Why I’m Not Impressed With Cory Booker—Yet

This past Thursday, I attended a breakfast for African American media outlets hosted by Newark Mayor (and fellow Twitter ninja) Cory Booker. Attended by local publications as well as several national outlets, it was Booker’s opportunity to lay out his agenda for Newark in his second term as mayor. He announced his administration’s four priorities: public safety and crime reduction, economic empowerment, making young people safe from violence and running a more efficient and effective government in an era of overwhelming municipal and state budget crises. Booker also made a compelling case that significant progress had already been made in these areas.

(Side note: After receiving my invitation to the breakfast, I was surprised that it was Booker’s first such gathering with black media, and shared as much on Twitter. Booker added to my befuddlement when he stated at the start of the breakfast that he’d hosted several such gatherings for Latino media before coming up with the idea of hosting one for African American media–this as mayor of a city that is nearly 50 percent black. To his credit, Booker owned up to the oversight, without making excuses. And yes, he did see my tweet before the breakfast and was the first to bring it to the attention of the gathering.)

During Booker’s address, he lived up to his billing as the charming, enthusiastic, sincere and self-deprecating political star (a future governor? Vice president?) on the rise. As he waxed on about his plan to pilot the racial conciliation approach to policing (used by Cincinnati law enforcement after race riots erupted in that city); efforts to raise funds from the private sector to match Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg‘s $100 million gift to fix Newark’s schools; and track record for creating women- and minority-owned business start-ups, I was taking notes–and tweeting from my iPad, of course. When I tweeted to my followers where I was that morning, one of them, Judge Glenda Hatchett (yes, that Judge Hatchett), expressed how impressed she is with Booker, who she described as a “true servant leader and a class act.” While I absolutely agreed with Hatchett’s description of Booker, I told her that I couldn’t say that I am impressed.

Why? Because for all the challenges he’s faced and all the good he’s done as mayor of Newark to this point, Booker has yet to move the needle on the number and scale of black-owned businesses in the city. In fact, Newark is home to none of the nation’s 100 largest black-owned industrial/service companies, despite it’s large black population and having a black mayor since 1970. (Booker was preceded as mayor by Sharpe James and Kenneth Gibson.) In fact, there are only two BE 100s industrial/service companies in the entire state of New Jersey. Compare that to Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta, each of which are home to at least a half dozen BE 100s companies, despite suffering from the same budget woes and urban ills as the ones Booker faces in Newark.

To impress me, Booker needs to do for Newark what the late Maynard H. Jackson did as the first black mayor of Atlanta–create a mecca for black entrepreneurship and help to create and attract large black-owned companies to Newark. Booker needs to do what Jackson did, even if he can’t do it the way that Jackson did it: Communicate in no uncertain terms to the corporations and major retailers he is attracting to the city as part of his economic and job creation agenda that African Americans (yes, and members of Newark’s other underrepresented groups) must be included in the business of his city. Not at the kiddie table, fighting for a slice of the pie, but at the adult table, helping to divide and share it.

I’ve had the honor of spending time with both men, although I got to know Jackson (we both took our first golf lessons together at the Black Enterprise Golf & Tennis Challenge years ago) better than Booker thus far. Jackson is the most impressive person I’ve ever met (and I’m including President Barack Obama) and fills out my top five of personal heroes, along with Paul Robeson, Percy Sutton, Reginald F. Lewis and Black Enterprise Founder Earl Graves. My encounters with Booker–including crossing paths at Newark Penn Station and sharing a panel at a town hall on financial literacy–have always left me grateful that he was elected and encouraged about Newark’s future.

And for Booker to have earned the respect, admiration and support of Hatchett, a native and resident of Atlanta, is no small thing. Hatchett worked on Jackson’s historic mayoral campaign before she was old enough to vote, and he gave her her first job in the legal profession after her first year of law school. Certainly, as Hatchett accurately pointed out to me on Twitter, times were different for Jackson when he was elected mayor of Atlanta in 1973 at the age of 35 (a year younger than Booker was when elected to his first term). However, I believe that as the first black mayor of a southern city in the 1970s, Jackson had it at least as tough, if not tougher, than Booker has it as the third black mayor of a northern city in 2011. Either way, the differences in cities, eras and the style and talents of the two men (Jackson was a man of legendary charismatic force; Booker is the principled and pragmatic great persuader) don’t really matter.

Let me use an analogy that Booker, who shares a love of basketball with President Obama, might appreciate. LeBron James, as gifted an athlete as he is, will never be counted in the same class as Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the dominant NBA star when Jackson was mayor, unless he earns at least one NBA Championship ring. James knows this, and so does everybody else. No amount of talk about James playing in a different era and under different circumstances than Johnson, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and other NBA greats will change that fact.

The “rings” that Maynard Jackson brought home to Atlanta were the creation of black-owned companies of scale via the broad participation of black entrepreneurs in the business of the city. In fact, Jackson created more black millionaires than any American mayor in history, establishing a black entrepreneurial tradition in Atlanta rivaled only by Chicago. Newark? Not even on the map. There’s a reason why the Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference has always been held in the south (with one exception, Detroit) and will be held in Atlanta for the second straight year this May. The conference will be in Chicago in 2012.

Let me be clear: This is not a diss against Cory Booker. If I’m hating, it’s in an effort to challenge Booker to be great, not just good. It’s not enough for him to just be better than Sharpe James (who did some good things as Newark’s mayor despite ending his last term with a felony conviction) or Detroit’s disgraced ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is now in federal prison. He has the popularity, credibility, persuasiveness and charisma to go beyond incremental improvements, to leave a legacy in Newark that can be built on by future generations of city leaders, just as Jackson did in Atlanta.

To Booker’s credit, when I raised this issue during the question-and-answer period at the media breakfast, he agreed that not enough progress had been made. Booker proposed partnering with Black Enterprise to secure corporate sponsorship for a black business forum in Newark. A member of his administration then shared that they were looking at how Jackson leveraged the construction of Hartsfield (now Hartsfield/Jackson) Airport to create opportunities for black entrepreneurs, as a model for what could be done with Newark Airport and the Port of Newark. That’s encouraging.

When it comes to Cory Booker, Judge Hatchett and I are in near 100 percent agreement. We like him. We admire him.  He has been, in fact, a class act. And we desperately want Booker to succeed–especially me, as a New Jersey native and Newark-area resident. But Mayor Booker, if you want me to be impressed, make Newark a northern mecca for black business. Make it fertile ground for the BE 100s. Create one or two black multimillionaires.

Bring home some rings.