Corey Booker had the complete package on display, or as he said, alluding to a popular reality television program, “the original situation,” on September 29 in UNC Pembroke’s Givens Performing Arts Center.
Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J., and perhaps one of America’s most promising young politicians, was the first speaker in UNCP’s 2011-12 Distinguished Speaker Series. He spoke to an audience of approximately 500. Without notes and quoting from Abraham Lincoln and Langston Hughes, he discussed his inspiration, his causes and the philosophy that has helped him to turn around one of America’s most troubled cities.
He has taken on the most difficult issues of our time -- criminal recidivism, affordable inner-city housing and education. As a city councilman, when Booker couldn’t get his way on the issue of crime in Newark’s troubled Brick Towers housing project, he put Mahatma Gandhi’s tactics to full use. He launched a hunger strike that lasted 10 days and garnered many powerful allies and media attention.
“Eventually the mayor, my opponent, came out and we hugged,” Booker said. “He said this was all going to end. The police would come out police, and we would build a park here.
“Soon, the police went away, and he never built the park,” he said. “I am mayor now, and we have a park there.”
After having a young man die in his arms from gunshot wounds, Booker said he was inspired to action by a woman he calls his mentor.
“On the day I felt like giving up my dream, she was my audience,” he said. “She smacks me upside the head. ‘I know what you should do; you should do something.’”
His mentor, whom Booker did not name, was the leader of the community watch in the dangerous housing project. Booker, working for a nonprofit legal aid office at the time, had moved into the tough Central Ward district when he met her.
“I said something like, ‘I’m from Yale Law School, and I’m here to help,’” he said with a smile. “‘You want to help? Follow me,’ she said.”
She led Booker out into the middle of the street and asked him what he saw. He saw nothing good.
“The more I talked, the more she said, ‘You can never help me,’” he continued. “She said, ‘The world you see on the outside is always a reflection of what’s inside. See the face of God in every person you see; then you can help.’
“She was a prisoner of hope,” he said.
Booker earned two degrees from Stanford University and played football there before becoming a Rhodes Scholar and earning a law degree at Yale University. He’s been on Oprah twice, and the New York Times named him one of “America’s Most Powerful Players Under 40.”
Although he is a major figure in New Jersey, Booker’s roots are in North Carolina, where his father was born. His aunt and uncle were in the audience.
“My father used to say ‘I was born so po’ I couldn’t afford the last two letters,’” Booker said. “My parents told me that whatever I decided to be, to be the best at it. If we set our sights higher, we will find a way to get there.”
Booker set his sights high when he took on the issue of the large numbers of ex-convicts returning to crime in New Jersey. Eighty-three percent of the people shot in Newark had been arrested at least 10 times before, he said.
“I love it when people tell me I can’t do something,” he said. “I’m not a starry-eyed idealist, either. I’m a competitor, so if I find something that works, I want to do it better.”
Booker enlisted the help of major law firms and built the Fatherhood Program. Ex-convicts in his program, dubbed Delta Alpha Delta Sigma or DADS, have a rate of return to jail of just 3 percent, he said. He also set up a one-stop shop for ex-convicts to clear up legal their problems and to get drivers licenses and jobs.
“If you do things other people aren’t doing, you will get results nobody else gets,” Booker said. Partisan bickering doesn’t help, he promised. “You’ve got to create a partnership in spirit with people you are not always comfortable with.”
As the night continued, Booker sounded more like a motivational speaker than a politician. He offered no clues on his political future, but he had some advice on solving the nation’s problems.
“We are here for a purpose, and we are a stronger nation than we know,” he said. “There is a calling in this country, and I believe we are a special nation.”
The future is tied to education, he said. “The greatest national security threat to the future is the failure to educate our children.
“When my second term is over, I’ll be exhausted and beat up, but I’ll know I left it all on the field,” Booker concluded.
For now, though, he’s still on the field. The game is not over yet.
The Distinguished Speaker Series continues on February 7, 2012, with Frank Warren, creator of the blog PostSecret Project.