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Can Cory Booker Keep It Together?

29 January 2013 No Comment

The mayor of Newark is in control of his own narrative like no other man or woman in politics. But will he be able to run the same show from the national stage?

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Image by John Gara/Buzzfeed

CORY BOOKER IS in a meeting when the column goes online. A big-name, top-notch brand wants to build a “massive site” in Newark, N.J., and Booker is busy courting a potential billion dollars in development for his city. By the time the article goes live — The Stanford Daily with the scoop! — the mayor’s staff is already aware. Booker had them up all night and day on the phone about it.

“That took 48 hours of our time,” says Modia Butler, Booker's chief of staff.

Booker wrote the 700-word article in 1992, during his final year at Stanford. He was keeping up a weekly column for the Daily — published maybe 15 pieces in total — and says he wrote about “every hot button issue there was, from rape to race.”

This particular column happened to focus on Booker's struggle with homophobia. BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski had actually found it first, but was waiting on comment from Booker's office before a young pup journalist at the Stanford paper jumped the gun and published it first.

It was a good find: The Mayor of Newark was dramatic 22-year-old. “I was disgusted by gays,” reads one of the opening lines. “Allow me to be more direct, escaping the euphemisms of my past — I hated gays.” But in the rest of the column, Booker details in much eloquence the way in which his teenage self underwent a radical transformation on the issue — “It didn't take me long to realize that the root of my hatred did not lie with gays but with myself” — and ends with a flourish: an oath to “continue to struggle for personal justice.”

With the column online, the mayor's staff is calm — like nothing ever happened. Booker's calm, too. The response to the piece on Twitter is, somehow, overwhelmingly positive. “Cory Booker was even super awesome in 1992,” one fan tweeted. Booker responds: “I was writing about my teenage struggle for integrity. Thanks.”

But this doesn't surprise Booker. He may not trust reporters to tell a true story about him or his career or his city, but he does, unequivocally, trust himself — that, even two decades later, he can control.

“The problem is, I really like my 22-year-old self,” Booker says in between handfuls of lunch, a can of Planters. The mayor sits at the head of a mahogany conference table in his large office. City Hall, at the heart of downtown Newark, is an improbably beautiful rotunda-style building with carved marble and a copper dome gilded in 24-karat gold — all the fixings for America's favorite mayor.

Booker leans back in his chair, his hands clasped behind his head.

“I took my columns as a way to address what I considered social justice issues that weren't being talked about. I hadn't read that one in 10 years probably. I was pretty proud of myself.”

But to have a long-forgotten piece of writing dredged up from two-decade-old archives is the sort of media phenomenon still foreign to the 43-year-old mayor of New Jersey's largest city. The disadvantage of being a rising national star, and an all-but-certain candidate for U.S. Senate, is that you have reporters and opposition researchers exhuming your early years — and all of your years — for something that will stick.

Booker, it would seem, now has too much of what he once lacked.

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When he first ran for mayor more than 10 years ago, the then-city councilman had a problem that he has since attacked with admirable, obsessive diligence: Name recognition, his polling indicated, was the snag in Booker’s failed campaign against five-term incumbent mayor Sharpe James, a corrupt yet popular mainstay in the rough and tumble political class of Newark.

Booker would knock on every door in vain that year. In the opening scenes of Street Fight, a documentary film that follows the 2002 campaign, Booker pokes his head into half-open doors and yells into dark windows. “I'm Cory Booker, you ever hear my name?” he asks. “I'm not sure if you've ever heard of me, but I'm the city councilman from the Central Ward, but now I'm running for mayor.”

In the decade that followed his loss — he would run for mayor again in 2006, this time successfully — Booker took steps to create and shape a public narrative around his career of service: He founded a grassroots non-profit, Newark Now; starred in the Sundance Channel's documentary series, Brick City; became a prominent surrogate during President Obama's reelection campaign; created his own digital media company, Waywire; and built a national constituency on Twitter, where he sends inspirational quotes to his 1.3 million-plus followers at all hours of the night and DMs his cell phone number to Newarkers in need.

When residents alert their mayor to neighborhood trouble — a broken streetlight or dangerous pothole, a pit bull roaming the streets — the mayor's typical response on Twitter is, simply, “On it.” Rarely does Booker reply directly to complaints — he retweets them, with his own response tacked on to the front of the message. Better all his follows get to see. In Newark, the mayor is on it — and the whole world knows it, too.

Booker's crusade to lead his life, and his mayorship, in the public eye has no doubt launched him and his city into the spotlight. But since announcing his bid for U.S. Senate last month — in its nascent stages, already high drama — Booker has been thrust into the curious moment in which his career, extending for the first time beyond the city limits, is catching up at last to the national persona he helped craft for himself.

The decision to run for Senate in part precipitated what the mayor calls a period of “adjustment.” Booker is a man who wants to control the narrative around his life and career — he writes his own tweets, picks fights with reporters over unfair stories, and has outlined his next career move so rigorously in his own mind that he'll sometimes talk as if he's already got the job, letting slip a line about what he “will do” when he is Senator. But amidst mounting media scrutiny, Booker is still learning what it takes to keep running the show from his new spot on the national stage.


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