Newark's New Choice

Cory Booker interviewed by David Weigel


Sometimes there's an upside to losing an election. In 2002 Cory Booker, then 33 years old, narrowly lost the race for mayor of Newark, New Jersey, to Sharpe James, an entrenched incumbent who accused him of being a Republican puppet, an outsider, and "not really black." (Both candidates were Democrats.) Booker lost in part because he supported school choice and other free market policies.

Rather than cover up his beliefs the next time around, Booker spent four years building support, working with the community, and assembling a team of pro–school choice candidates to run for city council. On May 9, Booker and his slate won by a landslide. Now the Stanford grad and Rhodes Scholar is rolling up his sleeves to start the hard work of governing.

Assistant Editor David Weigel spoke with Booker in May, on the eve of his election.

Q: Why do you support school choice?

A: Poor families in Newark don't have the same options that middle-class or wealthy people have. This is a country that has two different systems—one for the privileged that gives the best opportunities, and another one that sticks kids in failed institutions.

We're just a mile away from South Orange, where people are so desperate for options for their kids that they give the suburban public schools sham addresses from other suburban towns. They have people who follow around minority children, forcibly remove them from school, and bill them for tuition. That's not the America I believe in.

Q: How are you going to get these policies implemented? You don't have the teachers unions behind you.

A: It's a challenge. Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of like minds, and we have powerful forces against us. So I've got to figure out how to get pragmatic change for parents right now. I'm part of the coalition trying to pass an urban school scholarship act that would provide tax credits for companies if they dedicated scholarship funds for vouchers for inner-city kids going to school within a certain poverty level.

Q: Who are some of your heroes or models?

A: People like Martin O'Malley in Baltimore, who brought in something called CitiStat that tracked the performance of city officials and created real accountability. Stephen Goldsmith was a Republican mayor of Indianapolis, but he was a real genius when it came to prioritizing private investment. He lowered taxes three years in a row and created a good model for political economy.

The lack of accountability is the reason why government often doesn't work. If a business doesn't meet its goals, or it's failing, it shakes up the management. If government is failing, it raises taxes to get more money—and then it keeps failing.