Newark Mayor Cory Booker prepares to speak to The Common Good in Midtown Manhattan by moving the podium out of the way

I first saw Cory Booker speak at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. Here’s what I wrote then:

The other Youth Caucus highlight for me was seeing former Newark city councillor Corey Booker. He gave a rousing speech which nearly brough tears to the eyes of everyone in the room, including yours truly. Booker is famous for winning his seat by narrowly-beating an 16-year incumbent with his personal politicking technique of knocking on 40,000 doors. Yes. Fourty. Thousand. Doors. His speech was more of a story of the personal events that drove him to see politics as valuable, as he was assigned to help an elderly woman soon-to-be evicted because of draconian public housing rules which would force this grandmother out because her grandson was caught with drugs.

In the five years since then I’ve become increasingly interested in and convinced of this man’s sincerity and the lessons his path offers to those of us interested in making our neighborhoods, cities and the entire world around us a better place. We’ve written a few times about Mayor Booker at Jack & Jill Politics, most recently with promotion and reviews of the Sundance documentary series “Brick City” which chronicles the mayor’s attempt to reduce violent crime during the summer of 2008. I was so moved by the series that I created and posted the following clip to help drive sales on iTunes

I defy any human being to watch the above clip and not cry. So after immersing myself in Brick City, I finally followed up on years-old advice and watched the documentary film Street Fight, which covers Booker’s first run for mayor against the ever-entrenched, corrupt and embarrassing spectacle that is Sharpe James.

“If you’re going have a spectacular failure you want a documentary film made about it.”

I had become convinced that Booker was worth listening to, and last Thursday I had an opportunity to do so firsthand during a small gathering in Manhattan. There were roughly 50 people in attendance, and Booker did not disappoint. His talk covered his personal story, the plight of American cities, crime, incarceration and recidivism, and most importantly, community involvement in civic life. Here are some highlights and quotes.

“Gangs don’t work Monday through Friday 9 to 5”

I was out Friday evening, still jazzed about the Booker talk, when someone unfamiliar with the mayor asked me to explain his significance. I said the following: “he seems to bring a level of analysis, common sense and execution I’ve rarely seen from elected officials.”

In telling the story of crime reduction in Newark, Booker often talks about the fact that when he took office twice as many police officers worked the day shift as worked the two night shifts, despite the fact that most crime happens at night. Even more counter-intuitively, members of the anti gang task force worked weekdays from 9am to 5pm. The Booker administration noticed both of these nonsensical conditions and has made changes, reallocating cops in a more sensical manner.

Newark has been so successful at violent crime reduction (shootings down 50%; violent crime overall down about 40%) that Booker was offered a position in the Obama administration to head the Office of Urban Affairs Policy. He turned it down cause he’s not done with Newark.

“Sarah Palin would be afraid of my grandmothers.”

So how has this mayor led the nation in violent crime reduction? In part, what the mayor described is using his role not only to direct city services but to coordinate the activities of existing community organizations, offer gun buyback programs, deploy technology to track gunshots and involve the nosiest and most observant people on the block by creating a Senior Citizen Police Academy

As part of the program, participants were given an up-close look at the day-to-day operations and received hands-on training from Newark police officers, which included how to detect and report criminal activity, patrol techniques, and firearms instruction courtesy of the department’s state-of-the-art Firearms Training Simulator (FATS).

Graduates will support the police department at community events such as summer concerts, National Night Out, and Police Week, by manning information booths and stands and giving out information about police programs to other residents.

And no, he’s not sending seniors out to do anything he wouldn’t do himself! The mayor regularly goes out on night patrol himself with his police force until four in the morning. When you are willing to give so much, you’ve then earned the right to ask for those around you to give of themselves as well. It’s what real leadership is.

For more on how Newark has achieved its dramatic reduction in violent crime, check out this report from Government Technology.

“We can only go as a nation as far as we’re willing to take each other.”

