Rainmaker mayor Booker leaves Newark still largely unrenewed

Reuters

By Victoria Cavaliere

NEWARK, N.J., Oct 23 (Reuters) - When Cory Booker becamemayor of Newark, New Jersey, in 2006, he said he was on amission to help the hardscrabble city turn the corner on yearsof crime and decay and make it a national example of urbanrenewal.

Over the past seven years, the charismatic Democrat hasattracted interest and investment from Wall Street, Hollywoodand Silicon Valley, raising Newark's national profile andleading to dozens of new construction projects downtown.

But endemic problems of crime, poverty and unemployment haveremained mostly unchanged in the state's largest city.

As Booker, 44, prepares to leave City Hall after beingelected to the U.S. Senate, some in the city question whetherthe millions of dollars in investments Booker secured will payoff for the city's 277,000 residents, one quarter of whom livein poverty.

"Mayor Booker has laid a foundation to tackle the chronicproblems," said City Councilman Ronald Rice. "The next mayor isreally going to have to make employment and poverty and crimethe priority."

Booker has picked City Council President Luis Quintana toserve as interim mayor until elections in 2014.

Dubbed a "rock star" by supporter Oprah Winfrey, Booker isseen by many as a future luminary in the Democratic party and apossible contender one day for the White House.

He has said his tenure in office has been marked by improvedwages after Newark passed a law requiring building contractorsdoing business with the city to pay their workers the prevailingwage for their jobs rather than the state-determined minimum. Hehas also pointed to a greening of the city, new industry andsteady construction of homes and businesses.

"In Newark we showed that if you put in the hard work, ifyou take the more difficult path, if you bring people together,if you overcome differences, incredible things can happen," hesaid in a victory speech after winning the New Jersey SenateDemocratic primary in August.

A Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Stanford and Oxforduniversities and Yale Law School, Booker has drawn an estimated$1.3 billion in private investment from individual donors, hedgefunds and big banks, according to the Private Equity GrowthCapital Council, a private equity association.

In perhaps the most high-profile donation, Facebook founderMark Zuckerberg gave Newark a $100 million matching grant in2010 to reform the city's schools. Dropout rates have declinedsince that grant, with the city's high school graduation raterising to 68.7 percent in 2012 from 61.2 percent in 2011,according to state education statistics.

Once a bustling manufacturing city with a busy port, justwest of New York City across the Hudson River, Newark wasdevastated by race riots in 1967 and has struggled since withsuburban flight and corruption.

DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT

In September, Panasonic Corp opened its North Americanheadquarters in downtown Newark, and insurance giant Prudentialis building a new $440 million office tower nearby.

In 2007, Prudential opened its namesake arena, thePrudential Center, perhaps the most visible sign of downtown'srebirth.

Newark promoters such as real estate agent Sylvia Fragososaid they have been pleased with changes under Booker.

By contrast, she said, during the previous administration ofMayor Sharpe James, later convicted of fraud and conspiracy,Fragoso added, "There was a lot of crime and it never feltsafe."

Many parts of the city have not seen the same lift asdowntown.

Unemployment during Booker's tenure has been about fivepercentage points higher than the national average, hoveringover 13 percent and up from about 11 percent in 2002.

Twenty-six percent of residents lived below the poverty linebetween 2007 and 2011, according to U.S. Census data.

Crime has remained fairly steady on Booker's watch.

The FBI in 2012 listed Newark as the 20th most-dangerouscity in the nation, and the murder rate has ticked up since 162police officer jobs were eliminated in budget cuts in 2010.

There were 90 murders that year, 94 in 2011 and 96 in 2012.

Newark also has one of the highest rates of homeforeclosures in the nation, according to the local nonprofitgroup New Jersey Communities United. The city's foreclosure ratestood at 7 percent in 2012, compared with 2.5 percentnationally.

Booker's acumen for attracting millions of dollars ininvestment for the city "hasn't trickled down to the people inNewark," said the group's executive director, Trina Scordo.

Grace Alexander, 58, a nursing assistant and a homeowner inNewark's West Ward, said she has seen her neighborhood declinein the 13 years since she moved in.

"Downtown Newark is nice to me now, but where I live ithasn't happened," she said. "A lot of my neighbors couldn't paytheir rent and have gone. Crime has gotten worse."

Booker has been accused of being an absentee mayor overlyconcerned with his political image - including frequentlytweeting to his 1.4 million followers - and traveling to meetwith powerful backers.

During his Senate campaign, rival Republican Steve Lonegansaid Booker "was anointed by Hollywood," referring to supporterssuch as actors Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Eva Longoria.

"It's a double-edged sword," said Rice, the city councilman,of Booker's travels and his high-powered friends. "We would nothave had the interest, the investment, had he not left town toCalifornia, or to go and meet with people. So that's the goodside.

"The downside is it's hard to do both," he said. "But, youknow, a lot of cities would love to have a mayor that would beshaking the money tree like this."

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