NEW JERSEY STAR: Newark Mayor Cory Booker is often compared to President Barack Obama because of his youthful charisma, Ivy League pedigree, and post-racial persona. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)
Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey, talks (and tweets) about his Christian faith as readily and comfortably as any pastor. If there’s a major theme that I’ve discerned in his prolific faith tweets it’s “walk the talk.” He shows little patience for religious utterances in the absence of love-directed action.
I’ve been trying to schedule an interview with Booker for a year, ever since we engaged in a brief direct message conversation about coffee on Twitter last April. He replied to my initial interview request with a DM that said, “I hope we can talk soon. I’d enjoy the conversation.” In June, after I inquired again, he gave me a number to call and said he’d try to make it happen. Since then, I’ve exchanged encouraging emails with his press liaisons, but the interview never happened. Meanwhile, I’d see Booker tweeting about his latest appearance on one national television news broadcast after another and eventually realized if I wanted to talk to him, I’d have to make it happen myself. So, I decided to attend his 2012 “State of the City” address at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center March 1. When I requested a press pass from his staff via email, I asked for five minutes of his time after the event and was told I could have it.
A Day in the Life
My cameraman and I drove the hour and fifteen minutes to Newark on that promise, arriving a few minutes late to the 6:30 p.m. address because of traffic diversions related to the event. Although we didn’t see them, NJ.com reported that 100 people, mostly from the Newark Teacher’s Union, were outside protesting the mayor’s plan to close seven public schools.
As Booker spoke (with members of the Newark Municipal Council seated behind him on stage), a woman two rows in front of us argued with him so relentlessly from her seat that people turned around to tell her to be quiet, one even quoting from the book of Ecclesiastes in his rebuke. Another audience member countered her jeers with cheers throughout Booker’s speech. Two council members walked off stage after Booker called out council members for failing to reduce salaries and staff when the city had laid off 25 percent of its work force and then challenged the council to act on the deterioration of the city’s water supply infrastructure. Booker looked toward them and said, “If you can’t take the heat.” One of the council members told NJ.com “moments” after leaving the stage that Booker was lying. Through it all, the mayor stayed on message. When a pastor from New Hope Baptist Church offered a benediction, he bowed his head in prayer. Then, in a private room upstairs, he fielded questions from reporters.
For every one he was asked, Booker offered a long, passionate response. The press conference ended sometime around 9:00 pm and he was still going strong. His staff, however, was lagging. They looked tired. I was tired. The liaison who had promised me five minutes with the mayor was overruled in that moment by a senior aide. Eyeing me with apparent irritation, she said I could ask one question, not the five I had prepared. When I introduced myself and UrbanFaith to the mayor, there was no hint of recognition, but he smiled and said he could use some “urban faith.”
A day’s worth of research was whittled down to this: “Why do you think you don’t get punished the way other politicians do for talking about your faith and grounding your public service in faith?”
“I think the fundamental of the faith is humility, and you need to talk about it with that humble heart. I believe God is the infinite. How can I, as a finite person, ever have a conception of what God’s grace, God’s glory, is? That means recognizing that God’s truth might lie also in other faiths. And that means actually taking the time to study those faiths. I’ve studied Judaism. I’ve studied Hinduism. I’ve worked with an Islamic leader here to learn more about the Quran. I think you really can’t love someone as Christ called me to do unless you know them, unless you take the time to respect them and understand them. How can you do that without knowledge? So, I often worry that people use faith more as a bludgeon to hurt or to hit or to condemn rather than to use faith in a way to embrace, to love more deeply, to love more richly. That’s what I try to do in my public dialogue about faith, to use it as a door opener, not as one that slams or divides,” Booker said.
With the senior aide looming, there was no opportunity to follow up, to ask him how his statement about multiple sources of religious truth meshes with exclusivity claims not only in his own religion, but in others. The press liaison asked me if I was satisfied. I frowned. She said perhaps I could ask a couple more questions on the way out. It was the senior aide’s turn to frown, but she acquiesced. So, as we walked toward two flights of steps, I told the mayor I had read that the city’s first public school for boys was announced at Metropolitan Baptist Church that day as a public-private collaboration. He smiled again and nodded enthusiastically. I said the mayor of New York City had been in trouble with some church leaders recently for his unwillingness to repeal a Board of Education policy there that prohibits religious groups from meeting in public schools. In light of these differences in approach, I asked what his thoughts are on church/state separation.
