The madness of Newark’s King James

Eight-term mayor Sharpe James insists reformist rival Cory Booker isn't black enough to run this troubled city -- and Jesse Jackson plays along.

Topics: Cory Booker,

American politicians are so used to going unchallenged — the turnover rate for incumbents is only a smidge higher than for popes — that when they actually face a rival for the office they believe is theirs, they go nuts.

Witness the campaign craziness going on in Newark, N.J., where the race for mayor has become a case study in the nationwide clash pitting reformers vs. the establishment, the afflicted vs. the comfortable, the politics of ideas vs. the politics of dirty tricks, and a new generation of leaders vs. the members of an elite old guard who have outstayed their welcome and refuse to either think anew or make room for those who do.

In elected office for 32 years, and feeling the heat of a surprisingly tight race, four-term mayor Sharpe James has leveled a variety of lunatic charges against his opponent, city councilman Cory Booker, accusing him of taking money from the KKK and the Taliban, collaborating with Jews to take over Newark, being a “faggot white boy” and (cover your ears, children) a Republican. What makes this mouth-foaming vitriol especially nutty is that Booker is an African-American, a Democrat and a Stanford and Yale Law School-educated Rhodes scholar, who, in case you’re wondering, is straight and hasn’t received a dime from David Duke or Mullah Omar.

Mayor James is acting as if he’s King James and Booker is a traitor to the throne, questioning his divine right to rule. But far from the self-serving apostate portrayed by James, Booker is, in fact, a true reformer of the kind sorely lacking in our national politics — driven by the needs of those left behind, struggling with failing schools, a chronic lack of health insurance and a dearth of affordable housing.

“The tragic thing about Newark,” says Booker, “is that while we sit in one of the richest states in the nation, we’re one of the 10 poorest cities.” This tale of two cities is being played out across America, as ossified politicians push their flash-over-substance agenda.

In Newark, the port city’s downtown area has seen an explosion of high-profile development, including a new performing arts center, a new minor league baseball stadium and the renovation of a number of area office buildings. But as Booker stresses on the campaign trail, most of the people in Newark have yet to benefit from the expansion. Eighty percent of Newark’s public school students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch programs, and the city’s infant mortality rate is twice as high as in the rest of the state. Ready access to the performing arts and minor league baseball is all well and good, but people need their basic needs met before they can benefit from a night at the ballet.



“James,” says Booker, “has been in office as long as I’ve been alive. After 16 years, anything he could have done he should have done.”

Along with being able to communicate and inspire in a way that has drawn comparisons to Bobby Kennedy, Booker has demonstrated a rare ability to bring together the powerful and the powerless — so often the only coalition that can achieve timely social change.

Yet the very people who should be on his side or, at least, impartial are viciously attacking him. Jesse Jackson, who Booker campaigned for in 1988, called him “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” — a not so subtle echo of James’ claim that Booker isn’t black enough. “You have to learn to be an African-American,” King James said of his upstart rival. “And we don’t have time to train you.”

James, like so many desperate officeholders clinging to their station, is simply playing the “authenticity” card. It comes in many guises: In Newark it’s blackness, below the Mason-Dixon it’s good-old-boy bona fides, out West it’s rancher roots and in the suburbs it’s NIMBY street cred.

In another example of cronyism trumping principle, Sen. Jon Corzine, a proud champion of the little people, has endorsed James because he’s done “a good job as the mayor of Newark.” Tell that to the six out of 10 children who don’t graduate from high school, or the 31 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Would Corzine be proud to run on those numbers?

The truth is that James scratched Corzine’s back when the multimillionaire ran for the Senate in New Jersey, and now Corzine is returning the favor. It’s that simple and that crass. And the little people be damned.

It’s ironic that Booker is being attacked for what is most admirable about him: the fact that he’s consumed by his mission “to bring justice to the city.” Since being elected to the city council in 1998, Booker has again and again challenged the Newark political establishment to clean up crime- and drug-infested neighborhoods. He’s called attention to the cause by camping out in the middle of a notorious housing project, going on a hunger strike and spending six months sleeping in an old R.V., traveling from drug hot spot to drug hot spot.

And yet this lay-it-on-the-line commitment has been derided as “a media stunt” by the mayor, a man who owns a Rolls Royce, two boats and multiple homes. The whiff of desperation emanating from the James camp has turned into an outright stench. “He’s totally cynical, careerist and mercenary,” says James-loyalist Glen Ford about Booker — rather startling claims about a guy who turned down big bucks from Wall Street to live in a housing project and take on drug dealers. “I’m a connoisseur of inauthenticity,” says Booker’s Yale Law School dean, Anthony Kronman, “and I don’t see a drop of it in this young man’s soul. He’s totally genuine.”

In a refreshing contrast to his father’s antagonism, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. welcomes the challenge to the status quo that Booker embodies. “Cory,” he told me, “represents a new breed and a new brand of elected official who, if given the chance, can make a significant difference. Instead of discouraging these young leaders, we should do everything in our power to encourage them.”

But former Rep. Floyd Flake is not optimistic about his well-entrenched political peers’ willingness to cede power: “They will fight to the end to hold on to it.”

So what does the tawdry little drama in Newark mean to you in Chattanooga, Honolulu or Columbus, Ohio? Simply put, Sharpe James is a pathetically familiar type nationwide: the backslapping political hack with an unshakable addiction to the prerogatives of power. Cory Booker, the passionate reformer, is a rarer breed. But ask yourself, who’s in charge in your town? A Cory Booker? Or a Sharpe James?

Putting Booker in Newark’s City Hall is a small step toward winning the fight for reform, but it’s a move in the right direction. The next step is a lot harder, but even more vital: encouraging hundreds more like him to join the battle across the nation.

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>