Booker Senate Run Imperils Newark’s Wall Street Pipeline

Even before Cory Booker won his first term as Newark mayor in 2006, he was mining Wall Street contacts for an antidote to the blight that had gripped New Jersey’s most populous city for more than four decades.

Seven years later, hedge-fund founders including Bill Ackman and Leon Cooperman have donated more than $6 million for public safety and recreation, and Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has pledged $100 million for schools. By Booker’s count, he’s drawn $1 billion in economic development, from residential lofts to Panasonic Corp.’s $200 million North American headquarters, opening next month.

Now Booker’s ambition for national office threatens to cut the city’s access to a moneyed network he has cultivated to help recast Newark as an alternative to Manhattan, 20 minutes away by rail. A 44-year-old Democrat, Booker is the frontrunner among six candidates seeking to replace U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, a five-term Democrat who died June 3.

“A lot of the money that is pouring into Newark is because of Cory Booker’s charisma and personality and ability to reach out nationally,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, New Jersey. “Unfortunately, Cory Booker has not set up the infrastructure to maintain that legacy.”

Big Lead

In his 2006 mayoral run, Booker won with 72 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2010 with 59 percent. For his Senate race, in which the winners of an Aug. 13 primary will face off in an Oct. 16 election, he has support from more than half of Democrats, according to a June 10 Quinnipiac University poll.

His closest opponent, Representative Rush Holt, had 10 percent, and Frank Pallone, a 25-year veteran of Congress, had 9 percent. The poll didn’t include state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who announced her candidacy on June 10.

Booker, who grew up in the northern New Jersey suburb of Harrington Park, was a Rhodes Scholar and Yale University-educated lawyer who moved to Newark in 1996. The mayor said an increase in the city’s population in the 2010 census was its first growth in six decades, and proof that his focus on crime reduction and economic development are working.

“When I took office, some people said we couldn’t get crime rates under control,” Booker told campaign supporters. “But today, the streets are safer and the city’s population is up, because more families can see a better future for themselves here.”

Twitter Master

A frequent Twitter user with 1.3 million followers, Booker has sent more than 28,000 messages, from inspirational quotes to responses to residents’ complaints. He often tags along with police patrols, popping out of squad cars for pick-up basketball games or curbside chats with loitering teenagers.

Booker gained national attention last year for saving a neighbor from a fire and for living on food stamps for a week to show the difficulty of relying on the government-assistance program. He was a speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and helped lead its platform committee.

At home, Booker has often been under siege from the city council and municipal unions. The council has refused to approve a plan he first raised in 2010 to plug a deficit by leasing the city’s water system.

City Plight

Some critics say Booker is more concerned with his national image than the plight of Newark, where about one-fourth of its 278,000 residents live in poverty. The city has struggled to recover from 1967 race riots that left 26 people dead, turned neighborhoods into ruin and sent middle-class residents fleeing to the suburbs.

A year into Booker’s first term, residents and union members jammed into a council meeting to demand his ouster after he proposed firing city workers. In 2010, the Newark Fraternal Order of Police rejected a package Booker proposed to avert the loss of more than 160 officers, saying it would lead to pay and benefits that were too low to support families.

After his police firings, shootings climbed 43 percent in the first six months of 2011, following a 46 percent drop over his first four years in office. Through this April, crime is up about 3 percent from the same period of 2012, largely because of an increase in robberies, as violent offenses have declined.

Senate Seat

Urged by members of his party to challenge Christie for governor, Booker opted instead in December to explore seeking Lautenberg’s seat. Two months later, the senator said he wouldn’t run again. He died at 89 of complications from viral pneumonia.

The mayor’s popularity giving speeches at colleges and dinners earned him $1.3 million from 2008 to 2013, according to a May financial-disclosure form. He paid more than $400,000 in taxes on the income and donated more than $600,000 to charity, according to his campaign.

“The speaking opportunities have provided benefits for the city of Newark,” Booker’s campaign spokesman, Kevin Griffis, said in a statement released after the disclosures. “They have helped the mayor connect to philanthropists and developers and attracted talented people to the city.”

For his 2010 re-election, Booker raised $6.5 million from donors including Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Loews Corp. Co-Chairman Jonathan Tisch and Tiger Management LLC founder Julian Robertson. Less than a year from the May 2014 mayoral election, the three candidates looking to replace him had a combined $277,482 in their campaign accounts as of mid-April.

Booker Network

In an interview last year, Booker said he had been creating a web of political-, business- and tech-savvy friends since his days as a Stanford University undergraduate.

“In the beginning I could have given you a tree about how this person led to this person, led to these people,” Booker said. “Now it’s become so interwoven that it’s hard to pull out the strands of a lot of these relationships.”

None of the other mayoral candidates can match that networking, said Rahaman Muhammad, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 617, whose 3,000 members include Newark’s public-works and public-housing employees.

“One of my biggest criticisms is what he does is not sustainable for Newark, unless you have those types of ties, unless you run in those circles” said Muhammad, 44. “Most of that is going to go with him.”

Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for Facebook, declined to comment on whether Zuckerberg had confidence in Newark without Booker in City Hall. Newark’s mayorship has no term limits, meaning Booker could run again if he lost his Senate bid.

Booker, speaking June 8 at his Senate announcement in Newark, said he was confident that the city projects begun under him will continue even if he moves on to the Senate.

“There’s a forward momentum in Newark that will be impossible to stop,” he said.

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