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.