Not that his differences went unnoticed—or unnoted. "It was a million little teeny things," Booker says. "Kids coming back from vacations wanting to compare their tans against me; kids saying, 'Can I touch your hair? I've never touched a black guy's hair before.' If I had a dollar for every time someone said, 'Well, you're not like black people, you're one of us....' How are you supposed to feel about that? People say it innocently and don't realize how much of an insult it is."
Which is why, by the time Booker was a fully sentient, free-willed adult in law school, Newark—an iconically black northeastern city, where he'd worshipped at a Baptist church with his family as a boy—exerted a magnetic pull. Newark seemed like a place where he could connect with something real and just be black, where he wouldn't have to search for African-American products like Magic shaving powder or explain why he needed them; "where things I grew up with in my household were the norm, not the exception." In 1998 Booker moved into Brick Towers and felt in some strange way that he'd come home.
He was elected to the Newark City Council the same year, then ran for mayor four years later—only to have his opponent, the wily, Rolls-driving incumbent Sharpe James, flat-out claim that the light-skinned Booker wasn't even black. Jewish, gay, and Ku Klux Klan–affiliated, perhaps, as James absurdly posited, but definitely not black. "And I said, 'Wait a minute, didn't I grow up in an environment where every day it was pointed out to me that I was?'" Booker laughs. "The universe gives you these things as gifts. That's a very delicious sort of irony that I experience in my life. It also makes you more comfortable in your own skin. I am who I am. Don't let this person define you. I'm the one who defines myself." Booker lost that election by 3,566 votes—and white-boarded his goal to win next time around.
When you've got the resources and elite connections of a Cory Booker, a certain degree of success is assured—who doesn't want to be in business with the charismatic, the ascendant? "We got a generous grant from the Obama administration," he tells a roomful of fans at yet another senior center one afternoon; "we have Jon Bon Jovi's money; we're doing something innovative with Brad Pitt based on what he's done down in New Orleans, so it's very exciting." Somewhere in the room a cell phone bleats. "If that's Brad, tell him I'm busy," Booker says, and laughs, despite its being perfectly plausible that it is Pitt on the line, reaching out. Drew Katz, a wealthy, philanthropic friend in the billboard business, recently joined Booker on a swing through a hard-up district, and when a woman in charge of a local school fair told Booker she didn't have the money in her budget for the necessary Porta Potties, Booker gestured to Katz and said, "He'll write you a check." Which Katz did, for $600. Problem solved. The Obama administration offered Booker a big job to guide urban affairs policy, and he's been approached about countless others, including a Senate seat back in 2002. He's turned them all down, and only uses those connections on Newark's behalf.
But friends in high places won't be of any help to Newark if Booker can't solve its defining dilemma: how to reduce crime—specifically, how to drive down the murder rate and keep it down. In its darkest days, the city could count on a couple of killings a week, thanks mostly to a drug trade that made The Wire look like Wonder Pets.
One of Booker's earliest priorities as mayor was to overhaul the police department, which suffered from cronyism, favoritism, and cynicism; a corrosive "Why bother?" attitude had set in. Looking to provide fresh blood and accountability, Booker filled the pivotal position of police director with an outsider, Garry McCarthy—an Irish guy with a brush cut and a don't-screw-with-me stare, who'd earned his chops under the polarizing then-mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani.
When he got to Newark, McCarthy couldn't believe the systemic dysfunction. Typical of the way the department had been running: Although gang activity usually spikes on weekends, the gang units didn't actually work on weekends. An even greater problem was the mind-set. "I'd been here about a month when we had a running gun battle through the streets and two kids were killed," McCarthy says. "I remember getting to the scene, and I was shocked by the apathy. It was like, no big deal, that's what happens—among both the community and the cops. That was a watershed moment for me. I took that and started pounding a message into the agency: Where's your moral indignation? Where's your pride? Every time somebody gets shot, we have to get angry. And that started to take root."
Next: An unspeakable crime, unforgettable results