The slide that began in his second mayoral term is worsening. The 111 murders in 2013 are the most since 1990.
When Newark Mayor Cory Booker won a special election last October to succeed the late Frank Lautenberg as a U.S. senator, political observers concluded that the Democratic Party had a new national star. The Philadelphia Inquirer, which closely covers New Jersey politics, called Mr. Booker a "larger-than-life celebrity" whose victory made him a potential vice presidential, or even presidential, candidate in 2016.
Yet the city he spent seven years promising to turn around now seems in danger of spinning out of control, as crime surges and the state eyes taking over Newark's troubled finances. Mr. Booker's allies in Newark are on the defensive. Even as his star seems to rise nationally, it's dimming in the city where he made his reputation.
Mr. Booker, a former Rhodes Scholar, moved to Newark while still attending Yale Law School in 1997 to work on a leadership program for teens. A year later, frustrated by Newark's many problems, he successfully ran for city council, beating a 16-year incumbent in a race few thought he could win.
A political outsider on the council, Mr. Booker drew attention to the city's problems in media events, including camping out in a mobile home near Newark's illegal drug markets. Mayor Sharpe James labeled these actions "stunts," but Mr. Booker gained popularity and ran against James in 2002, losing narrowly. When James declined to run in 2006, Mr. Booker was elected. (A federal jury in 2008 convicted James of five counts of fraud and he went to prison for 18 months.)
Mr. Booker shook up the insulated political culture of Newark when he brought in an outsider, New York Police Department veteran Garry McCarthy, as his police director and pledged to take a zero-tolerance approach to violence. "I will be relentless in the enforcement of the law," he said.
He also promised to put the city on sound financial grounds—a difficult task given the long history of corruption and mismanagement. Days after he took office in July 2006, state officials told him to scrap the city budget enacted by James because it was riddled with faulty estimates and assumptions. Subsequent audits found widespread waste and inefficiency in Newark government, including millions in uncollected taxes. Mr. Booker balanced the books by raising property taxes and laying off city employees—including 400 in the city's Housing Authority after the federal government discovered that the agency was improperly diverting federal grants that were meant for capital projects.
Gradually Newark seemed to move in the right direction. Violent crime declined, with murders falling 36%, to 67, by 2008. Mr. Booker crafted a stable though austere budget, then supplemented it by raising private funds, including a $100 million gift in September 2010 from Facebook FB +0.04% founder Mark Zuckerberg for Newark's schools and millions from local businesses to install security cameras and a gunshot-detection system throughout the city. He also attracted private investment, including a commitment by Prudential Financial PRU -0.40% to build a new office tower. Newark's unemployment rate was 9.4% when Mr. Booker became mayor, declined to 7.4% a year later but is currently 11.9%, down from a high of 15.7% in 2010 following the financial crisis and Great Recession.
Mr. Booker's achievements generated national attention, including a 2009 documentary series on the Sundance Channel, "Brick City," about his efforts to make Newark safe. Still, critics at home groused that the mayor was spending too much time on the national celebrity circuit. The criticisms stung. He was re-elected in 2010 but by a smaller majority, and several allies on the city council lost.
As Mr. Booker's second term progressed, he appeared to focus less on the city. The Newark Star-Ledger has estimated that from January 2011 through June 2012 the mayor was out of town more than 20% of the time, including giving paid speeches. Mr. Booker disclosed in May 2013 that as mayor he earned $1.3 million from speeches (he donated $620,000 to charity). A city spokesman claimed that "the vast majority of time [the mayor] spent outside of Newark is used to bring new resources, opportunities, jobs, ideas and innovation back to Newark."
That travel might not have mattered to the mayor's reputation—but violence began rising again in 2010, culminating in 111 murders last year, the highest number since 1990 and a 65% increase over 2008. Alarmed, New Jersey's acting attorney general John Hoffman recently sent dozens of state troopers into Newark to supplement city police in patrols at so-called hot spots of violence. "We will do everything in our power to eliminate the sound of gunfire on a daily basis," he promised.
The city's fiscal problems also have returned. Newark ended its last year under a Booker budget with a $30 million deficit, and it faces a $93 million budget hole in 2014. In bond documents published April 21, the city disclosed that in 2012 and 2013 it violated agreements with the state under which it pledged to take certain actions, such as pursuing collection of unpaid fines and fees, in exchange for state aid. According to one of the documents, "the city now believes that the most likely basis upon which a balanced 2014 budget will be achieved entails the placement of the city under state supervision."
Newark's backsliding means trouble for the entire state of New Jersey. For decades the state has had to subsidize heavily the operations of Newark and its school system—which Jersey officials seized from the city in 1995 amid charges of corruption. Last year alone New Jersey sent $800 million to the city and its schools to keep their finances afloat.
When he first ran for mayor, Mr. Booker said of his Central Ward neighbors who chose to stay in Newark, "I've been inspired by people who haven't given up on their community." He still is, officially at least, their neighbor. But in many ways he seems to have moved on, bequeathing the struggle in Newark to those who stayed behind.
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