Cory Booker in The Prize

On Budget & Economy: 2010 recession: sold city buildings and raised city taxes

For most of Booker's years as mayor, municipal budgets relied on multimillion-dollar state bailouts to close deficits. In 2010, as Christie cut municipal aid and the recession savaged the nation's poorest cities, Booker sold and leased back sixteen city-owned buildings, raised property taxes sixteen percent, and eliminated one out of four jobs on the payroll.

But in a communication age, when even local news traveled across the globe in an instant, what happened in Newark stayed in Newark--unless Booker tweeted it. Flooding the media universe with his tales of heroism and hope--he posted them on Facebook and Twitter, recounted them on television talk shows, recycled them in speeches all over the country--he effectively washed away downbeat news. Outside Newark, no matter where people looked, they found only the narrative according to Booker.

Source: The Prize, by Dale Russakoff, p. 88 Aug 2, 2016

On Crime: 2010: Layoff police officers to push for union concessions

In May 2012 Booker was in political trouble. Following a nationally heralded drop in violent crime in his first term--showcased on "Brick City"-- murder and mayhem were again on the rise. The summer of 2010 was the bloodiest in twenty years, with thirty-four homicides, many carried out execution-style by gangs. Making matters worse, on this day, November 9, 2010, Booker was about to lay off 167 police officers, including every recruit hired during his first term, as union leaders stiffed his demand for concessions. He speed dialed his chief labor negotiator and shouted what seemed obvious: "We have a crisis on our hands!"
Source: The Prize, by Dale Russakoff, p. 85 Aug 2, 2016

On Crime: Opportunities for dropouts: avoid school-to-prison pipeline

Gone was a plan to spend $50 million on programs for an estimated four thousand teenagers and young adults who had dropped out of school, with few skills and less hope, becoming a recruiting pool for Newark's proliferating gangs. Booker had made "disaffected and at-risk youth" his personal project--and he spoke eloquently of the urgency of connecting young dropouts with learning and economic opportunities, lest they swell the school-to-prison pipeline. But he ended up not raising the money to pay for the initiative, which was quietly shelved, even as intensifying gang violence seemed to validate the mayor's concern.
Source: The Prize, by Dale Russakoff, p.157 Aug 2, 2016

On Education: 2010: Make Newark the nation's charter school capital

In 2010, Mayor Booker presented a proposal titled "Newark Public Schools--A Reform Plan." It warned that a more open political process could be taken captive by unions and machine politicians. "Real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously," the proposal said. Seeking consensus would undercut real reform. One of the goals was to "make Newark the charter school capital of the nation." The plan called for an "infusion of philanthropic support" [because] philanthropy, unlike government funding, required no public review of priorities or spending.

In pitching the plan to donors, Booker portrayed the Newark schools as a prize of a very different sort: a laboratory where the education reform movement could apply its strategies to one of the nation's most troubled school districts. He predicted that Newark would be transformed into "a hemisphere of hope," catalyzing the spread of reform throughout urban America.

Source: The Prize, by Dale Russakoff, p. 20-21 Aug 2, 2016

On Education: OpEd: community engagement or public relations?

The community engagement campaign [for Booker's plan on Newark public schools with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg] "wasn't real community engagement. It was public relations," said a board member of the Foundation for Newark's Future Organizers. No one told them of the tough choices embedded in it, such as closing failing schools, expanding charters, and weakening teacher tenure. If they had known, the organizers said, they would have asked residents to weigh in on these tradeoffs.

Despite Booker's public promises of "bottom-up" reform led by the people of Newark, he quietly hired a team of educational consultants--none of them from Newark--to create a "fact base" of the district's needs and to lay the groundwork for the changes that he and Zuckerberg had agreed on over the summer. Booker raised [$1 million from private sources]. With no public money involved, no public notice was legally required, none was given. The merging of public and private business only progressed from there.

Source: The Prize, by Dale Russakoff, p. 63-64 Aug 2, 2016

On Education: Radical reform needed for youth to move forward

City Council President Donald Payne publicly likened education reform to the so-called Tuskegee Experiment, in which black sharecroppers with syphilis were [unknowingly left untreated by] government doctors. Booker called the remark "unconscionable." Like most elected officials in Newark, Payne had sent his own children to private school (Catholic school, in his case)--a point Booker raised often, asking why the "connected and elected" considered public schools fine for all children except theirs.

