(The Root) — Cory Booker’s inevitable election to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday will prove, for large segments of the black community, both historic and bittersweet. Booker’s meteoric rise since being elected mayor of Newark, N.J., in 2006 has been assisted by a well-crafted media persona.
Booker first burst onto Newark’s political scene in 2002, when he launched an ill-fated run against incumbent Mayor Sharpe James, a political operator who — like many post civil rights era urban black politician — overcame creeping allegations of corruption through naked appeals to racial solidarity that would have been shameful if they hadn’t been so extraordinarily successful. By the time of Booker’s 2006 election, black urban politics seemed in vital need of some new blood.
The new mayor’s unusual biography certainly offered a fresh start. A Rhodes scholar and graduate of Yale Law School, Booker served as founding member of the Chai Society, a Jewish membership club founded at Yale that featured prominent academics and business leaders whose friendship would help further his political career. If the young Barack Obama saw himself as a community organizer in the mold of civil rights-era activists, Booker, who is eight years younger than the president, aspired to a different model: the black neo-liberal political missionary.
On this score, Booker’s tenure as mayor has been marked less by public policy transformations on behalf of the city’s overwhelming poor and black population than a series of high-profile maneuvers that have regularly highlighted the new mayor’s charisma, business-friendly networks and willingness to reside in the city’s poverty-stricken South Ward area.
Tall, athletic, with the bearing of a former football player, Booker soon became a feature on late-night talk shows and in New York Times articles, and was perhaps the most riveting part of Brick City, the reality show set in Newark that ran on the Sundance Channel for two seasons. Brick City highlighted the best and worst aspects of “Bookerism,” the dashing young mayor’s political philosophy.
Bookerism expresses faith in the free market as a bedrock of American democracy, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, and even if it means breaking with the White House by defending hedge fund operators from rightfully outraged critics. But Booker’s defense of the rich is both deeply personal as well as deftly political.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to the Newark Public Schools encapsulates the newly elected senator’s trickle-down view of social change. A business-friendly mayor, whose Twitter account now boasts more than 1 million followers, was partnering with a billion-dollar company to aid a big-city urban school district. An outspoken proponent of charter schools, Booker built an alliance with private capital that served as a signal that Newark’s public schools — and really the entire city — was open for a business model that found Wall Street and Silicon Valley mandarins choosing winners and losers for ordinary Americans.