Last night I watched “Street Fight”- a documentary that was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005. In some ways, it reminded me of Dayton politics when I ran for Mayor the first time (vs. Clay Dixon where Mike Turner won by 400 votes). My windows were shot out two nights in a row at the office, I was warned that my life was in danger, I was assaulted by the sitting mayor, and a union boss- and asking questions about where the money was coming from was considered bad form.
However, as backward as Dayton politics were in 1993, they were small town little league compared to Newark, N.J.:
Street Fight chronicles the bare-knuckles race for Mayor of Newark, N.J., between Cory Booker, a 32-year-old Rhodes Scholar/Yale Law School grad, and Sharpe James, the four-term incumbent and undisputed champion of New Jersey politics.
Fought in Newark’s neighborhoods and housing projects, the battle pits Booker against an old style political machine that uses any means necessary to crush its opponents: city workers who do not support the mayor are demoted; “disloyal” businesses are targeted by code enforcement; a campaigner is detained and accused of terrorism; and disks of voter data are burglarized in the night.
Even the filmmaker is dragged into the slugfest, and by election day, the climate becomes so heated that the Federal government is forced to send in observers to watch for cheating and violence.
Even though both candidates in the Newark election were African American, the race issue was part of the argument. The campaigns raised unholy amounts of money- for what is supposed to be a “non-partisan” race (just like Dayton)- there were charges of the challenger being a Republican, a tool of Jews, and other misguided mudslinging. The city was polarized, the election was highly charged- and for all the wrong reasons.
The system was showing how broken it was- with the filmmaker being manhandled repeatedly by Newark cops to stop him from taping the sitting mayor as he campaigned. This wasn’t the America I pledge allegiance to.
The challenger, Cory Booker, was a Stanford grad, Rhodes scholar, Yale Law grad, had the nerve at 33 to challenge a man who had been in office since 1970. Labeled a carpetbagger by the incumbent, Booker had come to Newark to help the less fortunate get a shot. He had the nerve to live in a public housing project called “Brick Towers” and as a sitting councilman, had been labeled “unconventional”- from Wikipedia:
In 1999, he went on a 10-day hunger strike, living in a tent in front of one of Newark’s public housing projects (Garden Spires), to protest open-air drug dealing and the associated violence. For five months in 2000 he lived in a contemporary motor home, parking on street corners where drug trafficking frequently occurred.
He proposed a variety of Council initiatives that impacted housing, young people, law and order and the efficiency and transparency of City Hall, but was regularly rebuffed by a resistant Municipal Council and often outvoted 8–1. While on the Council, Booker became an outspoken advocate of education reform.
To me, Cory Booker is one of the few people who have managed to beat the system and stay true to their roots- an objective that has escaped me. And while Gary Leitzell has managed to do the unthinkable- by unseating one of the last vestiges of Dayton’s old political machine- I’ve seen little from him to show either passion for change, or leadership on the very real issues we’re facing.
Not to give away the movie- since it is a documentary, Booker loses the race in the movie, but does get elected the next time, when the incumbent doesn’t run again. The incumbent, who had managed to be mayor and a state senator at the same time, went on to eventually get busted for fraud and sentenced to prison for 27 months.
Booker campaigned for President Obama and:
was offered the chance to head the new White House Office of Urban Affairs Policy; Booker turned the offer down citing a commitment to Newark.
He even gets social media-
Booker made news when on December 31, 2009, a constituent used Twitter to ask the mayor to send someone to her father’s house to shovel his driveway because her father, who was 65 years old, was going to attempt to do it himself. Booker responded by tweeting; “I will do it myself where does he live?” Other people volunteered, including one person who offered his help on Twitter and 20 minutes later the mayor and some volunteers showed up and shoveled the man’s driveway.
If you are looking for a future presidential candidate, you should be watching Cory Booker. As to Dayton politics, I want to find our version of Cory Booker- because what has passed for politicians in this city hasn’t cut it. I am going to begin in earnest to get the Dayton Process started for the next commission election cycle.
Would you please help- by identifying people who you believe might be willing to step up and serve?
Just remember- Cory Booker lost to the machine the first time- but that didn’t stop him. I’m not going to stop running until we elect some brilliant minds who will lead- instead of wiggle at the end of puppet strings.
And- btw, crime in Newark is at the lowest levels in over 50 years since Booker took office.
It’s time Dayton voters demanded more from those they elect, and if they can’t deliver- replace them. Newark did, and is better for it.