Finally, people are paying attention to Newark. NJ. Okay, so maybe only until the May 9th mayoral election. But I'm not complaining. Even the New York Times has devoted a blog to this big-top race between 20-year incumbent Sharpe James, and his baldy earnest challenger, Cory Booker. It's just too bad the media treats this city of 280,000 as the delinquent step-son to New York--a broken, corrupted city good for laughs when nothing funny is going down in Brooklyn.
Though everything about me begs the question--I've watched Newark closely since 1998 and know it better than any of the cities I've lived in. Here's what the media coverage of this race is missing:
First, Sharpe James is a former boxer. He plays with the press like a heavyweight toys with a bantam. And most reporters, with a few exceptions, gleefully submit to his pummeling. It's far easier to report a story about Sharpe James riding a bicycle down the 3rd floor hallways of City Hall to deliver his candidate petitions than to count the number of laws the city broke by siphoning Port Authority payments into capital projects like the downtown arena. I mean, the guy was wearing a straw hat and a tank top for christsakes! And since none of their readers actually care what happens to Newark, it makes for great entertainment. I mean, it's Newark afterall.
Cory Booker isn't that much different. Fresh off-the-plane reporters like to anoint Cory Booker as the incorruptible candidate and the city's next generation savior. The most excited are already counting down to the 2024 presidential primary when Booker would be a ripe 54 years old. He's Yale, Oxford ( Rhodes Scholar thankyouverymuch), Stanford and more earnest to accomplish good than Mister Rogers on Mother's Day.
Cory Booker started as a bright, young thing in Newark. In 1998 he knocked on thousands of doors to beat long-time Central Ward councilman George Branch--an old-style pol who never knew what hit him. I lived in Newark during the summer of 1998 and I remember passing newly-elected Councilman Booker several times on the sidewalk as he walked from his apartment in Brick Towers to City Hall. He smiled as he walked by.
Two years later I saw him again--and he had changed. "He's not in right now," his secretary told the line of Central Ward residents who waited outside his City Hall office hoping to see him. But he was in. I saw other guests, those with more "important" issues than shut-off water or broken traffic lights, enter through a secret side door to see Booker. He hadn't turned into a Sharpe James or copied the most repulsive habits of his fellow council members, but Cory Booker was no longer so bright and new. He got beat in 2002's mayoral election because he thought his shine was intact, and because Sharpe James bused in former Newark residents from South Carolina and Florida to vote.
The 2006 re-match is Booker's race to lose, and he knows it. He's more cautious than a Prudential employee at the corner of Broad and Market streets. Booker is smart enough to know that Sharpe James is throwing out phantom jabs and playing to the crowd. But James is just playing. If the mayor actually tries to seek re-election, Newark voters will resent being toyed with. Booker knows that James can't win the election, but that he can lose it by saying the wrong thing. Booker will continue playing the straight man in the race until it widens in his favor, or he gets really desperate.
Whenever someone asks me to explain what's the matter with Newark I start talking about toilets. I talk about specific toilets--the public restrooms located on the 3rd floor of Newark's city hall. The bathrooms for the council members and the mayor are immaculate, five-star affairs. I saw them when I was doing my interviews for my college thesis. But I also the saw public restrooms located less than sixty feet away. In there I found broken tiles, busted spigots, stalls drapped in caution tape like a crime scene, and urinals backed up all over the floor. Both facilities share the same plumbing, water source, and design plans--but one is for the people in power, and the other is for everyone else. Ever since I encountered this 'tale of two toilets, I've known that the symbol of Newark's failure to address its problems sits a dozen paces from the mayor's own gilded "throne."