Good News: Newark Mayor Rescues Constituent From Fire

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The first thing Newark Mayor Cory Booker did when I met him in the fall of 2008 was joke about putting me in a headlock for describing a pair of drive-by shootings as “drive-by shootings” during a press conference.

I had just moved to the area from Houston and knew I’d crossed some kind of invisible line the moment the words left my mouth. The staffers behind Booker went very silent and exchanged worried looks while the reporters around me smiled and shook their heads ruefully, as if to say “the new guy just stepped in it big-time.”

Cory is wicked smart – a former Rhodes scholar – and very sensitive to language. Certain words just don’t work for him, especially those that romanticize inner-city violence – like “drive-by” and he read me the riot act quite publicly.

I immediately knew I was covering a different kind of political animal. A muscular liberal who understands that leadership is done by example. The former high school president is sincerely committed to public service, rather than the typical opportunistic politician who pretends to care about their fellow man while lining their own pockets.

I’m convinced Cory Booker would be a member of the Occupy Wall Street movement if he were 20 years younger, because he lives their mantra that “a better world is possible.”

So, I wasn’t surprised this morning when I awoke to learn that he had suffered smoke inhalation and second-degree burns while pulling a neighbor out of a burning apartment in Newark, which is New Jersey’s largest city. Anyone who knows Cory knows that deep down he’s all about sacrificing himself for the greater good and building the legend of Cory along the way. They also know that Cory loves to get his hands dirty.

That makes him a nightmare for the members of his security detail, who are more concerned with keeping Cory alive and intact than helping him fulfill his personal and professional aspirations. Two of them were also treated for smoke inhalation last night after they helped extricate three other people from the burning building next to Booker’s home.

There was some pushing and shoving as the big guy pulled away from them and headed inside against their wishes. Once inside he saved a young woman who had become disoriented, even though they were briefly trapped by the flames.

“I felt fear,” Booker said at a press conference this morning (see video at right). “I’m a neighbor that did what most neighbors would do, which is to jump into action to help a friend. I consider all of us very lucky.

“There was a time when I got through the kitchen and was searching for her and looked back and saw the kitchen in flames,” he said. “It was a really frightening experience. I didn’t think we were going to get out of there.”

Newark Police Det. Alex Rodriguez initially tried to restrain the larger Booker.

“I was trying to hold him by the belt,” Rodriguez said. “Trying to keep him from going into the fire.”

The painful truth is that Cory is capable of doing some very unusual things. He can be very entertaining, particularly for those of us who have been around long enough to think we’ve seen it all.

For example, Cory is the only politician I’ve ever met who doesn’t have a brag wall filled with pictures of him shaking hands with the rich, powerful, beautiful and famous.

When you cover a politician regularly you get to know them and the people around them fairly well. And I feel like I know Cory, some of his closest staffers, and a few members of his security detail better than most people.

I never really felt like the members of his security detail were punching the time-clock. They seemed genuinely concerned about his safety when I spent time with them in 2008-2010 – more like anxious parents with a headstrong kid, as in “this crazy guy is gonna get himself killed.”

Cory is a high achiever and it seems as if he’s been that way his whole life. It’s like he’s one of those guys who really believes the self-serving stories that are told about history’s most heroic figures and is trying to live up to them. The only difference between Cory and those tales is that they’re often embellished, whereas he’s really chasing public service glory in the here and now.

Cory relocated to Newark during his second year at Yale Law School in 1995 and eventually moved into one of the city housing projects. The former Stanford University football star stayed there until 2006, when he replaced convicted felon Sharpe James as mayor.

I’ve heard from several sources that Cory originally tried to move into the notorious Seth Boyden projects in 1995 and was run off by members of one of the local gangs that use Newark as a regional hub to supply the illegal drug trade in the New York City metro area. That incident is not part of his official bio. It should be.

For me, Cory’s failures and imperfections are far more illuminating and interesting than the legend that has grown up around his many successes. Why? Because he always seems to screw up for the right reason.

