NEW YORK — The crowd in the Upper West Side bookstore practically cooed when the mayor of Newark, looking like the college football tight end he once was, strode into a book signing and gave the audience a bashful smile.
Cory Booker, here because he wrote the forward to a book about homelessness, spent the next half-hour talking about his father’s roots in poverty and the kindness of humankind, throwing in references to friends such as entertainer Tyler Perry and author Alice Walker, and, presumably because this is New York, using some Yiddish.
“When I first became mayor of Newark, I said I was a prisoner of hope,” he said in a speech brimming with optimism. “Now I use a new metaphor — hope unhinged.”
Booker is preparing to ride that message to higher office. Last week he said he would explore the possibility of running for U.S. Senate in New Jersey in 2014, and in the run-up to that announcement he was invited to talk about poverty on “Meet the Press,” gun control policy on “Piers Morgan Tonight” and his growing fame on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”
His personal feats are well-publicized. Among other things, he rushed into a burning building to rescue a neighbor, and he spent a week on food stamps after being prompted to do so by a Twitter follower. He sends out dozens of tweets a day, often to individual constituents, and has more than a million followers — more than four times the population of the city he governs.
Some observers say Booker, who is African American, is a Barack Obama-style phenom who could be the next post-racial politician.
“He’s very bright. He’s probably seen by the Obama people as among the best of the up-and-comers” in the Democratic Party, said Carl Golden, an analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy in New Jersey.
Booker, 43, graduated from Stanford University and Yale Law School and was a Rhodes scholar. He was elected mayor of Newark — New Jersey’s largest city and one of the nation’s most troubled — with 72% of the vote in 2006. His reelection vote in 2010 dropped to 59%, reflecting continuing approval but also disquiet over higher taxes and cuts in city services, and a sense in some quarters that the mayor was getting ready to move on.
“Because the mayor is envisioning greater heights — and I wish him well — he’s not doing the same kind of things that got us elected,” said Councilman Ronald C. Rice, who ran on Booker’s ticket in 2006. “He hasn’t had a community meeting since 2010. He doesn’t come to the ward and hear our complaints.”
Illustrating the political divisions in the city, Booker’s recent appointment of an ally to the Newark Municipal Council led to a near-riot in the council chambers; police had to intercede using pepper spray.
Booker says his record speaks for itself. Crime will be down this year compared with 2011, the city’s population is growing for the first time in decades, affordable housing has doubled, and the budget deficit has been cut significantly.
He also started networking with national figures who might never have paid attention to Newark. He convinced Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg to give $100 million to improve Newark schools. Oprah Winfrey donated $1.5 million to Newark nonprofit groups. A foundation created by Brad Pitt opened an affordable-housing complex for veterans in the city.
“I set out on this concerted effort to bring the world to Newark,” Booker said in an interview. “I was going to have to be the kind of mayor that dragged people — kicking and screaming, if necessary — to invest in my city in ways they weren’t going to invest before.”
Joe Taylor, chief executive of Panasonic North America, said that Booker was persistent in getting the company to relocate from Secaucus to Newark. Though the company received a big tax credit from the state, Taylor said that Booker’s determination to change Newark helped convince him it would be a good hub for U.S. operations.
“He was incredibly hands-on,” Taylor said.
Newark still has a long way to go. About a third of the city’s residents live below the poverty level, and its crime rate is often among the worst in the nation. Newark houses so many tax-exempt organizations like churches and universities that it’s consistently short on revenue. To contend with the city’s structural deficit, Booker laid off hundreds of government workers and raised property taxes by 16%, which didn’t exactly earn him friends around town.
“Education? Forget about it. Security? Forget about it. He talks a lot, but the guy’s got nothing done in six years,” said Bernardino Coutinho, a leader in the Portuguese community and one of the veteran Democrats whose influence was curbed by Booker’s rise.
“He’s a politician — they promise everything, but they don’t do much,” said Manny Lopes, the owner of a hardware store in the Ironbound district of Newark. “For the money we put into property taxes, we should have more police.”
Jon DaSilva, 24, who also works in the Ironbound district, said that in the last few months the house across the street, the apartment upstairs and the trophy store where he works have been burglarized. He’s tried to call City Hall to get a concealed weapon permit, but no one answers the phone, he said.
But other residents see progress and say that nearly all urban mayors find it difficult to turn around a city in two terms.
“Where Cory deserves a lot of credit is that there’s a vigor to his cheerleading that makes the city look like a better place to do business,” said Patrick Hobbs, a longtime resident who is dean of the law school at Seton Hall University. “There’s a sense of optimism about Newark that did not exist five years ago.”
Booker will need to win a large proportion of urban centers like Newark if he does decide to run for the Senate. He seems confident that the local critics will not be a problem.
“We’re going to have a very strong base in the city of Newark for anything we want to do in the future,” he said.