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An Optimist in Newark

By George Will

After the fire? Nothing. Nothing in Newark ever again.
-- Philip Roth, "American Pastoral"

NEWARK -- Cory Booker, 38, has not read Roth's superb novel, which turns on the race riots that raged for six days and took 24 lives 40 years ago this summer. But Booker is bullish on Newark. Roth is a writer of social realism. Obdurate optimism is part of the job description of mayor of this battered city, which was a plaything of the mob before mobs burned it.

Once America's most industrialized city, Newark attracted the attentions of New York City mobsters (the movie "On the Waterfront" was filmed on New Jersey docks) whose depredations contributed to the flight of industry just as blacks were arriving from the South. Partly because of the cost that organized crime added to many city contracts, Newark spent twice as much per citizen as did other midsize cities. And the riots came, (redundant) evidence of the problematic nature of attempts to spend one's way to domestic tranquility.

Even 20 years later, according to Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute, Newark had no movie theater and just one grocery store. And it had a surfeit of politicians such as George "You got me" Branch, whose nickname was his exclamation during an unpleasant encounter with law enforcement. Booker took away Branch's city council seat in 1998.

Booker is an African-American whose father was born to a single mother in North Carolina in 1936. By the time Booker was an adolescent in an affluent northern New Jersey community, both his parents were IBM executives. After being a high school football All-American, Booker earned degrees from Stanford, Oxford (he was a Rhodes Scholar) and Yale Law School. In 2002, he ran against the incumbent mayor, Sharpe James, another urban boss in the fragrant tradition of some northern New Jersey cities. Booker almost won; James prudently decided not to run in 2006, when Booker won with 72 percent of the vote.

Nattily dressed, with his gleaming shaved head and athlete's build and bearing, Booker radiates confidence in Newark, largely because of its transportation infrastructure: It sits near the intersection of Interstates 95 and 78; its port is the nation's third largest in the volume of goods moved through it; the airport is the nation's 16th busiest. You can, Booker says, get to Wall Street quicker from Newark than from Manhattan's Upper East Side. Furthermore, every mayor, Booker says, understands the importance of "eds and meds" -- educational and medical institutions, of which Newark has many.

Economic opportunities exist, however, only where order exists, and where people are sufficiently educated to seize them. Newark, where in a normal year one of every 800 residents is hit by a bullet, has a worse murder rate than New York did before Mayor Giuliani cut it by 66 percent. New Jersey has the highest percentage of people who pay at least 30 percent of their income for housing. A quarter of Newark residents live in poverty. Only 9 percent of residents have college degrees.

Fifty years ago Newark's population was 460,000. Now it is 284,000 -- up about 10,000 in five years -- of which 54 percent are black and 33 percent are Latino. In 1995, the state took over the school system, in which principalships were being sold and so much of schools' budgets went for the salaries of unionized teachers that some classrooms lacked even chalk.

Today, per pupil spending tops $17,000, which is 75 percent above the national average and a (redundant) refutation of the public education lobby's not disinterested judgment that in primary and secondary education, cognitive outputs correlate with financial inputs. Seventy percent of Newark's 11th graders flunk the state's math test. Booker says that under the previous mayor's administration, every elected official sent his or her children to private schools.

"I'm the Malcolm X of education -- 'By any means necessary,'" Booker promises. He says Newark should reverse the assumption that in education "time will be a constant, achievement will vary." If children are not succeeding, extend their school day, bring them in on Saturdays, extend the school year.

He also favors school choice, although he tiptoes around the word "vouchers," which inflames the more than 190,000 members of the state's teachers union. He advocates giving tax credits to companies for money contributed for scholarships to private as well as public schools. "Who," he has asked, "can object to a pool of money that will give poor children the same opportunities as middle-class kids?"

Who? Start with those 190,000, yet another mob afflicting Newark.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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