About halfway through my meeting with Cory Booker, I ask him an embarrassing question. What's it like to be called "a genius" by Oprah Winfrey in the pages of Time magazine?
The 42-year old mayor of New Jersey's biggest city looks slightly abashed. "She's incredibly gracious, but that was way over the top," he says.
He goes on to muse about how nice it would be to have a person on his staff "who tells me that my sweat don't stink." After I leave, he asserts, his communications director will tell him how badly he did in our interview.
This is absurd - Mr. Booker doesn't do badly in interviews.
The mayor of Newark is possibly the worst-kept secret in American politics. Meeting him is like encountering a human light bulb radiating charisma. Mr. Booker's talents and résumé have elicited comparisons to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Like Mr. Clinton, he is a former Rhodes Scholar who has a gift for connecting with the person in front of him. Like Mr. Obama, he is part of a new generation of black politicians successfully navigating the shifting terrain of race in America.
In many ways, though, his story is all his own. Mr. Booker grew up in a prosperous New Jersey suburb, but moved to a housing project in one of Newark's poorest neighbourhoods while still a law student. Over the years, he has passed up opportunities that would bring him more money and prestige, including a role advising on urban policy in Mr. Obama's administration.
By sticking with his quest to improve Newark, a place once considered unsalvageable, Mr. Booker has emerged at the forefront of the fight to advance American cities in an era of scarce resources.
Faced with cash-strapped budgets and struggling schools, he secured a $100-million (U.S.) donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to reform the education system. He has deployed his considerable charm and extensive Rolodex to lure large businesses to the city. Mr. Booker is also at the vanguard of a group of politicians, among them Calgary's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, who have embraced social media with zeal.
Less than 20 kilometres from New York, Newark was once a poster child for urban decay. Today, it is a city where concrete signs of renewal co-exist with problems ranging from poverty to gang violence to low graduation rates. If Mr. Booker can show progress on such issues, it will not only determine his path toward higher office, but also offer lessons that will resonate throughout the country. The clock is already ticking, literally: Mounted on a wall in his office is a digital display that reads 1,099. A gift from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it is counting down the days left in his current term.
On Mr. Booker's desk is a selection of the world's holy books, from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita, together with a humble lunch of hard-boiled eggs and three smart phones. One of them is devoted solely to social media, which he believes are transforming politics. Mr. Booker is the undisputed Twitter champ among American mayors, with four times as many followers as constituents (more than one million at last count; Mr. Bloomberg, by contrast, has 90,000).
Although he was skeptical at first, Twitter "has blown me away," Mr. Booker says. People send him tweets about broken water mains, busted streetlights or potholes. He responds briefly - "On it" - and keeps up a flow of news about Newark and inspirational quotations ("If the wind will not serve, take to the oars.").
During the massive snowstorm that struck the New York area this past winter, Mr. Booker hit the streets with his phone and a shovel, personally answering pleas by residents posted on Twitter to dig them out. His efforts won him fans well beyond the city limits. One New Yorker wrote, "Hey @CoryBooker if you come plow my street in Brooklyn, I'll vote for you when you run for President. Bloomberg hasn't done jack."
Mr. Booker's passion for connecting extends to some high places. Last year, he attended a retreat for media and tech moguls in Idaho. While there, he fell into conversation with Facebook's Mr. Zuckerberg. The result was his unprecedented donation to Newark's school system. "This is a guy I want to invest in," Mr. Zuckerberg later recalled thinking.
A former college football star and long-time vegetarian, Mr. Booker stands 6-foot-3 and will tell you that his proudest recent accomplishment is losing 30 pounds. He is never at a loss for words. When he talks about his work, he uses terms that you're not used to hearing, let alone believing, from a politician. "We all try and live our lives in a way that resonates most with what our purpose is," he says. "I've never felt more in alignment with my purpose than I am in this job."
Journey into urban blight
The son of two of the first African-American executives at IBM, Mr. Booker and his family were "the four raisins in a tub of vanilla ice cream" in their lily-white New Jersey town, his father has said. After a meteoric academic career (Stanford University, Rhodes Scholar, Yale law school), Mr. Booker decided to seek his purpose in Newark, where urban blight and deep-seated racial tensions dated to the 1960s.
At Oxford, he dated Jodi Evans, a Canadian Rhodes Scholar and former Olympic athlete ("an amazing human being," he says with typical enthusiasm). Now a management consultant in Vancouver, Ms. Evans recalls travelling with him to Greece and wishing that just once they could have dinner à deux, without Mr. Booker engaging the host or other diners in conversation. "He just loves people," she says.
Ms. Evans later visited his home in Newark's Brick Towers, remembering a graffiti-ridden, half-abandoned housing project smelling of urine, and marvelled that he would choose to live there. Mr. Booker's commitment to the city is "all genuine and it has been there since day one," she says. He may have bigger goals, she says, "but his immediate one is doing this and doing this right."
For someone long pegged as a political star, Mr. Booker's career had a rocky start. He became a city councilman in 1998, but four years later lost his bid to unseat then-mayor Sharpe James. In a campaign immortalized in the documentary Street Fight, Mr. James branded Mr. Booker an interloper, accusing him of being white, Jewish, gay and Republican (Mr. Booker is a Democrat who attends a Baptist church and tells everyone he meets that he is looking for a wife). Mr. James was later convicted of fraud and spent 19 months in prison.
A murder-free month
On his second try in 2006, Mr. Booker won the job and notched up some impressive accomplishments. With the aid of a new police chief, crime plummeted. In March, 2010, the city experienced its first murder-free month in 44 years. Since then, however, crime rates have jumped. Budget pressures also led to a showdown between Mr. Booker and the police union, which ended with layoffs.
This summer, Mr. Booker is once again joining cops on nightly patrols, a tactic he adopted in his first term. The next three months are "proving grounds for me and my administration," he says. "In the face of the biggest challenges, can we drive crime down? And, mark my words, we will."
Newarkers say Mr. Booker has made huge strides in improving the city's image. "Newark has historically craved attention … and now we have it," notes Clement Price, a historian at Rutgers University. That spotlight, he says, is largely a function of the mayor's "personal magnetism and attractiveness, his academic and, perhaps, moral pedigree."
However, he is no longer a new kid on the block. "He doesn't have much of a future in politics if he is perceived as the mayor who promised to fix Newark but couldn't," Mr. Price says.
Mr. Booker ticks off four areas where he will judge his own success: crime, economic development, the quality of life for Newark's children, and the city's own operations. He is proud of the investments flowing into Newark from companies such as Panasonic and Pitney Bowes, the increase in affordable housing, and more unusual programs, including one offering free legal services for ex-offenders.
The mayor is also helping to lead a push to improve Newark's education system, where just half of the students who start high school graduate. Although Mr. Booker once said he would serve only two terms as mayor, now he says he would consider running for a third in 2014. "I'm willing to make that evaluation in about 750 days or so," he says, eyeing the clock on his wall.
"The pendulum of Newark is swinging back no matter who is the mayor," he says. "But I do want to make sure we are leaving it in the hands of people that are going to continue to guide it in the right direction."
Joanna Slater is The Globe and Mail's New York bureau chief.