NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Visits from Britain’s prime minister, the Dalai Lama and assorted movie stars. A $100 million gift to the school system. Wall Street buy-in. Coverage from worldwide media.
Such attention and investment is rarely paid to America’s midsized cities, especially one in the shadow of New York that has long been plagued by crime and poverty.
But others aren’t the Newark governed by Cory Booker, who hobnobs with Hollywood celebrities, frequently appears on TV and is now gunning for higher office, announcing a U.S. Senate bid June 8.
Booker gets mixed reviews for how he has run the city during his two terms. But no one disputes that funds have gushed to and interest has spiked in Newark, largely because of the mayor, who has worked to put the city — and himself — on the national stage.
With Booker a heavy favorite to win and leave for Washington in four months, many wonder: Will his successor be able to sustain the attention and money that has flowed into this city based largely on Booker’s outsized personality?
“If Booker goes to the Senate, then suddenly Newark is another high spending, low-performing struggling community. And there are a lot of those,” said Frederick M. Hess, a philanthropy expert with the American Enterprise Institute. “If he leaves, I think it would definitely be a substantial setback in terms of trying to keep the philanthropists and national advocacy organizations interested.”
Booker’s embrace of private sector-led urban development has endeared him to Wall Street and Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Booker often touts the billions he’s attracted to this cash-strapped city of 277,000 only 10 miles from Manhattan. Twenty-six percent of Newark residents live below the poverty level, more than 10 percentage points above the national average.
While Booker says the projects have momentum and he’d continue to be a part of them if he wins the Senate seat, critics wonder if donors have invested less in Newark’s long-term future and more in Booker’s utopian vision of urban renewal. They question whether money will follow just him and whether the correct infrastructure is in place to manage existing gifts.
“It’s hard to think of another small city that’s been able to raise these kinds of enormous dollars from national donors,” Hess said. “And I think without a doubt the key factor here is Booker.”
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg provided the most high-profile donation of Booker’s tenure: a $100 million matching grant to Newark’s schools. But Zuckerberg admitted he didn’t know much about Newark before sitting at a dinner with Booker at a Sun Valley, Idaho, conference, where the young mayor regaled the guests with stories about how he moved into a crime-ridden housing project and rode along with police on late-night patrols.
“It’s the kind of personal and real dedication that you get from real leaders,” Zuckerberg recalled at the announcement in September 2010. “It just made me think this is a guy I want to invest in.”
Administration of the grant has come under criticism, with some claiming it has changed little. A chunk of it is funding a merit pay initiative put in a landmark teachers’ contract.
At his Senate campaign announcement, Booker said projects will proceed without him.
“The momentum is clear. There is about $1 billion worth of development projects rolling into the city,” Booker said. “As much as you might think I’m necessary to complete those projects, this momentum will continue. And I’ll continue to be a part of it.”
Booker was asked Thursday on Twitter whether a Senate win would hurt money that’s flowed into Newark.
“No. It’ll empower me to help Nwk, Camden, & other areas of NJ 2,” he tweeted.
But Newark is different from many cities in that it has used foundation money to patch holes and cuts in city programs, including funds to fix parks and playgrounds and public safety after 100 officers were laid off. During Booker’s tenure, Newark has been heavily reliant on state aid to close budget gaps.
“I would say it’s fairly unprecedented at the city level that the public schools and other public entities have been so successful in raising private philanthropic support,” said Patrick Rooney, an associate dean at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Booker has become a friend of Wall Street and its inhabitants have opened their pockets, with prominent names including hedge fund managers Bill Ackman and Leon G. Cooperman giving millions to the city.
“If he (Booker) is replaced by a person, a woman or man, of equal integrity, I see no reason why I wouldn’t want to help out,” said Cooperman, the chairman and CEO of Omega Advisors, Inc., who has given at least $16 million to Newark.
A large chunk of the investment in the city has gone to downtown, where residential buildings are popping up and Prudential and Panasonic North America are building new headquarters.
Panasonic Chairman and CEO Joseph M. Taylor was looking to move the company’s headquarters from Secaucus, N.J. He didn’t consider Newark until Christie and Booker reached out. Both are “rather persuasive,” Taylor said in an interview with The Associated Press last year.
Booker showcased the city’s potential and Taylor soon saw Panasonic as a potential “tipping point” for Newark’s transition. The building is expected to open next month.
“Time will tell,” Taylor said, “if it was a leap of faith that will be successful.”
Associated Press writer Angela Delli Santi contributed from Trenton, N.J.
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