A Tale of Two Post-Racial Mayors

Both Cory Booker and Adrian Fenty were swept into office in a tide of good feelings. Now Fenty is fighting to hold on to his job in today's D.C. primaries, and Booker's black support is waning in Newark. What happened?

Cory Booker and Adrian M. Fenty

Fenty’s appointment of non-blacks to major cabinet positions, terminations of longtime black government workers and teachers, and a failure to meet with civil rights icon Dorothy Height and poet Maya Angelou are among the slights that have turned off a majority of African-American voters.

Booker has faced similar criticism regarding his plans to lay off hundreds of city workers, including mostly black sanitation workers who make up the city’s struggling working class.

“Despite the fact that he won 40 percent of the black vote, Cory does have a problem with blacks in this city,” says Rahaman Muhammad, leader of the influential SEIU Local 617. “Cory’s secret hasn’t got out yet. Most black people outside of Newark think he is beloved by blacks inside the city.”

That certainly wasn’t the case when Booker first ran for office in 2002. During his first mayoral bid, Booker’s opponent, longtime mayor Sharpe James, furiously attacked him for not being black enough. James painted Booker — who grew up in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, attended Stanford University and Yale Law School, and was a Rhodes scholar — as a plant by white outsiders who saw Newark’s potential and wanted to take over.

“You have to learn to be an African American! And we don’t have time to train you all night,” James taunted in 2002. His Election Day slogan was “Save Newark.”

James, recently released from federal prison after a corruption conviction, won that election. In April, when he returned home, an all-black group of supporters greeted him as a returning war hero at the train station.

Meanwhile, Booker, in his two subsequent mayoral races, still had to fend off charges that he was not sufficiently connected to the city’s black majority. (Never mind that for a long time, he lived in one of the city’s housing projects as a gesture of solidarity. He has also tackled prisoner re-entry, a fundamental issue in a city that in 2008 had the highest number of parolees per capita of any city.) Booker has had to defend his blackness by citing his parents’ involvement in the civil rights struggle. Regarding his upbringing in wealthy Harrington Park, Booker has said that his parents helped integrate the community; they were, he said, part of a larger struggle by blacks not to be confined to living in certain areas.

After his victory in 2006, Booker moved to the mostly black South Ward. It is an area where he has struggled politically over the years — and when he made his move, he was criticized for renting the home and not buying it. Many also say Booker is not as visible as Sharpe James, who was often seen around Newark without his bodyguards.

Booker has also come under fire for comments he has made about Newark to those outside of the city. At a fundraiser in one wealthy New Jersey town, he spoke admiringly of a beloved Newark activist named Judy Diggs, but also described her as a portly hell raiser with missing teeth who “cussed” a lot.