In the seven years Senator Cory Booker served as mayor of Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, he received fawning attention from national media outlets like Oprah, and was the star of two seasons of an award-winning Sundance series Brick City. He was larger than life, with a million-plus Twitter followers and a penchant for headline-grabbing stunts like delivering pampers to a mom stranded during a snowstorm, chasing down a robbery suspect or rushing into a burning building to save his neighbor trapped inside.
But when you ask Newark residents what they think of their former mayor, the picture isn’t so simple.
“I always felt Newark was just a stepping stone for him,” said Reginald Woodard, 54, an East Ward resident and fire safety manager as he waited for his bus downtown on a recent winter afternoon.
Debra Salters, a CPR instructor and community activist, agreed.
“I really felt he was using this as a stepping stone to get to the White House,” she said.
“Cory Booker’s a good talker,” said Patricia Sampson, 57, a retired teacher’s aide outside the Whole Foods that Booker lobbied hard for as mayor. “As far as moving this city forward...We’re still not forward.”
Booker has a complicated relationship with his adopted home city, where his political career began. The current Mayor, Ras Baraka, says it starts with the fact that Booker wasn’t born there.
“We had deep concerns about people coming into the city and were trying to tell us what to do,” Baraka said. “Newark has a deep history of, you know, politics, activism, families that [have] been involved; Booker was not a part of that."
As the son of poet and civil rights activist Amiri Baraka, Ras is a part of that legacy. Booker on the other hand grew up 30 miles and a world away, in the Bergen County suburbs—though his African-American parents had to sue a real estate broker in order to move there.
He graduated from Yale Law School and moved to Newark in 1997, winning a seat on the city council one year later. Some people were suspicious. In his first campaign for mayor, longtime incumbent Sharpe James called Booker a carpetbagger and worse, in a nasty race documented in the film Street Fight.
Booker lost narrowly, and vowed to run again. And not everyone had written him off.
He formed early alliances with the leaders of Newark's growing Latino population and was embraced by the local business community, who saw the Rhodes Scholar as much needed change from decades of corrupt leadership. Former Mayor Sharpe James later spent time in prison for a fraudulent sale of city land to his mistress.
Booker made inroads with some of city's political elders, like the current council president Mildred Crump.
“I was amazed at his tenacity and determination to break through this wall,” she said, in a recent interview in her city council offices. Crump moved to Newark from Detroit in the 60s, and so she sympathized with the newly-arrived “outsider.”
“What does what does it matter that he wasn't born and reared here,” she said. “He's here now. And [he] had something to offer.”
In Booker’s second bid for mayor in 2006, James had backed out of the race at the last minute, clearing the way for Booker’s victory. And he quickly became an effective spokesman for Newark beyond the city, successfully luring new businesses like Panasonic, Audible and Manischewitz.
“It was a new starting point, a new beginning for the city of Newark,” said Oscar Sanchez, 49, the owner of a wine and liquor store in the Iron Bound, the city’s historically Portuguese neighborhood. “He was a clean slate for us.”
Lifelong resident and activist Richard Cammarieri said those early investments continue to pay off for Newark.
“He certainly did attract more interest to the city by a variety of business,” he said. “As the current Mayor Baraka says, Cory got a number of things onto the football field and Ras is moving them across the goal line.”
But some of Booker’s choices were deeply unpopular. In the midst of a budget crisis he laid off hundreds of municipal workers, including more than one hundred police officers, and raised taxes to plug a budget hole.
His open-armed embrace of charter schools caused friction with teachers unions and even some allies against him. And as for the much-hyped $100 million dollar grant he got from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, many local educators, not to mention Newark school parents, say they were never consulted as to how the money should be spent.
Finally, there was Booker’s stewardship of Newark’s police force. He appointed Garry McCarthy, a white former NYPD Commissioner to lead the department. McCarthy brought New York's strong-arm, broken windows policing strategy to Newark, exacerbating already tense relations with the community, and later requiring a federal monitor to address systemic issues of brutality and civil right abuses.
All these things were fuel for Booker’s growing storm of critics. Current Mayor Ras Baraka led the charge. Political divisions and strained relations with residents boiled over, sometimes violently, like at this 2012 city council hearing that ended in a near riot, a police lockdown, and pepper spray.
Then, nearing the end of his second term, what many Newarkers say they expected all along came to fruition. Booker left for Washington, after winning a special election to fill a vacant US Senate seat. It came not a moment too soon, said Crump, who’d cut ties with Booker by then over charter schools and other issues.
“Hallelujah...he's gone,” she recalls she and others thinking at the time. But concedes that five years down the line, with Booker in D.C. and only in town for photo ops and ribbon cuttings, those tensions have largely dissipated.
“This long distance relationship is working,” she said with a laugh.
Mayor Ras Baraka agreed. Once one of Booker’s fiercest opponents, Baraka endorsed Booker for his Senate run. Last year, Booker returned the favor, coming back to Newark to campaign on Baraka’s behalf. Mayor Baraka called Booker a “total ally” since he’s been in Washington.
“It's always been political and it's always been rivalry...Right now, I think we're on the same side of history,” Baraka said. “It would be a mistake for us not to support Cory Booker.”
And as for Newark being a stepping stone along Booker’s way to a bid for the White House, Richard Cammarieri offered another take.
“Stepping stone, yeah, so what? Did you want him to stay here forever?” Cammarieri said. “For Newark to be a stepping stone, he [had] to do something productive.”
For more, listen to Gwynne Hogan's WNYC segment on Newark residents' feelings about Booker:
Gwynne Hogan is an associate producer at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @GwynneFitz.