Booker delivered a ringing call for radical reform in his State of the City speech. "Bold action and change are difficult, and take great sacrifice, but we must move forward for our children," he said.

The school board elections [dealt Booker] a historic upset: [Booker's reform opponents] won two of the three races, the winning message: "We went door to door telling people 'If you're against what Mayor Booker and Governor Christie are doing to our schools, this is your team.'"

Source: The Prize, by Dale Russakoff, p. 94-6 Aug 2, 2016

On Principles & Values: Pragmatic Democrat: support private/faith-based initiatives

Booker called his political philosophy "pragmatic Democratic," looking to government but also private and faith-based initiatives to address poverty. Departing further from the standard playbook for urban Democrats, Booker became an early champion of charter schools, arguing that the poorest children--like the richest--should be able to opt out of bad schools. He later took the even more unconventional step of embracing vouchers for private schools for the same reason.

Booker was a valuable asset for the almost universally white, rich, Republican voucher movement, which along with the charter movement introduced him to some of his major political donors.

Source: The Prize, by Dale Russakoff, p. 11 Aug 2, 2016

On Principles & Values: 2010 stump speech: Work to perfect America

Booker delivered almost the same speech wherever he went, calling with a heartfelt emotion on his audiences--"we who freely drink from the wells of freedom we did not dig, who eat lavishly from banquet tables prepared for us by our ancestors"-- to work to a perfect America. "From Newark to Oakland, the children are calling to our conscience every day with the same five words: liberty and justice for all. But we are failing in that," he said often. No matter how many times he repeated those phrases, he sounded passionate and spontaneous, and invariably he received standing ovations. Never relying on notes, he seemed to erupt with eloquence and inspiration.
Source: The Prize, by Dale Russakoff, p. 86 Aug 2, 2016

On Education: Urban school districts are beholden to public worker union

[In a joint tour of Newark during Chris Christie's gubernatorial campaign], Mayor Booker turned to Christie and proposed that they work together to transform education in Newark. Together, they could close failing district schools, greatly expand charter schools, and weaken tenure protections -- an agenda the incumbent Democratic governor, Jon Corzine, likely never would have embraced, out of loyalty to teachers' unions. Christie's upset victory over Corzine, in Booker's view, represented "a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get the system on the right track."

Booker warned that they would face a brutal fight with unions and machine politicians invested in the status quo. Whatever their political differences, Booker and Christie agreed completely on public education. Both viewed Urban school districts as beholden to public workers' unions and political patronage rather than children.

Source: The Prize: America's Schools, by Dale Russakoff, pp. 5-6 Sep 8, 2015

On Education: Star fundraiser for Democrats for Education Reform

Booker's 2002 campaign inspired hedge-fund managers to seek out and support more Democrats who embraced charter schools and opposed the influence of teachers' unions on the party. They ultimately formed a political action committee, Democrats for Education Reform, with Booker as one of their star fundraisers. The group's beneficiaries would come to include the 2004 Senate candidate, Barack Obama.

These "venture philanthropists" and called themselves investors rather than donors, seeking returns in the form of sweeping changes to public schooling. President Obama incorporated many of these goals into Race to the Top [with] single-minded focus on what was best for children, even at the expense of upending adult lives and livelihoods.

In the beginning, Democratic politicians almost universally spurned the cause, as did many African-American leaders, perceiving these efforts as threats to the Democratic base in cities: unions, public sector jobs, and politicians who doled them out.

Source: The Prize: America's Schools, by Dale Russakoff, pp. 9 & 13 Sep 8, 2015

The above quotations are from The Prize
Who's in Charge of America's Schools?

by Dale Russakoff
Click here for other excerpts from The Prize
Who's in Charge of America's Schools?

by Dale Russakoff
Click here for other excerpts by Cory Booker.
Click here for a profile of Cory Booker.
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Page last updated: Apr 10, 2019