Cory is not a perfect person, but he is amazing in his willingness to take on seemingly impossible odds.

When hundreds of Newark residents were without primary medical care in 2009 he helped create a program that matched them up with family practitioners and provided them with expensive medications at a local pharmacy at almost no cost. It worked.

Cory parlayed his celebrity status into a $100 million donation from Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg and other large donations from names like Oprah and Jon Bon Jovi.

When crime wasn’t coming down as fast as he wanted, Cory harnessed hundreds of volunteers to supplement the police department with late-night patrols by caravans of civilian vehicles, which he led. It worked.

And on and on.

There’s an obvious element of theatrics to Cory’s actions because that’s part of being a big-city mayor. But it’s not all theatrics. The man is sincerely a Boy Scout, even after 17 years in Newark. You don’t go into a building being consumed by a fast-moving fire and stay there long enough to find someone and carry them out unless you have a big heart.

In sum, he’s a very strange politician.

I still remember a surreal conversation we had back in 2009 or so.

“I don’t trust you,” I said, teasing him.

“That hurts me,” he said, half joking. “Why would you say that?”

“Because you’re too perfect – you don’t have any sins and it makes me uncomfortable” I said. “You don’t smoke, you don’t drink, you don’t curse – you don’t even drink coffee for chrissakes.”

(Long pause)

“Did you know that Aristotle said ‘a man without vices is a man without virtue?’ ” Cory said, flashing a smug smile.

“Uhuh, is that right,” I said. “You realize that that quote proves my point, not yours?”

(Long pause)

“I suppose it does,” he said chuckling.

(Long pause)

“Hey, I do too drink coffee,” Cory said. “I’m practically addicted to those Starbucks mocha lattes.”

“Uhuh,” I said. “Cory, a latte is basically boiled milk.”

“No it’s not.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“No, it’s not.”

Cory started posting public messages about his alleged coffee addiction the next day to his 1.1 million Twitter followers. He still does so today in a bid to make himself look more emotionally accessible to the rest of us flawed humans.

I kid you not, just check out the tweet at right. You can’t make this stuff up. Clearly, there’s also a reason why Cory doesn’t write for a living.

Look, the man needs a shot of Jack Daniels in the worst way. God forbid Barack Obama ever invites him to the White House and tries to feed him a beer and a steak. Cause the president is going to find himself sitting across from a huge man sucking on an O’Douls non-alcoholic beer and munching on a Boca burger like it’s the best meal of his life.

Cory is a big guy who stands about 6’3” and weighs about 240 in the summer and about 270 in the winter. Like most former college athletes, he still eats like a jock, even though he’s chair-bound much of the time.

Cory tries to burn off the extra calories with early morning jogs, but he starts packing on the pounds when it’s too cold and starts wearing his fat pants. That’s about the only time the mayor-wonder even seems half as flawed as the mere mortals around him.

Newark is a rough place, and I say that as someone who grew up in the Bronx back in the bad old days when the New York City homicide rate was more than four times what it is today. I can tell that whoever was picking people for Cory’s security detail when I was covering him was more concerned with toughness than appearance, because there were some hard men in that detail, who fretted over him like mother hens. None of them were winning any beauty contests and they weren’t the world’s foremost conversationalists either, but they did a great job looking after him.

It’s no easy task.

Cory is still a bachelor at 42. When I covered him he liked to spend a few nights each week driving around Newark in a big Chevy Tahoe with his security detail, making sure everything was copasetic. I’ve ridden in that Tahoe, too, because it’s a great time to conduct one-on-one interviews.

Surprisingly, I learned that Cory has a real feel for the streets and for street people, even though he grew up about 25 miles away in the upscale town of Harrington Park. I think he finds the street-level interaction with the young people and opportunists who predominate late at night both informative and relaxing. It’s an excellent way for him to take the pulse of a segment of the population that rarely makes it to city council meetings, but has an outsized impact on Newark’s quality of life.

