Battling to be mayor

George Will

3/18/2002 12:00:00 AM - George Will
NEWARK, N.J.--Last Sunday, Mayor Sharpe James told an audience that Cory Booker, the man James must defeat if he is to win a fifth four-year term, receives money from the Ku Klux Klan and, even worse, is a Republican. To err is human, but ... Booker, like James, is an African American Democrat. Unlike James, Booker has degrees from Stanford, where he was a tight end, Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and Yale Law School. This is an unusual Klan resume. Then again, James suggests Booker is an instrument of sinister Jewish interests. Booker is the first strong challenger James has faced as mayor and James is not a picture of grace under pressure. In 1998 Booker, then 29, defeated a 16-year incumbent to become Newark's youngest city council member ever. The incumbent was George ``You Got Me'' Branch, who acquired his nickname after he exclaimed those words during an unpleasant experience with law enforcement. James considered Booker's defeat of Branch an act of lese-majeste, and several Booker supporters, such as James Williams, think they have paid a price for fighting city hall. Williams is an African American whose 55 years have included a felonious scrape with the law, and have cost him a number of front teeth. But he got his life in order and bought a car wash. In December he hosted a small Sunday coffee klatch at his home to boost Booker. Monday afternoon five police cars came to the car wash, rather a large armada for citing Williams' little business for alleged code violations. The car wash was closed for five days and Williams is still trying to untangle it from the toils of red tape. Perhaps Williams and several other Booker supporters are mistaken about there being a connection between their problems with the city government and their support for Booker, who says the police claim they made an honest mistake in tapping his phones. Regarding the torrent of parking tickets his staff has received, and his car's broken windows and slashed tires, well ... Booker, who believably says James has called him ``the faggot white boy,'' grew up in an affluent northern New Jersey community where his parents were able to buy a house only by having a white couple pose as them, right up to the signing of the house contract. At the signing the enraged real estate agent resorted to fisticuffs. Booker's parents sent him off to Stanford with a token of the Harlem Renaissance, the Langston Hughes poem that says: (BEG ITAL)O, yes I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath-- America will be! Booker's plans for Newark's renaissance are drawn from thinkers at the Democratic Leadership Council and the Manhattan Institute think tank, and from the experiences of others such as Stephen Goldsmith, former Republican mayor of Indianapolis, a pioneer of privatization and faith-based delivery of some government services, and John Norquist, current Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, which has one of the nation's most successful school-choice programs. New Jersey has America's fourth-highest per capita income--and two of the nation's 10 poorest cities, Camden and Newark. Booker says Newark is America's most underachieving city, having the region's busiest airport and biggest deep-water port, and being at a confluence of railroads and highways. Not long ago, he says, Jersey City and Hoboken were written off as Newark now is, as hopeless holes of poverty in doughnuts of wealth, but innovative government turned them around. In Booker's 1998 victory over George ``You Got Me'' Branch, Booker won by turning out new voters--Branch got as many votes losing as he had received in winning the previous election. Council member Booker pitched a tent--really--smack in the middle of an open-air drug market in his constituency. He says the Newark police were slow to offer protection when the drug dealers smeared his tent with feces and generally behaved inhospitably. But a mayor of a distant suburb sent some off-duty police to help, then some off-duty Newark police pitched in and the dealers moved away. The race is close. The election is May 14. Booker's campaign has raised $1.5 million, partly through reform-minded supporters in New York financial circles. He has enough to finance cable television ads, direct mail and political infantry going door to door telling people that Booker is an African American linked to neither the Klan nor the Elders of Zion.