A star's setback

He was supposed to be the dreamboat savior of a troubled New Jersey city. Then he lost.

By Seth Mnookin
May 15, 2002 6:16PM (UTC)
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The Brasilia restaurant in Newark's Ironbound district was packed tight, with hundreds of people all inching their way through a maze of long tables to get to an overflowing buffet of chicken, sausage and green beans. Waiters carried trays piled with Cokes and beer. The Brasilia had started to fill up just after 8 p.m., when the polls closed, and by 9 it was hard to move in or out.

That New Jersey's largest city holds its nonpartisan municipal elections in the middle of the spring is just one of the many ways Newark sets itself apart from the rest of the world. This is a city, after all, that's still trying to move past the gruesome legacy of the 1967 race riots that decimated the city's downtown. Cory Booker was supposed to be a big step in a new direction.


Booker, a made-for-TV dreamboat of a candidate, was challenging Sharpe James, the comically entrenched four-term incumbent, a man who saw no shame in tooling around town in a Rolls, a man who thinks nothing of tarring his opponent -- publicly -- by calling him "faggot white boy" or accusing Booker (who, like James, is an African-American and a Democrat) of being owned by the Jews and the Ku Klux Klan.

Let's back up. For those who have somehow missed the spate of news articles and network news profiles and "Today Show" interviews and NPR spotlights, here's a quick rundown: Cory Booker is 33 years old. He went to Stanford and Yale Law, and is a Rhodes scholar. After law school, Booker opted to move to Newark and become an activist. He ran for city council and, against the odds, won. Over the past four years, he's become a media cause cilhbre, staging stunts like pitching a tent and embarking on a hunger strike in a drug-infested housing project until the cops were shamed into cleaning up the area.

Sharpe James is 66. He's held elective office in Newark for as long as Booker's been alive. And while James' tenure has encompassed some impressive changes -- the city's Performing Arts Center is as beautiful a concert hall as you're likely to find in America -- outside of downtown, Newark is still mired in a poverty and despair that feels foreign to residents of American cities that participated in the boom of the 1990s, particularly those looking down, with upturned noses, from just across the river in New York.


But in the end, all of Booker's charm, and all the love bestowed upon him from luminaries on the left and the right -- the George Wills and Arianna Huffingtons and Barbara Streisands -- was not enough. Just after 9:30 p.m., one of the Brasilia's big-screen sets showed James leading by a couple of thousand votes, already a huge margin in a race where less than 55,000 people voted. The largely white crowd in this mainly minority city tried to stay hopeful, but there were enough realists here to know that it looked grim.

By 9:50, when Booker's closest campaign advisors began trickling into the parking lot next to the Brasilia, it was clear there would be no victory celebration. One woman, bleary-eyed and unsteady on her feet, warned friends not to hug her lest she break down crying. The men and women who had given up jobs on Wall Street, who had moved from California, who had taken time off from their Silicon Alley gigs to go door-to-door for Booker began getting good and trashed.

At 10:15, the sound system faded out of James Taylor's "You've Got a Friend" and into a hoary old Survivor tune, "Eye of the Tiger." Booker, looking beatific, surged to the front pushed by a group of grown men, many with tears staining their cheeks. As he reached the stage, a smile burned on his face.


"Tonight there are two victory parties going on in Newark," Booker yelled to the crowd. His voice featured the same level of ardor and conviction it showed during his stump speeches. "When I finish this speech I am going to call Sharpe James and concede the election. I will pledge to work with Sharpe James over the next four years to fight for all the things we've been fighting for over the last six months." In the end, with 99 percent of the city's precincts reporting, Booker trailed by nearly 4,000 votes.

At this point, a man, swaying perilously near a pool of vomit, yelled, "We'll be back!"


"We don't even need to say we'll be back because we're never going anywhere," Booker responded. "My friends, we said that during the campaign that we have challenges in the city of Newark. We have before us a battle still. We lost one skirmish tonight? But the fight starts right now for the potential for the great city of Newark. I have yet to begin to start to fight for our people, so I say batten down the hatches. Cory Booker is not going away."

Booker, speaking as always without notes, was shouting himself hoarse, and the sound system was reverberating with feedback from his screams. Booker looked calm and focused, as did his parents, who made their way through the crowd thanking supporters. "This is just a beginning," his mom said. "There's a lot of work to be done."

Some of his supporters were not so sure. Cynthia Tronco, who moved to Newark in 1991, could barely speak. "I'm depressed to the point where I'm calling real estate agents to sell my home," she said, tears streaming down her face. "My outlook for the future is poor. People here expect nothing and so when they get nothing they aren't disappointed. People here have been pushed down for so long they almost feel like they don't deserve any better."


An hour later, on a train back to Manhattan, Karlla Welch, a 29-year-old geneticist, was less pessimistic. Welch lives in Queens; she had woken up at 5:15 that morning to spend the day volunteering in Newark. "I'm surprised he didn't win," Welch said at the beginning of an hour-plus trip home. "And obviously I'm disappointed. But it's hardly the end of Cory Booker. He'll continue to fight. And I'll probably stay involved too. I really enjoyed being a part of a campaign that was so fundamentally significant. I really liked the energy."

A couple of seats away, Jamie Rosen, a 31-year old Internet entrepreneur, agreed. "It was awesome seeing how politicized the city was," he said. And indeed, voter turnout was unusually high for Newark Tuesday. "The signs, the SUVs with speakers. It's hard not to look at that as a good thing."

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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