For me, the ride-a-longs were an opportunity to learn about the mayor and to see that he genuinely cares about people. His idols aren’t military leaders, like George Patton, or politicians, like Al Sharpton. They’re advocates for peace and nonviolence – like Mahatma Ghandi.

Cory was also an odd politician to cover in one other respect, which is that there just wasn’t a whole lot of dirt to uncover unless you were obsessed with pinning down his sexual orientation. That’s a topic he doesn’t like to talk about and one I never asked.

Why?

Because I don’t care. I’m not the peepee police and Cory is just crazy enough to be straight and refuse to own up to it on principled grounds.

That’s how different he is from other politicians.

He’s not marching to a different drummer. He is the different drummer. Some of it’s an act – because politics is theater – but a lot of it isn’t.

When I covered Cory I saw an intellectual who really thought he had the brains, will and know-how to resurrect a hapless city that had become an icon for urban decay since a week-long orgy of racially-tinged riots left 24 dead and hundreds wounded in 1967.

Do I think Cory is ambitious?
Hells yeah.

Do I think he would do something he knew was wrong to advance himself to higher office?
No.

And that is a powerful and unusual thing to say about anyone who chooses the public circus of political life for their career.

Members of Cory’s security detail used to tell me about the time he broke away from them and ran down the street after a robbery suspect late one night. It’s also not uncommon to learn that Cory is shoveling snow outside the homes of Newark’s elderly residents after a big winter storm, which allows him to combine five things he loves – working out, helping others, interacting with everyday people, being the center of attention and drinking boiled milk.

There have been public threats to his life by one of the big street gangs for most of his time as mayor, which weighed heavily on his security detail. When we pulled up next to someone sketchy late at night and Cory rolled down his passenger window to speak with them it was quite common for the driver to put one hand on his pistol and discreetly wave me back in my seat with the other to give him a clear line of sight – just in case.

It wasn’t for show.

The officers knew that keeping Cory from putting himself at risk just wasn’t an option. They also knew just how deadly Newark street violence can be.

Cory is frequently ridiculed by fellow blacks in Newark as an opportunistic outsider. Officially, this occurs because he was raised elsewhere, but it’s also because he fired a ton of city workers who were either corrupt, incompetent or both after he took over for the crooked Sharpe James.

One of the favorite sawhorses of Booker’s critics before 2009 was the fact that he didn’t own a home in Newark, which they cited as evidence that he wasn’t really committed to the city. So, I was intrigued when Cory informed me that he had purchased a house during one of my rides in the Tahoe.

“You want to see it?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, smelling a story.

I was expecting to see one of the old historic mansions that have fallen into disrepair since Newark’s heyday in the 1950s. Instead, we pulled up in front of a narrow railroad-style home with boarded-up windows that looked like something selling for $4,500 on a Department of Housing and Urban Development list of foreclosed properties.

“Isn’t it great?” Cory asked.

“Which house are you talking about,” I asked in disbelief, looking at the dwellings on either side of one of the butt-ugliest homes I have ever seen.

“That one right there,” Cory said excitedly, pointing between them. “Isn’t it great?”

There was a brief pause as I exchanged a stony stare with the officer behind the wheel.

“Oh yeah,” I said mechanically. “It’s great. Wow. It’s really something.”

Cory smiled and stared at the dump some more, drinking it all in.

The driver and I exchanged another blank stare.

Meanwhile, Cory’s eyes remained locked on his future home. You could just see the wheels clicking over in his head. He wasn’t seeing the dump as it was, but as he imagined it might appear someday after a thorough renovation.

Finally Cory sighed. The look on his face suggesting thoughts along the lines of  “someday, all this will be mine.”

I’ve wondered several times in the past two years if Cory was being serious at the time. I’m still not sure, but I really think he was. That’s how ugly that house was and that’s how unusual Cory can be.

The man has an odd kind of enthusiasm for lost causes.

It’s that boundless – even quixotic – optimism which inpsires the kind of sarcastic flattery found under the twitter tag.

Here’s a typical humorous tweet, posted today by Miles Grant: “When Chuck Norris has nightmares, Cory Booker turns on the light & sits with him until he falls back asleep.”

