Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian M. Fenty are sometimes mistaken for each other: Both of them have similarly shaven bald heads and are grouped among the new breed of black political leadership. Unlike their predecessors, who rode a wave out of the civil rights movement and into mayoralties of major cities, Fenty and Booker have the potential to exceed the old paradigm of race-based politics in this country.
But first they'll have to win over their toughest critics: black voters.
In 2006 Fenty swept every precinct in the District in the Democratic primary — an unprecedented victory in which both whites and blacks shared a favorable view of him. Four years later, Fenty is struggling to hold on to his seat in today's hotly contested primary election. (In heavily Democratic D.C., the primaries typically decide the mayoral race.) Fenty is trailing 67-year-old Vincent C. Gray, who has tapped into black discontent despite Fenty's spending a record $5 million on his campaign. A Washington Post poll showed 64 percent of white Democrats favored Fenty, while 64 percent of black Democrats said they would vote for Gray. Only 19 percent of black voters said that they would vote for Fenty.
Booker has also struggled with black voters. In May he was re-elected with 59 percent of the vote — down from his 72 percent landslide in 2006 — despite having spent $5.5 million, more than all the other candidates in the race. In addition, Booker's own polls show him struggling with black voters. A 2008 internal poll conducted by Obama pollster Joel Benenson found that only 69 percent of blacks agreed with the statement that Booker was bringing progress to Newark, compared with 85 percent of whites and Latinos. Forty-four percent of black single mothers, who make up at least 8 percent of the city's electorate, felt Booker was taking the city in the wrong direction.
Booker's aspirations for higher office could fail without big numbers in majority-black communities, including Newark. Fenty could lose today's election — and indeed is predicted to lose, according to earlier polls.
The troubles of both mayors, who have held joint fundraisers to support each other, raise the question of whether black leaders can survive without black voters.
Booker's and Fenty's struggles to win over black voters resemble those of Artur Davis in Alabama. In seeking the nod for governor earlier this year, Davis eschewed the support of blacks and civil rights organizations, saying that times had changed. Davis lost.
Political observers say that some African-American leaders elected in the era of President Obama have misinterpreted his election and have miscalculated the black electorate. These recent elections demonstrate that certain African-American politicians may have abandoned too soon the social-justice platforms that defined the wave of mayors in the 1970s and 1980s.
"As is often the case, politicians … derive the wrong conclusion from the outcome," says Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. "The appeal of the post-racial platform is mostly to non-blacks."
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.
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.
For Fenty, it's a stark contrast with the 2006 elections. The son of a white mother and black father, the Oberlin College graduate is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and attended Howard University Law School. As an adult, he settled in the majority-black Ward 4, which he represented as a council member for six years before taking office as mayor. The flip in opinion among African Americans appeared gradual, beginning with rumblings about his non-black appointments.
Though he pushed his administration to build schools, recreation centers and libraries all over the city, one of the first projects to be completed was a long-awaited pool in predominantly white Ward 3. When Eastern Market in the gentrifying Ward 6 and a library in tony Georgetown were destroyed by fire on the same day, Fenty immediately announced plans and funds for restoration. At the time, in 2007, the shell of the O Street market in the black Shaw neighborhood remained untouched, despite a roof collapse in 2003. (Fenty and developers broke ground on the redevelopment of O Street two weeks ago.)
When Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee began her reform of education, she began by closing two dozen schools. None was closed in predominantly white Ward 3, while predominantly black Ward 5 took the brunt.
Fenty, who has acknowledged the "mistake" of failing to listen to constituents when making decisions, also became known as arrogant and brusque, often shunning the ceremonial duties of his predecessors.
The Sunday before the election, Fenty competed in a triathlon; Gray went to church. But Fenty said he is hurt by the black community's opinion of him. "Anybody who says they don't want someone of their own race and background to like them, you've gotta think about, and yes, of course it hurts," Fenty said during a one-on-one debate with Gray.
Booker, too, has had to go on the defensive about asserting his loyalty to the black community. "I am a manifestation of their struggles," he has said about the criticism he has received from an older generation of black politicians. But if he has aspirations for higher office, Booker may have to do better with the black electorate.
One of the reasons that James, Booker's predecessor, was able to serve a record five terms was that he was able to marshal the city's black voters for gubernatorial, senatorial and presidential candidates alike. Booker has struggled and failed to take control of Newark's Democratic machinery and is often criticized for not having long-enough coattails.
"You will have white politicians who will use that against him. I'm sure they will say that if he can't get the majority of your folks, why should he be the Democratic nominee? Running as a Democrat, you need the black vote. If you don't have the black vote in a statewide Democratic Primary, you can't win," Muhammad says.
Nikita Stewart covers Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and District politics as a staff writer for The Washington Post. She previously covered Newark politics for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter.
Jeff Mays is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He previously covered Cory Booker and the city of Newark for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey. His work has appeared in The New York Times, and he is a featured blogger on AOL's BlackVoices.