory Booker and Newark that I highly recommend for anyone who really is interested in a) how Newark became the armit of America and b) why Booker is lauded as a leading politician for the 21st Century. The article manages to connect Newark’s seedy past with its contentious present and offer an insightful analysis of where Booker is trying to take the city. At the same time, the article comes down unfairly hard on Newarkers while painting an rosy picture of Booker as a savior. Like a lot that’s been written about Booker for the last few years, it glosses over the criticisms people have with him and those who support him.

These are some highlights from the article:

By 1986, after 16 years under [former Mayor Kenneth] Gibson, the city’s unemployment rate had risen nearly 50 percent, its population had continued dropping, it had no movie theaters and only one supermarket left, and only two-thirds of its high school students were earning diplomas.

Even as a smattering of office towers, an elegant arts center, and a baseball stadium have risen near the waterfront, Newark remains grindingly poor. Nearly a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line—almost twice the national average. Newark’s unemployment rate is double the nation’s, while the median family income of $30,665 is just half the Jersey average. Social dysfunction is endemic, contributing heavily to the poverty number. The city has a nearly 70 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate, and, as social scientists note, over half of all American kids born without a legal father will arrive in the world poor.

Only 13 percent of Newarkers have college degrees, compared with 32 percent of the residents of Jersey City, which benefited from a strong dose of reform in the 1990s under former investment banker Bret Schundler.

Even as Booker zeroes in on crime, he’s had to deal with a raft of troubles left over from the previous administration, among them a surprise $44 million budget hole uncovered by state auditors. The audits have revealed a fiscal mess in Newark under James, with unpaid invoices going back years, questionable allocations, and estimates that the city is failing to collect some $80 million a year in taxes. Prosecutors in Newark are investigating last-minute spending by the James administration, including more than $80,000 charged to city credit cards for trips to Brazil, Martha’s Vineyard, and Puerto Rico. Booker had to plug the late-year budget gap with a property-tax increase that enraged homeowners.

Student performance has continued to plummet. “High school achievement rates have virtually flipped, from almost 70 percent of graduating Newark kids passing the state’s high school proficiency exam when the state took over, to only about 30 percent passing it now,” says Richard Cammarieri, a member of the Newark schools advisory board.

The man definitely has his work cut out for him