Here’s another one, posted about the fire by someone named Zandar: “After the incident, Smoke was treated for Cory Booker exposure.”

I’m a cynical bastard after 20 years in journalism, but I know what good is and there’s a world of difference between Cory and the selfish trash that’s typically drawn to politics.

I’m not going to say I like everything about the man, because I don’t like anyone that much.

Cory is not without flaws. No one is. For one thing, he’s a bit of a glory hound. For another, he thought he was fireproof until yesterday morning. Now, not so much.

Cory also has a real weakness for shameless flattery, which makes him easy prey for posturing lackies and flunkies. That’s a dangerous addiction for any leader, because it blinds them to what’s really going on and creates an echo chamber in which all their ideas are “amazing” and “brilliant.” Like the decision to buy that butt-ugly home.

It’s also damn unfair to the dozens of Booker loyalists who quietly go the extra mile for him at all hours of the night and day and are routinely taken for granted because they don’t fawn over him.

That said, it’s amazing to encounter a politician who really believes elected office is about advancing the greater good. And there may be no greater indictment of the status quo than the positive way people respond to Cory for that – as if they’ve never seen it before and may never see it again.

The painful truth is that Cory probably isn’t going to succeed in saving Newark, at least not the way he wants. A lot of his best people know that and bust their butts for him anyway, because they believe in what he’s trying to do and why he’s trying to do it. Win or lose, they know the struggle to save this battered city has value.

Sadly, the powerful unions that run Newark just aren’t going to let it happen and neither is the economy. Cory lost a showdown on Nov. 30, 2010, with the police union that has run Newark like its own private plantation the past 40 years, which probably cost the city its innovative police director.

The Newark chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police is dominated by a small cadre of older officers. They refused to share in the furlough days other city workers embraced to avoid layoffs, rejecting the proposal without ever putting it to a rank-and-file vote.

Instead of taking the five furloughs day each year that Cory sought for each officer, this older cadre opted to force the layoff of 162 young officers – all of whom had graduated from the Newark Police Academy during the Booker era. That’s equal to about 13% of the 1,265 member force.

When the idealistic young cops held a protest afterward outside Newark FOP headquarters, their union leaders didn’t even have the decency or brains to make up a politically palatable storyline.

“An officer who has been on the job 15 years is not going to fight for you,” James Stewart, the union vice president, told the group according to the Newark Star-Ledger. “Veteran guys are not giving up a dime.”

It’s hard to believe those same veteran officers are saying “no” to payoffs from an illegal drug industry that former Police Director Garry McCarthy blamed for 99% of the city’s shootings.

One of the reasons Newark became a regional hub for illegal drug distribution in the 1970s, 80s and 90s was because drug kingpins were convinced police protection could be purchased there, transforming a variable expense into a predictable cost. Like all business leaders, they hate surprises.

The union’s ruling clique, which ousted the younger officers, subsequently oversaw a 71% increase in the Newark murder rate in the first four months of 2011 and a 21% increase in overall crime.

It’s a safe bet the 162 layoffs played a role in McCarthy’s decision to accept a job as the top cop in Chicago in May 2011, as did the constant resistance from older officers, who always viewed the New York Police Department veteran (right) as an outsider.
 
All of which brings us back to Cory, whose national profile has faded a bit in recent years. His heroic actions yesterday are a reminder to those of us who have moved on that he remains in Newark.

Cory is still fighting the good fight to save Brick City and he’s just boneheaded enough to spend the rest of his life there. That would be a waste.

Not because Newark doesn’t need him, but because the rest of the nation needs his brand of sacrificial leadership, too. The ability and willingness to lead by example are rare and wonderful qualities in U.S. political circles.

Bottom line: it’s time for Cory to make like McCarthy and move on and up. Seventeen years in Newark is enough. Cory’s not getting the kind of support he deserves and his talents are needed at the next level.

And I know for a fact that they have butt-ugly houses and boiled milk in Trenton, New Jersey, and in Washington, D.C., too.