Booker Fights Newark Crime With OT as Trenton Begs Help

Newark Mayor Cory Booker
Newark Mayor Cory Booker won the mayor’s seat in 2006 and again in 2010. Photographer: Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

Newark, New Jersey’s biggest city, had 10 killings in as many days. Trenton, the state capital, reached a record 32 homicides this year. Governor Chris Christie, heading toward a second term, is forcing urban mayors to confront the crime wave largely on their own.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate, approved police overtime and increased patrols in high-crime neighborhoods. Trenton Mayor Tony Mack, who is awaiting trial on federal corruption charges, asked Christie for $46.4 million to hire more officers. The Republican governor refused to work with Mack, though he sent state police in to help.

Christie’s fiscal 2011 budget cuts prompted cities to fire hundreds of police officers, leading to claims of longer response times and stretched departments. The governor, who this week pledged $15 million to aid victims of a fire that destroyed Seaside’s oceanfront boardwalk, needs to help its cities, too, Booker said during an interview yesterday in Washington.

“The answer can’t be ‘We can’t do anything,’” said Booker, 44. “There’s a fire on the boardwalk and he’s putting $15 million into helping those families. So there’s a fire in some of our cities, too.”

Christie and Booker, though members of different parties, bonded on issues such as education, pushing for independently operated charter schools in communities with high failure rates. They appeared together on Oprah Winfrey’s television show in 2010 to accept a $100 million pledge for Newark schools from Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Wall Street

Booker also won support from Wall Street investors to help Newark overcome crime and poverty that took root after 1967 race riots left 26 dead and led people to resettle in the suburbs.

Nicolas Berggruen, chairman of Manhattan-based private-equity firm Berggruen Holdings Inc., is among the backers of Teachers Village, a $150 million development in Newark. Hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman, founder of New York-based Pershing Square Group LLC, donated millions of dollars for security cameras and other law-enforcement tools.

Since Booker became mayor in 2006, homicides in the city of 278,000 residents have dropped 17 percent; rape, 38 percent; and aggravated assault, 12 percent, according to statistics released by James Allen, his spokesman. Still, Newark saw nine straight days of killings and recorded its 10th on Sept. 4, hours after the mayor announced the stepped-up patrols.

Not Safe

Trenton has no Wall Street investors willing to be what Booker calls “venture philanthropists.” A one-time manufacturing hub, a quarter of its 84,500 residents live in poverty. At night and on weekends and holidays, the downtown commercial district is empty because state government, the city’s biggest employer, is closed.

Mack, 47, took office in 2010. In December, the Democrat pleaded not guilty to eight corruption charges, including bribery, extortion and mail and wire fraud, after an FBI sting involving plans to build a parking garage on a city-owned lot. Mack has refused to resign, and collects a salary of $126,000 a year while awaiting a January trial.

In an Aug. 2 letter to Christie, Mack asked for $46.4 million over four years to hire 75 police officers. He said the force is down 44 percent to 241 employees from 428 authorized, as a result of a 42 percent drop in state aid to $44 million, in three years. He said he expected “some resistance” and encouraged state mandates to “to avoid waste and abuse.”

‘No Response’

Christie, a prospective 2016 presidential candidate, told reporters on Aug. 12 that he had “no response to anything the indicted mayor of Trenton has to say.” Three days later, acting Attorney General John Hoffman, citing the city’s “war-zone conditions,” announced a temporary deployment of state police for the fourth time in 18 months.

Neither Mack nor Ralph Rivera Jr., the city’s police director, responded to telephone calls seeking comment on the rise in murders.

From January to August, violent crime in Trenton dropped 5 percent and nonviolent crime fell 12 percent, from the same period last year. Homicides more than tripled, though, to 31 from 10. Robbery with a firearm increased 23 percent, and assault with a gun, 21 percent, according to state police uniform crime reports.

Even an ex-Trenton police officer, George Muschal, now a City Council member, says the state shouldn’t have a role in fixing the city’s problem.

“I back Christie not giving any funds to Trenton until Mack gets out of there,” said Muschal, 65, first elected five years ago. “I ran on ‘Safe, Clean and Prosperous.’ It sure isn’t safe. It’s not clean. And nobody’s going to come and invest here.”

Little Fallout

Not helping Trenton wouldn’t have the same political impact for Christie in 2016 as not aiding Newark, said Brigid Harrison, who teaches law and politics at Montclair State University.

“There would be very little fallout from him not rushing in to Trenton’s aid,” she said. “For Jane or Joe average voter, in a presidential election, the thing that will stick out in their mind is the relationship with Cory Booker, because Booker and the city of Newark are so much more high-profile.”

Booker, 44, a Yale Law School graduate and Oxford University scholar, uses his Twitter Inc. Internet account to communicate with 1.4 million followers, telling them about rescuing a neighbor from a fire, his weight struggles and tackling potholes. He’s favored to win a special Oct. 16 election to fill the seat held by Democrat Frank Lautenberg until he died in June at age 89.

County Force

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, called Trenton “isolated,” and of little concern to most New Jerseyans.

“Most people don’t go to the state capital,” he said. “Only if it starts spilling beyond Trenton -- then it becomes a risk for Christie.”

Christie has said Trenton should consider modeling itself after Camden, New Jersey. After a record 67 homicides in 2012, that city outside Philadelphia fired all its officers and recast its police as a unit of the Camden County force in April.

From May to July, gun recoveries increased 76 percent and homicides declined 29 percent compared with the same period last year, according to statistics released by Michael Daniels, a spokesman for the Camden County force.

Booker said the surge in violence is happening across the state, from Atlantic City to Irvington. Though Christie has been “a partner” in helping Newark fight crime, the same can’t be said when it comes to other cities, he said.

“There’s a crisis in New Jersey,” Booker said. “There can’t be this universal throwing up our hands. The question is how do we get folks to the table to work together? It’s obviously not happening in Trenton right now.”