New game in urban politics

Newark's mayoral race shows how candidates must move beyond old racial formulas.

Mayor Sharpe James raises both hands and looks up at a highway overpass. "Hope only rises," he says with evangelical fervor to a gaggle of teenagers in sweatshirts, baggy pants, and cornrowed hair. "You keep hope alive!"

Moments later, the teens unveil a huge sign welcoming people to the city: "Let's make music!"

It's this hopeful outlook for Newark – a still distressed industrial city – that is fueling a hotly contested mayoral race that has garnered national attention.

Mayor James – a stalwart of the civil rights movement and part of the first generation of black municipal leaders – is pitted against an equally fervent but young Ivy League-educated reformer from the elite suburbs.

But this is more than a battle between black generations. It is also emblematic of a major shift in urban politics, in which candidates are being forced to frame issues to appeal to a multitude of ethnic and racial groups.

Newark, like most US cities, is now multihued, with people from Sri Lanka to São Paulo filling its apartments, shops, and street corners. In this new melting pot, issues can no longer be framed simply in terms of blacks and whites. One historian calls this election a referendum on the "post-black-power" age.

"We now know the traditional construction of race in this country makes absolutely no sense, given the demographic changes in this society," says historian Clement Price of Rutgers University in Newark. "The question is: Will the traditional white-over-black calculus, which has traditionally shaped the way black Americans think about politics ... matter in a city that is settling so many people from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil?"

James's challenger, Cory Booker, clearly thinks not. Now a city councilman, he arrived in Newark just four years ago after graduating from Yale Law School. Before that, he had a stint at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and was an undergraduate football star at Stanford University. His parents, IBM executives, were the first blacks to buy in Harrington Park, the upscale white suburb where Mr. Booker was raised.

In many ways, he's been the beneficiary of the civil rights battles that both his parents – and people like Mayor James – fought throughout the 1950s and '60s. He's been described as a "vegetarian, postracial, postpartisan idealist."

While both men are Democrats, this is a nonpartisan race, and Booker is clearly trying to make it a colorblind one as well. He touts himself as the reformer who can do more for a changing and diverse Newark than James.

"We're falling behind the times, because we've stagnated, we've had the same leadership in City Hall for 32 years. That's why it's time for some innovation, it's time for some new blood, it's time for some change," he says.

Booker is quick to rattle off statistics to support his claim: a poverty rate that's gone from 26 percent to 32 percent, tax collections that are some of the lowest in the state, and spending for kids' recreation that's half that of nearby Jersey City and Elizabeth. He also talks of the need to increase efficiencies at City Hall with the rapid-fire cadence and confidence of a Wall Street management analyst.

But he's just as comfortable chatting with kids on some of the city's littered side streets. Last week on the way to a luncheon at a senior-citizen center, he saw a teenager tossing up a pair of sneakers that were tied together, which is a symbol of drug dealing. He stopped and went over to tell him he could do better for himself.

"I saw that as encapsulating what we're fighting for in this city," he told the seniors after arriving more than 45 minutes late. "We are not enforcing the laws of our city, keeping our kids off the streets and in school, enforcing the speed limit. I don't think I've ever seen a ticket given for littering in this city."

To James, who's never lost a political race, such behavior amounts to grandstanding – like the time Booker rented an RV and camped out on city corners with the worst open-air drug-dealing. That garnered not only local, but also national attention.

"The media has created someone who they say should be the president of the United States, and, of course, the mayor of Newark, without really putting that individual under a microscope to see if he deserves all of those accolades," he says.

James is running on his record – snagging for Newark the glamorous New Jersey Performing Arts Center, as well as a new baseball stadium, and replacing decaying public high-rises with smart-looking town houses.

He's also quick to talk about his own background, being raised poor in a one-room Newark apartment with a potbelly stove. He refers to himself as "the real deal" – sometimes in the third person.

"He stayed in school, did his lessons, listened to his teachers, did his homework, got an education, joined the armed forces, fought in Germany," he says. "And I came home to my city to give something back to my city."

James hits hard at Booker's status as an outsider. He's also openly questioned whether Booker is, in essence, black enough for Newark – a city that is just over 50 percent African-American, 30 percent Hispanic, 14 percent white, and the rest a mix of ethnicities from around the world.

James also routinely brings up the fact that two-thirds of Booker's $3 million war chest was raised outside of Newark from his Ivy League friends and contacts.

"The mayor certainly realized that there are others in the community who share his wariness about this young man," says Rutgers political scientist Dennis Gale. "He keeps raising the questions: Who is this young man, where did he come from, what is his real agenda?"

Booker dismisses the mayor's racial comments as "gutter politics." And he insists that he came to Newark because he genuinely wanted to make a difference.

Some find such idealism difficult to trust in a man who could easily be making millions on Wall Street but instead has chosen politics. Others see him as a beacon for the next generation for black leaders.

"He does give one a sense of extreme commitment to a cause and a deep belief in the possibilities of human potential," says Richard Roper, president of the Roper Group, a public-policy consulting group in Newark. "I find that refreshing. Maybe it's a bit idealistic, but there's an authenticity to him that I find quite compelling."

The election is next Tuesday.

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