Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey currently serving his second term in office, is seriously considering seeking a Senate seat in 2014. The 43-year-old mayor is an ambitious, smart and charismatic politician. However, residents of this city are troubled by gaps between the mayor's image as a superstar hero, and the failures to follow through to implement solutions for a long-term economic growth for this troubled city.
It's not difficult to see why this popular mayor has resonated with the general public. Stories of Mayor Booker rescuing a woman from a burning building, distributing diapers during a snowstorm and — last month — participating in a food stamp challenge make headlines (he even offered neighbors a place to recharge during Hurricane Sandy). While our current political gridlock makes it difficult for politicians from both parties to come together, it's refreshing to see a passionate and responsive leader who cares a great deal about a troubled city (disclaimer: I'm a big fan of Mayor Booker and I'm an ardent believer that he is changing the face of public service and leadership).
Booker has been vocal on important policy issues in the media. In particular, his policy stance on drugs and guns has propelled him to the national spotlight. As one of the eight hundred mayors that make up the coalition of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, he has been straightforward on his position to demand change to the current political landscape.
Guns and drugs are a constant danger in any city, but they are especially rampant in Newark. To his credit, Booker has made strides in the revitalization process to create jobs in Newark. Yet, his success has not been without its own problems. Critics have pointed to other factors that pose a challenge to Booker's smooth ascendancy to the Senate.
First, one particular initiative that was conceived in order to bring in jobs and revenue within the state of New Jersey has ruffled some feathers: The $100 million tax break offered by Booker under the Urban Transit Hub tax credit meant to entice corporations such as Panasonic from other parts of New Jersey to move into Newark. Local politicians have criticized this strategy as a "race to the bottom."
Two, in late November, Booker nearly caused a riot by casting the deciding vote to break a tie over a vacant council seat. Locals were unsatisfied with the result of the vote. Currently, a case is pending to determine whether there is a legal basis for Booker to cast the deciding vote.
Lastly, the generous donation by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who pledged $100 million towards Newark's public schools. The donation, under the guidance of Booker, offers little transparency as to how the funds would be spent. Fire Dog Lake, a progressive news site, revealed that a lawsuit filed by the ACLU forced the release of the email exchange between Booker and Facebook executives regarding how the donation would be spent. Booker, in previous exchanges, had denied the existence of such emails. This incident is a point of contention, since without any transparency the funds could be used to implement charter schools without the public interfering. This does not bode well for Newark's charter schools. Last year, three Newark charter schools have been implicated in a cheating scandal.
A New York Times article noted the discontent of locals, critiqued the effectiveness of his administration and lamented that he is more concerned with developing his "brand." Three problems have emerged to support this view: taxes risen by 20% over the past 3 years, rising crime and unemployment with a past history of troubled city finances; and the fact that there are still areas in the city that are riddled with shootings and drug dealings.
It doesn't help his case that Booker's close ties to entertainment moguls and celebrities, which allow him to secure funds for his campaign and boost revenue to finance public parks and projects, often take him away from the city (despite his accessibility on Twitter and other social media).
Furthermore, Wall Street donors have underwritten his campaigns according to a profile story released by Vogue Magazine. Booker's controversial statements by going against President Obama's critical remarks over Mitt Romney and Bain Capital during the 2012 presidential campaign could have been a protective measure to protect his own material interests.
It's rather difficult to be an unbiased politician when one's campaign is financed by outside actors who have a vested interest. It all comes down to trust and competence. Mayor Booker has always been accused of being an "outsider." I'm not sure that he will be able to silence his critics over issues that are still unresolved. He needs to devote more time to addressing the outstanding issues that are still plaguing Newark.
Should Mayor Booker still seek a Senate nomination, he will be facing some stiff competition from incumbent Frank Lautenberg — and possibly from a running mate, New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone.
Lautenberg, a far-left Democratic Senator is 88-years-old and may seek to run for a sixth term. While he hasn't ruled out retirement, some feel that Booker may be forcing Lautenberg to face a decision that he isn't ready to make just yet. His other competitor, Frank Pallone has expressed a desire to run for the Senate seat, should Lautenberg announce his retirement. Pallone's strength is his close ties with the state's political machines and may use them in order to leverage against Booker. Lautenberg also has a formidable war chest at his disposal: $3.5 million. By no means would Booker assume an easy win.