Street Fight

PBS Premiere: July 5, 2005Check the broadcast schedule »

A Great Black Hope

Cory Booker kept his chin up and a smile on his very-light brown face at the 2004 National Democratic Convention in Boston despite being mistaken by two excited women for Barack Obama. The mistake was understandable. Booker, a Newark, New Jersey mayoral candidate in 2002, had something very special in common with the Illinois senate candidate who had just lit up the convention with a stunningly memorable speech. Both were young, gifted lawyers with Ivy League backgrounds. Obama, the child of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Booker was a Yale Law grad, a Rhodes Scholar and an all-PAC Ten tight-end at Stanford. Both men are former poverty lawyers who soared into rock star popularity as vessels of their party's national hopes. Most of all, as a Washington Monthly profile observed, "They are black people whom white Americans can actually picture being president."

Against that backdrop, during his 2002 challenge to Newark's well-entrenched machine-style mayor, Sharpe James, Booker looked like a sign of changing times. Some perceived him as a "keeper of the dream," a member of the first generation of black leaders to be born after the height of the 1960s civil rights revolution. The 32-year-old Newark city council member grew up in the wealthy Bergen County suburb of Harrington Park but lived in a self-proclaimed public housing "penthouse" by choice. He aggressively pursued the media spotlight for his constituents -- with himself at center stage. In August, 1999, just a year after being elected, he staged a ten-day camp-out and fast outside the crime-plagued Garden Spires housing complex to protest drug and crime problems. When the city's police director refused, at first, to deploy officers to protect Booker and his volunteers sleeping in a tent, Booker chided the James administration's apathy. James came around. He turned the lemon into lemonade with a sudden public photo-op and promises of a new park and an anti-drug crackdown.

Similar stunts at other drug spots helped Booker build his name and his challenge to James. His backers grew to include former Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley, who co-sponsored a fund-raiser, and Al Fromm, chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. His outside endorsers included Barbra Streisand, Yogi Berra and Arianna Huffington, who introduced Booker to such glitterati as Margaret Thatcher, Tina Brown and Alan Greenspan.

But stunts have no lasting value without substance. By refusing to rule out school vouchers, privatization, deregulation and other poverty-fighting ideas not usually found near the top of liberal agendas, Booker generated encouraging words from conservative Republicans like George Will, Jack Kemp and the Wall Street Journal's John Fund. In politics, a great popularity generates a great backlash. As Booker's popularity began to nip at James' heels, Booker's new-found friends on the right presented a ripe target for some of the ugliest race cards any modern big city politician ever played. "You have to learn to be an African American," James said in one of his milder rhetorical shots at Booker. "And we don't have time to train you."

Here, too, Booker exemplified the sort of hardball race-based politics faced by other new-wave centrist, racial-outreach black mayors, such as Detroit's Dennis Archer and Cleveland's Michael White (both now out of office), or the District of Columbia's current mayor, Anthony Williams. Each faced such epithets as "Uncle Tom," "tool of the Reagan Right" or "sellout to the suburbs" from black opponents who had few or no other cards left.

Booker's political education continued. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton came to town to campaign for James -- even though Booker volunteered to help Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign. National websites like The Black Commentator warned ominously that the James-Booker race was "no local contest," but "a test of the Hard Right's new Black Strategy, applicable anywhere else in the country."

In fact, far from being "hard right," Booker is a centrist Democrat trying to carve out a new "third way" like his fellow black post-boomers Rep. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., of Illinois and Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, among others. But, before a new generation of black leadership can move in, it must deal one way or another with the current one which is in no hurry to be replaced, whether their tactics and methods have played out or not.

"They will fight to the end to hold on to it," said Queens minister and former congressman Floyd Flake, another voucher-supporting Democrat. "The younger guys are going to have to make their way, because what's really most threatening to them is that here is a generation of kids that are not locked up in the struggles of the civil-rights era. And the older generation is saying, 'They're not ready because they're not black enough'? It's a sad indictment on us as a race."

Booker has indicated he will run again in 2006. James, in his late 60s, has not stated whether he will run for a sixth term. Either way, Booker has learned important lessons.

Among them is the value of the famous dictum from late House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill: "All politics is local." Regardless of how big a name one makes nationally, retail politics rule at the street level. The voters look for simple grass-roots services -- getting garbage picked up, streets cleaned and drug dealers arrested, as well as a steady paycheck for the family and maybe a nursing home bed for grandma. The bigger the prize, the bigger the fight.

Like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama, Cory Booker is part of a new wave of pragmatic black political figures who appear who have turned their race, long a political deficit for anyone seeking white votes nationwide, into an asset. With that in mind, Booker may have been surprised to find not white people, but other black people so quick to play the race card against him in Newark. He will not be so easily fooled again.

Clarence Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. As a freelance writer, he has been published in Chicago magazine, Washington Monthly, New Republic and The Wall Street Journal. He has also written or contributed to several books, is a regular contributor of essays to The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and a host of several documentaries on PBS. Mr. Page lives and writes in Washington, D.C.