One of my favorite stories surrounding my favorite politician of all time, Bobby Kennedy, comes from his time as a Senatorial aide investigating the corruption of unions. As detailed in David Talbot’s fantastic book about Bobby and his brother John Brothers, Bobby was investigating working with the FBI on the disappearance of a major union boss in the DC area. Late one night, working overtime at his office with an intern, he got an anonymous call as to the location of said Teamster’s body. He ordered the intern with him and, within an hour, was digging up a baseball field looking for a corpse his damn self.
While Bobby Kennedy never found that body in that baseball field, the hands-on spirit he had is one many politicians envy and more are trying to emulate. Take, for example, the extraordinary feats of Newark mayor and media darling Cory Booker. Booker is a legendary Tweeter, answering nearly every question he can as productively as he can. This has been shown in full force with the landfall of Hurricane Sandy, during which Booker managed a #rollingbodega through Newark, handing out water, food, diapers, you name it. Since then, he’s been tweeting information — all this week he was giving out non-emergency numbers from 5 a.m. to midnight — answering to everything from downed power lines to medical emergencies. When an 11-year-old said her mom couldn’t cook with the power out and the lack of heat was bothering her asthma, Booker personally sent a team to her apartment (he’ll regularly request those in need send their address through a direct message). And that’s not a gimmick; he’s been doing the same thing for countless others all week. Dialysis battery low? Booker’s on it. Two-week-old newborn and out of formula? Just send a tweet. He’s also not without humor: when @DAT_NIGGA_REEE told him (“a my nigga”) he was running out of Hot Pockets, Booker responded “I believe in you. I know this is a problem you can handle.”
Booker’s forthrightness for doing quite literally everything he can is not specific to this storm. He gained national media attention in 2010 when, during a blizzard, a constituent asked him on Twitter if someone could shovel the driveway of their elderly father who was daring to do so himself. Booker, along with a myriad of volunteers, showed up at the man’s house and shoveled the damn thing themselves. When a neighbor’s house caught fire earlier this year, Booker threw himself into the flames to help a woman escape (he suffered second-degree burns and injured his left hand). While a member of the Newark City Council, he went on a 10-day hunger strike to draw attention to the dangers of open-air drug deals, living in a tent in some of Newark’s most crime-heavy neighborhoods. His crusade against crime is his chief accomplishment as an executive; from 2006 to 2008, he heavily reduced crimes both violent and nonviolent through strategic placement of cops, hiring more cops, and doing heavy fundraising for the Newark public school system (after meeting him at a conference, Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million of his personal wealth to the school district). How badass is Cory Booker? Authorities were forced to break up an assassination plot against him by none less than the Bloods. Call it the James Brown method of governing: the only way to have your old hits live on is to make new hits.
Not that his purpose is to draw attention to himself. He turned down an offer to chair the White House Office of Urban Affairs Policy to stay in city hall. When asked about future ambitions — be it running against Christie for governor or (probably) running against Christie for President — he typically resorts to an intensely likable self-effacement. Humility in a politician? I’m sold.
And while his legendary accomplishments (let’s mention that he’s also a Rhodes scholar) may give him a squeaky-clean, Mayberry-esque image, he is also a crude and intelligent politician. One of the reasons he has nearly free reign in Newark is his handpicked City Council might as well be a rubber-stamp in his left hand. When he said he was made “nauseous” by the Obama campaign’s attacks on Romney’s time at Bain Capital, he only relented through what many called a “hostage tape” clarification. When he initially ran for mayor in 2002 (he lost to incumbent James Sharpe), he had to fight back allegations of carpetbagging (Booker was born in DC but grew up in Harrington Park, NJ) and had to deal with Sharpe accusing him of not being “black enough” to represent Newark. And Newark is a classic example of machine politics laden with corruption; the last five predecessors to Booker’s office were indicted for some nature of crime while in office, typically dealing with perjury, racketeering, or fraud. You don’t survive in a city like that by a schoolboy smile alone. Take a look at his 2006 debate performance and realize he knows how to throw a punch.
Cory Booker’s activeness within the community he represents makes him seem fairly old-fashioned. Hell, even his competence makes him seem as if he’s from another era (which should say a lot about our own era). But what makes that so astonishing is that he is not the small-town mayor who knows the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. He’s mayor of a city with a murder rate that is still several factors of the state average. Newark has a lengthy reputation of being a gangland with dirty cops and dirtier politicians. So why is Cory Booker able to treat it like a student council while still addressing the city’s problems with the seriousness they deserve? Part of it is his aforementioned need to be quite literally on the ground of the battles he wants to wage. Along with his Hurricane Sandy efforts, he regularly goes on late-night rides with Newark’s police force to better understand where and how crime happens. After living in a housing development for a decade before he became mayor, he celebrated his election by moving to Newark’s South Ward, an area the Philadelphia Inquirer describes as “a drug-and gang-plagued neighborhood of boarded-up houses and empty lots.” The other aspect of Booker’s tactic is his prolific tweeting. It’s odd how technology seems to be moving us closer to a mentality of the past, one where politicians may actually answer your questions. But Booker is a model for what our expectations of a politician should be. He manages to pay attention to his electorate as people instead of demographics, lives instead of votes. There is really nothing stopping any politician at any level from having the same enthusiasm for doing what is possible and effective. Now, if Booker runs for governor or the Senate, it will be interesting to see how he manages to deal with an opposition that will do anything to unseat him. He currently has the fortune of Chris Christie, himself a pragmatist yet from the other side of the aisle, being his governor and really the only politician from the GOP he has to deal with on a regular basis. But given his iconoclastic spirit, whip-quick wit, and sheer devotion to doing his damn job, it could be any opponent’s last move to oppose Cory Booker.