Cory Booker, standard bearer of the new politics
OXFORD, ENGLAND — Even before the ballots were cast Tuesday in Newark, N.J. home of the hottest mayoral race in the country the lasting result was clear: Cory Booker had already won.
In the end, 33-year-old Mr. Booker garnered 47 percent of the votes, losing to four-term incumbent Sharpe James after a bitter campaign. But in fact, Booker and his team have much to celebrate.
Half a year ago, Booker was just a brash young councilman; after Tuesday's vote, he's a major Democratic contender. Over the past few months, Booker has entered the national spotlight with a bang. He raised millions of dollars, assembled a skilled staff, played the media like a fiddle, and eloquently communicated a message that Newark deserves safer streets, more jobs, and better schools, and that he's the man who can deliver.
Even though he lost, he rallied a significant portion of Newark's population to his side without the advantages of incumbency in a city that has long been run as a personal fiefdom. It won't be long before Booker's name is on yard signs again.
Like many Generation X-ers, I watched the Newark mayoral race with interest, as did many young American expatriates on this side of the Atlantic. In the days before the election, I heard his name bounce around tables in Oxford dining halls, a Turkish cafe in London, and a Cambridge tapas restaurant. The consensus is that he is fast becoming the standard bearer for a new generation of American leaders.
Even while his contemporaries may disagree with some of his ideas, such as support for school vouchers, they embrace him for his approach. A workaholic schedule and gutsy political stunts such as camping out and fasting for 10 days in a successful bid to get the mayor to assign more police to a drug-dealer-infested housing project helped craft his image as a committed and creative leader.
One New Jersey native studying urban planning at the London School of Economics said recently: "Too many people think of New Jersey as just a place to live because you can't afford New York or Philly. Having an educated, articulate, and charismatic young person as mayor of Newark would do a lot to change the profile of the city and the state."
It's precisely because he's become a political mascot of sorts that Tuesday's results are less interesting than the phenomenon of Cory Booker. He has proved that a relative neophyte can mount a credible campaign against an old-guard incumbent. Booker's media-friendly stance enhanced his underdog image. Unlike his opponent, Booker and his team welcomed journalists into their humble headquarters (in an old plastic-bag factory dubbed the Bat Cave).
Booker also managed to transcend race without leaving it behind. While he repeatedly emphasized the personal importance of his African-American heritage, he refused the label of "black politician," and (unlike his opponent) refused to play race politics.
Booker sees his style as fitting within a tradition of innovation in African-American politics. He frequently spoke of the effects of crime and drugs in the black community. But the Spanish-speaking, Gandhi-quoting Methodist, who led a Jewish group at Oxford, also created an appeal that stretched beyond race lines, drawing support from Barbra Streisand and Bill Bradley.
I'm not sure if baby boomers white or black, liberal or conservative could have ever seen a black man running for office as anything other than a "black politician." But the young Americans around me of all races seem to see Booker precisely as he wants to be seen: as a man who represents a new generation of American leadership, with a new blend of progressivism and pragmatism, who is also black. He hasn't ignored race, but instead has articulated a nuanced understanding of it as an important aspect of individual identity rather than a crude determinant of politics.
As a friend of mine who happens to be, like Booker, an African-American Rhodes scholar said to me, "Sharpe James said that Cory Booker's not black enough. Are black men not supposed to go to Stanford, Oxford, and Yale? The truth is he's a perfect example of the kind of success that most parents, black or white, hope their children achieve."
Cory Booker provides a sort of collective vindication for younger Americans, who have been stereotyped as apathetic, apolitical, and lazy.
Before Booker came along, many would have considered Mr. James's political machine to be invincible. But Booker has shown that savvy, issue-driven politics and a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work attitude can still win votes. Other political wunderkinds, like former Gore speechwriter and current California state Senate candidate Andrei Cherny, are likely to borrow from the Booker playbook. As with any nascent phenomenon, Tuesday's election is only the beginning.
Daniel Baer is a Marshall scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford.