I watched a good documentary today about a rising star in American politics: Cory Booker. The movie, Street Fight, was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. I knew Cory at Stanford, which is to say, I met him a couple times. I’m sure he would not remember me but I remember him and I wish I had sent him a campaign donation in 2002 when he was running for mayor of Newark (the election that is the subject of the film) or before that when he ran for city council.
A football player at Stanford (not sure if he could be called a star), Rhodes Scholar, and graduate of Yale Law School, Booker moved into the projects in Newark to immerse himself in the problems he wanted to solve. And in 2002 he decided to take on the incumbent mayor, Sharpe James, an old guard black politician who had created a political machine in Newark. Cory is black too but Mayor James said he was white — and Republican, and Jewish, and gay, and just about anything else he could think of to dissuade Newarkians from supporting him.
Sharpe James was supported by Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, the Governor of New Jersey and much of the establishment. Booker was supported by Cornel West, Spike Lee, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley and the idealists. Sharpe James mounted a campaign of intimidation as Booker challenged his kingdom of old-school patronage. Businesses that supported Booker received visits from the police and code enforcement. Booker signs were selectively torn down by city workers. Booker supporters were called terrorists. The James campaign wouldn’t let the filmmaker shoot Mayor James, even at public events. At one point, Booker’s campaign gets raked over the coals because the campaign co-manager gets caught at a private strip club. It later comes out that Mayor James himself had been a patron at the club.
It was new politics versus old machine politics. And old black politics versus new black politics. The film is quite a study of elections and race in urban America. You can read more about the movie at the director’s website. Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know how it ends.
In 2002, Cory Booker lost the election. Booker ran again in 2006 and at the last second, Mayor James decided not to run for re-election. Booker won in a landslide and is now the Mayor of Newark. Mayor James and some of his lackeys are now the targets of corruption probes. I don’t know how much if any progress Booker is making in reforming and revitalizing Newark. If anyone can do it, he can. If he can’t do it you have to wonder if anyone can.
Keeping with the political theme, I watched another election movie today called Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore? This documentary was also about a young idealistic guy trying to get elected. His name is Jeff Smith and at first glance he is about as charismatic as his name. But he has an interesting background and like Cory Booker, he has worked hard to better his community. He decides to run for Congress, for the seat of retiring Dick Gephardt. He has no chance. His main opponent is a guy who seems to completely lack substance, energy and originality. But what the opponent does have is a special last name, Carnahan. The Carnahans are like Kennedys in Missouri, a political dynasty. Jeff Smith claws his way into the race because he does have substance and energy. I won’t tell you what happens but in its details, this movie does a great job of showing how hard it is to run and win a campaign.