Cory Booker was the Obama of American politics before Barack Obama leaped onto the national stage. When Booker first ran for mayor of Newark in 2002, Barack Obama was a relatively unknown Illinois state senator. It would be two more years before Obama’s keynote address at the Democratic National Convention would transform him into an international star. But Booker, a fresh-faced former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, was already being lauded—in the national press, on Wall Street, and in Hollywood, as well—as the face of a new generation of post-civil-rights, post-baby-boomer (in style, if not exactly in fact) African-American politicians who would march America into a glorious new day. (Other rising stars in this cohort include Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Alabama Rep. Artur Davis, and Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty).
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Booker lost his first mayoral race to longtime incumbent Sharpe James, a scandal-plagued, wily, streetwise old-fashioned pol and former gym teacher who denounced Booker as an Uncle Tom—and as an interloper (Booker grew up in the suburbs) far removed from Newark’s tough streets. Four years later, as Booker’s campaign donations and popularity surged, Sharpe opted out of trying for a sixth term. Booker swept into office and Sharpe—long an object of suspicion and ugly rumors—eventually went to prison (from which he was recently released) for fraud and conspiracy after he failed to disclose he was romantically involved with a woman he helped buy nine plots in a city redevelopment zone between 2001 and 2005.
Booker’s success at turning inspirational rhetoric into effective governance might well provide something of a template for Obama. And last week, as Booker basked in the afterglow of his recent reelection for a second term, I asked him to reflect on what he has done. “Four years ago, I was really selling … the rather ephemeral qualities of hope and possibility. ‘Believe in me. Believe in us.’ And those are all important things,” he said. “But when you have nothing to back it up with, it made it very difficult … Now I can talk not just about what we’re going to do, but point to examples of what we’ve done.”