The Cory Booker-Obama Parallel

1200687773A lot has been made of the similarities of Barack Obama and Deval Patrick, and not necessarily in a positive way. The chief worry underscoring all this is that Obama could potentially find himself in a similar bind as Patrick: cruising into office on a tidal wave of hope and lofty rhetoric, which promptly crashes after the inauguration, leveling the gingerbread Potemkin hope village erected so ably by the candidate out on the trail.

The politics of hope are swell, but damn, you have to have some practical knowledge of governance or else you—and we—are screwed.

It’s interesting, however, that Newark mayor Cory Booker’s name hasn’t come up a lot in this discussion. Booker is a similar type of black politician as the other two. He’s a fresh face who gives great speeches. He raises hopes. He convinces the cynical that, yes, it’s possible that a politician can make the country/state/city a better place to live. He’s smart, accessible, and has the ability to transcend the old cultural fights and appeal to black and white voters alike.

So, if it’s worthwhile to look at Patrick’s first year and try to draw from that trainwreck a sense of what we’d get out of Obama, it’s probably also worth it to look at the first year of Booker.

Certainly, this observation by a Newark political wonk to the WaPo, on the eve of Booker’s inauguration, can be applied equally to Patrick: “It’ll be interesting to see what happens when Cory Booker has to start saying no to people. And we’ll have to see how well he works with state executives, where there are lots of egos and very experienced politicians. These people may like Booker, but that’s different than negotiating with him over scarce resources.”

Booker was the subject of the terrific political documentary, “Street Fight,” which showed the difficulty of a young politician taking on a vicious entrenched politician in a corrupt, shit-poor and inexorably violent city.

Booker lost (the mayor, Sharpe James, had gone around telling everyone, from Newark citizens to national talk-show hosts, that Booker was alternately gay, white, Jewish and a member of the KKK, and used his own fire department to remove his opponent’s campaign signs), but he ran again in 2006 and took the race.

Since then Booker has had a mixed record. Profoundly attuned to the value of symbolism during the campaign, Booker lived in a notorious housing project while he was running, and stayed there until his own Cadillac moment, when he moved out after the inauguration to rent someplace nicer (he’s taken heat for not buying a place, feeding the perception that he’s treating this job like a stepping stone to better things, presumably not in Newark).

But, unlike Patrick, whose involvement in state affairs seldom seems to transcend the writing and distribution of various press releases, Booker has actually accomplished a good deal by dint of sheer, grinding hard work. He’s convinced local companies to kick in money to fund apprentice job programs (Newark’s unemployment rate is 8.5 percent), he’s cracked down on unruly bars and restaurants that have traditionally flouted the city’s inspection arm, improved neighborhood services, and set up a program offering free counseling and part time jobs to reentering ex-cons.

But, at the same time, the murder rate is still sky-high, his hiring of a bunch of white people for key jobs pissed off a good chunk of the predominantly black city, and a tax increase he imposed to fund social programs has spurred a recall vote by his enemies.

“I’m worn,” Booker said as his first anniversary in office approached, a period in which he took two days off. “Everything is hard. I’ve been losing my temper more.”

But for that agony-in-the-garden moment, he’s been relentlessly optimistic and energetic, and, perhaps more important, visible, touring with cops, watching outdoor movies with citizens, playing with kids. “To be a mayor of a big city, you have to push on so many fronts,” he told the Star-Ledger in Newark. “To gain on any inch of ground takes a lot of effort.”

The question for Obama then, as we run through the primaries, isn’t whether he’ll be like Patrick, but whether he’ll be more like Booker. Whether he’ll be able to maintain all the hope-talk and cheerleading while recognizing that actually changing things is brutally, soul-crushingly hard work that requires the sort of compromises that will have the grassroots true believers absolutely screaming in horror.

It’ll be interesting to see. During the Patrick campaign I was extremely worried that there wasn’t any substance or plan behind the rhetoric, particularly when people kept coming away from his speeches both teary-eyed and incapable of recalling what Patrick had actually said. I’m similarly worried about Obama, though I do like him.

Certainly there was a lot of that with Booker too, summed up perfectly in “Street Fight.” The movie’s worth a viewing for this scene alone, and what it says about the ascendant brand of politics personified by Patrick, Obama and Booker. Here’s the Post‘s telling of it:

It’s Saturday, just before Booker’s inaugural address. Two video screens descend from the rafters of the performing arts center, and on them flickers a scene from “Street Fight.” It’s nighttime and Booker has sprinted across a street to shake hands with voters. In the crowd is a little girl, swooning. She just met Cory Booker, she shouts into the camera. “If you don’t believe me, smell my hands.” Smell your hands? “What does Cory Booker smell like?” asks director Marshall Curry. She waves her hand in front of her face. You expect “cologne” or “pizza” or something like that. “He smells like the future,” she says.