October 19, 2006


A New Mayor Tests His Promises on Newark’s Reality (ANDREW JACOBS, 10/19/06, NY Times)

After a campaign in which Mr. Booker sailed into City Hall with a landslide 72 percent of the vote to replace Sharpe James, the 20-year incumbent mired in accusations of malfeasance, he has found running New Jersey’s largest city more challenging than he ever expected. To watch his new team up close is to witness the clash between political promises and the nitty gritty of governing, to see goals and plans sidelined by the realpolitik of race and budget gaps, and to experience the frustratingly sluggish pace of change.

Turning Newark into the paragon of American cities sounded nice in campaign speeches, but 100 days in, the ambitious 37-year-old mayor is starting to settle for a city that is a little less bruised. Campaigns are run on emotion and white-knuckle grit, he has discovered, while governing demands ruthless dispassion to tolerate reordered priorities and a disappointed public.

In these early days of his administration, Mr. Booker has infuriated homeowners by pushing through an 8.4 percent property tax increase to fill a deficit he did not anticipate. His openness with the press has sometimes backfired, such as when an offhand comment about needing to shrink the municipal workforce of 4,000 by as much as 20 percent angered the City Hall rank and file. Firefighters’ union officials were irked by a reorganization of the department that led to the closing of three firehouses.

And stepping up arrests, he has learned, does not necessarily reduce violence; shootings and homicides rose compared with the previous summer, along with burnout on the 1,300-officer force and overtime costs mounting to $20 million.

“Things come at you 1,000 miles an hour, and much of the time you’re dealing with chaos,” an exhausted Mr. Booker said one recent evening as he rode to Manhattan for a private dinner with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York. “You can easily get distracted by issues that are not central.”

To keep focused, Mr. Booker often pulls a crumpled square of paper from his pocket.

“To be America’s leading urban city in safety, prosperity and nurturing of family life,” reads the note he typed to himself shortly after his election in May. “Newark will set a national standard for urban transformation by marshaling its resources to achieve security, economic abundance and an environment that is nurturing and empowering for families.”

It is Mr. Booker’s mission statement, invoked often in public speeches as well as impromptu pep talks to his staff.

A bold statement, considering that Newark, population 275,000 and one of the nation’s poorest cities, remains a stubborn synonym for urban dysfunction. One third of its children live in poverty. Fewer than 9 percent of its adults have a college education. Every year, 1 out of every 800 residents is hit by gunfire.

His BlackBerry buzzes with the news of each shooting. One afternoon, Mr. Booker bolted from a staff meeting and sped to the scene when a 14-year-old girl was hit in the knee as she walked home from school, then to the hospital to console her family.

“Listen, Mr. Mayor,” said Daisy Hargraves, the girl’s grandmother, as she lectured him in the emergency room. “I don’t want to hear any blame about the past administration. I just want you to stop the violence. It’s not enough to just lock people up.”

As he passed the 100-day mark in office last week, Mr. Booker had compiled some things to crow about (though he postponed a celebratory news conference until Wednesday because the glossy handouts were not ready). Despite a rise in homicides, shootings were down 20 percent in September. Dozens of no-show employees have been purged from the municipal payroll. In the coming months, 50 police surveillance cameras will be installed across the city — the first ever.

“The air is filled with the electricity of hope,” said Lawrence P. Goldman, president of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, echoing business and civic leaders who describe a spirit of revival sweeping the city.

But some say Mr. Booker has unrealistically lofty expectations for his tenure. He is grappling both with the impatience of those who expected a revolution, and the sniping of others who feel slighted or left out by the new regime. After a generation of machine-style rule by Mr. James, Mr. Booker’s shakeup has inevitably led to a scorecard of winners and losers.

Some critics have never gotten over the fact that the Ivy League-schooled, Buddhist-inspired, vegetarian mayor was raised in an affluent Bergen County suburb, Harrington Park. Others are unhappy that much of his inner circle is made up of recruits from New York, and that many are white.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2006 12:00 AM
Comments for this post are closed.