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
Cory Booker and Adrian M. Fenty

And then there are the apocryphal stories about T-Bone, the drug dealer whom Booker said he befriended but whom he has admitted is an “archetype,” as real as the “Happy House” drug den where Booker claims he saw people shooting up with their kids in tow.

The problem with these stories, Newark residents have said, is that they make Booker look like a white knight riding in to save a city full of poor black people. The stories continue to reinforce the negative images of Newark that Booker says he is trying to dispel with his often criticized appearances in the media.

“I found it difficult to distinguish the statements of Booker from Don Imus,” wrote Walter C. Farrell Jr., a professor and associate director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Whereas Sharpe James’ defense of Newark from negative comments by Jay Leno and Phil Donahue won him praise, Booker’s Twitter dispute with Conan O’Brien in 2009 — which culminated in Booker’s appearance on The Tonight Show in October of that year, when O’Brien was still host — was seen as self-serving.

However, rejection from Newark’s old guard has put Booker on the defensive, Muhammad says: “It’s the old black guard leadership that he has had problems with. I think he has felt uncomfortable building bridges with that leadership because he felt they never embraced him. But what about young black leadership like myself who supported him but who just didn’t agree with all his philosophies?”

Booker’s mistake, Muhammad says, was in refusing to build bridges with young black leaders who never questioned his black street cred: “There are others like me who feel like he has betrayed us.”

Muhammad says that he recently met with Booker in his office to discuss a growing concern among blacks in the city about talks of massive layoffs at City Hall and the concern that black contractors were not being brought into the fold.

“I said, ‘Mayor, you have a black problem,’ ” Muhammad recounts. “He said to me, ‘I only need 30 percent of the black vote to get elected.’ I said, ‘You might be right, but is that the strategy a black elected official wants to pursue?’ “

The one defining difference between Booker and Fenty? “Fenty has serious competition. Booker would have been out doing some serious apologizing to the black community if he had competition,” Muhammad says.