Booker said he didn’t know enough about the New York City situation to comment on it specifically, but offered this: “As long as there’s free access for everybody, whether you’re a Christian group, a Muslim group, Bahá’í group, I think those are public spaces and we should allow people to use them as long as they’re not doing it in a way that undermines the freedom and the liberties of other groups. … In general, I think auditoriums and things like that should be used for the public. People should have open access to them. If a Muslim group wants access to that auditorium to hold something, as long as everybody else is on the same footing, I think that’s fine.”
As we moved down the stairs in lockstep with his staff, I asked about the role of faith groups in Newark, particularly their contributions to crime prevention and reduction, because he had told reporters that these groups are vital to those efforts.
“There’s tremendous, tremendous leadership from the faith community around crime, tremendous involvement. I just feel blessed by the religious communities here in Newark. They’re very, very involved in public safety, in the arts, in every aspect of our city really, education. It’s just great,” he said.
I dropped my recorder at the base of the stairs. The mayor bent down to pick it up. I thanked him for that kindness and for answering my truncated list of questions. He replied politely and kept moving towards a waiting SUV. Another aide told him he did well as he got into the vehicle. He thanked her and was gone.
I didn’t get to ask Booker about his vocal support for same-sex marriage. I wanted to know if it is grounded in his understanding of civil rights or something more personal and how faith groups respond to this part of his platform. In January, after Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey and suggested the issue should instead be decided by referendum, Booker argued from civil rights history that “we should not be putting civil rights issues to a popular vote.” Still, there are those unanswered questions.
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Democracy has been usurped in Benton Harbor, Michigan, according to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. Last Friday, Maddow reported on attempts by a state-appointed emergency financial manager to sell the economically distressed city’s public radio station on eBay. She said the station was the last place for residents of the predominantly African American city to hear from elected officials who currently have no power to act.
The Facts and the Players
The story is not new. The New York Times Magazine took it up in December, offering an in-depth look at how the situation evolved. In that article, readers learn that Whirlpool has its headquarters in Benton Harbor and that an aggressive redevelopment plan was sidelined by the Great Recession in 2008.
The Times described the EMF, Joseph Harris, as “a 67-year-old African American man with a salt-and-pepper mustache,” and outlined his job and how he got it like this:
“He was first sent to the town in April 2010 under a law that provided the state with limited authority to intervene in the financial affairs of failing cities. His power grew exponentially last spring when Governor [Rick] Snyder and the state’s Republican Legislature passed Public Act 4, which allows emergency managers to renegotiate or terminate contracts, change collective-bargaining agreements, even dissolve local governments (subject to the governor’s approval). They have almost unfettered control over their respective cities. This approach to governing is still in its infancy, but if it proves successful in Benton Harbor and elsewhere, emergency managers could be dispatched to troubled municipalities across the state. Snyder has even made it clear that Detroit is a strong candidate for takeover.”
Maddow isn’t the only person with a national platform to address the situation. The Times reported that the Rev. Jesse Jackson compared Benton Harbor to Selma, circa 1965, “because of the disenfranchisement of its largely black electorate,” and that comedian Stephen Colbert “offered a mock tribute to Harris: ‘I say good for him, because the people of Benton Harbor brought this on themselves. . . . Benton Harbor’s elected officials are incompetent, therefore, by electing them, the voters are incompetent. So they should lose their democracy.'”
Harris isn’t bothered by the attention, according to The Times. “Blissfully free of the checks and balances of democratic governments, he is living the dream of every frustrated city administrator.” He has fired numerous city employees, merged the city’s police and fire departments, and prohibited elected officials from doing anything other than calling meetings to order, recording their minutes, and adjourning them.