In America, it is not popular to consider what happens to criminals. For politicians, this is especially true as they run the risk of being labeled “soft on crime” unless they personally taser suspicious residents on a weekly basis. Yet the tragedy of this country is that in our effort to prove “toughness” we endorse counterproductive and indeed needlessly destructive policies that throw people away into the abyss that is the criminal justice system. We send folks to prison where they are often abused themselves then released back into society, barred from participation and resort to crime, returning to prison at an average national rate of 44 percent within one year and 65 percent within three.

Mayor Booker told us that the recidivism rate for youth inmates at New York’s Rikers Island was 80 percent within one year. Clearly something is broken, but what do we do about it? This is where those coordinated services I referenced above come in. Through programs targeted at youth and young fathers, the recidivism rates are plummeting. I don’t remember the figures he cited, but they were amazingly low.

This is what I mean when I say he’s someone who combines analysis (“hey, look! mass imprisonment doesn’t work”) with common sense (“if what we’re doing doesn’t work and costs ridiculous amounts of money, we should try something else”) with execution (“let’s work with community groups and the state to create programs that attack the root of some of these problems.”)

“We can continue to curse the darkness or light a candle.”

Calling America a “nation of impossible dreams,” Mayor Booker told the touching story of the “lawnmower man.” Here is a resident who noticed drug dealers gathering regularly around tall grass growth near his building. He used his stimulus money to purchase a lawnmower and weed whacker and keeps the plot clear. The drug dealers have moved on. Since this, lawnmower man has started clearing the median across the street to help build a park.

This man is not a city employee. He’s not a professional landscaper. He’s an invested citizen who feels a sense of ownership for his community and is willing to do something to improve that community.

Booker was full of these stories, from lawnmower man to a citizen who charged a shooter and held him down until police arrived, despite being shot twice himself. That citizen is now on the Newark Police Department.

These are inspiring stories of change and of active citizenship, and many of them are driven by a man clearly committed to his city to an extraordinary degree.

“I can reach more people on my Twitter account than the Star Ledger reaches with its Monday edition.”

This is something Booker said in response to an audience question about the declining newspaper industry. While he is concerned about the long term damage to democracy of losing professional journalists, Booker admitted that in the short term, he’s able to get his message out quite effectively with a direct connection to the people of Newark and well beyond.

Indeed, if you follow the mayor on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll get a great sense of the high energy, inspirational, Newark-loving man that he is. Even more interesting to me has been the mayor’s use of YouTube. I made specific reference to his week in review video summaries in This Is How You Mayor, Son!

“I am not in politics for position. I’m in politics for a purpose.”

When the mayor was done speaking, I was the first to throw my hand in the air for the Q&A period. I asked something like the following:

You’ve now experienced what its like to try to clean up someone else’s mess, to deal with entrenched corruption. It’s clear that so much of the change in Newark has come as a result of your personal energy, dedication and passion. But how do you make sure that this change scales across time, into the future, beyond your term as mayor. How do you make sure that the seeds of change grow even when you aren’t there to water them?

It’s a question I take very seriously and so does Booker. He responded in two ways. First, he recommended a book: Built To Last which was written in the context of a corporate environment but has applications for any institution.

Second, he talked about creating institutions or relationships between institutions that would outlast him (which should be easier if they have proven results on their side). Most important, though, he spoke of spreading that passion and sense of ownership on to the citizens who will continue to fight long after he’s mayor.

So much of Booker’s attraction is that he combines a lot of what we like to hear from a politician with the added benefit of leading by example. He’s not just “tough on crime.” He’s “smart about crime.” He doesn’t just ask for more from his citizens. He gives more to his city. I’m sure it’s not all roses in Cory Booker’s world, but I also find it hard to imagine that a person can fake this much sincerity.

It’s safe to say that Cory Booker is the most credible politician I’ve ever come across, and I’ll do my part to support his work, not just by talking about him but doing more myself. I hope his example and these words help you arrive at the same conclusion, not just in Newark, but wherever you live.

When someone asked the mayor how he keeps from feeling overwhelmed by the size of the problems facing his city, especially in a deep recession, he was ready with a response I think all of us can take to heart in every part of our lives:

We allow our inability to do everything prevent us from doing something.

Let’s not go down that path. Instead, let’s do something.

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