The Rev. Antoine Headspeth: "I don't think it's a stretch to say it's a dictatorship."
UrbanFaith talked to three people who are deeply invested in the city. The Rev. Antoine D. Headspeth is senior pastor of Bethel Christian Restoration Center and a lifelong Benton Harbor resident. He said although times have been worse there — particularly when rioting took place in 2003 and when unemployment was at an all-time high in the 1980s — he’s never seen the kind of political instability that exists now.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s dictatorship at its worst in terms of taking the voice away from the people,” said Headspeth.
Because years of “financial irresponsibility” and “incompetence” took a heavy toll on the city, Headspeth believed bringing in the EMF was a good idea, but he didn’t expect Harris to wield unilateral power to the degree he has.
“He can buy and sell as he chooses. He promised that at the beginning of the 2012 year, there would be a balanced budget. That has not happened. He promised that we would have a surplus. That has not happened. And so, when you do things that seem more personal that don’t benefit the city, then I have a problem with that,” said Headspeth.
In particular Headspeth sees Harris’s attempt to sell the radio station license and its equipment on eBay as “a slap in the face of the people” that is motivated by a desire to “shut people down” who were critical of him and his actions.
“To me that is unfair and just not right,” said Headspeth.
Dawn Yarbrough: "Change comes when people are informed."
Dawn Yarbrough also grew up in Benton Harbor, where her father once served as mayor and where both her parents have served as city commissioners. Although she has lived in Milan, Italy, for many years, on visits home three years ago, Yarbrough took note of various programs for youth that she thought deserved attention, like the Boys and Girls Club and glassblowing and martial arts programs. She began videotaping positive aspects of city life.
“They were stories that needed to be told, because lots of people who live here don’t realize what’s going on. They don’t the see the good things, because when you’re involved in your everyday life, you just hear the big picture,” said Yarbrough.
The local PBS affiliate, WNIT, has agreed to air her eight-part video series, Harbor Lights TV, and she is currently fundraising to make that happen.
“The objective is actually to help effect change. Change comes when people are informed about what exists, when they know there are programs that can help them or their children, and when they are encouraged to come out and participate in those programs,” said Yarbrough.
She declined to discuss the city’s problems, other than to say, “It is clear that our city needs assistance. If I am sick, then I am going to find a good doctor and I’m going to go to him and do my part in working with him to get well. … I hope that both sides: the emergency financial manager as well as the people who need to … find a spirit of collaboration so that we can all do what is best for our city and our citizens.”
The Rev. Brian Bennett: "A lot of it ties back to polarization racially and economically."
The Rev. Brian Bennett has lived in Benton Harbor since 2005. He is pastor of Overflow Church and executive director of the Overflow Christian Community Development Assocation. Bennett thinks the attention Benton Harbor is receiving is “well-deserved, given the historic nature of the transformation that’s happening.”
“There are very few places where the long-standing residents of the community have a voice any longer,” said Bennett. “I think large portions of the community that used to have a voice just no longer do, or the voice that they had has been compromised by being a part of the change. As a result, I think [the attempted radio station sale] is a striking metaphor.”
“The EMF was probably within his rights legally with the sweeping power he’s been given, but I don’t think that what he did was right. There is a difference,” he said. “Some of what is being felt here is, ‘Yes, there needs to be change, but how we’re getting there is happening with such audacity. The word that is coming to mind is velocity. It is happening so quickly.”
Bennett sees broken relationships as the heart of the problem in Benton Harbor and said the EMF’s actions are an example of that.
“When you look racially and economically at our area, a lot of it ties back to polarization racially and economically,” he said. “Our ministry is focused on unifying and being a place for all people and building bridges. That’s happening, but it takes time.”
The ministry focus at Headspeth’s church is also community building. “We believe if we build a strong community, we’ll build a stronger church and ultimately we’ll build stronger people,” Headspeth said. “I know the hearts and the passion of the constituents of the city of Benton Harbor and the people are not going to bow out easily.”
What do you think?
Is it undemocratic for states to unilaterally exercise power over “failing” cities?