What’s Next for Newark: The Future of the City without Booker

In the last few days of October, Cory Booker is winding down his two-term career as mayor of Newark, N.J.’s largest city, and moving on-to the U.S. Senate, that is.

Booker, the charismatic young Democrat who is known well beyond the state’s borders, was elected Oct. 16 to serve out the remainder of Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s term in Washington, defeating Republican challenger Steve Lonegan by 11 percentage points at the polls. And while his many supporters are cheering him on as he makes the trek to Capitol Hill, what might happen to his city back home?

Newarkers seem to think they’ll be just fine.

“I predict that Newark will go on in a fashion which it’s always gone on-we use what we have to get to the next place,” said Dana Rone, a former councilwoman for the city’s central ward. “I do not see Cory as special; he is another mayor of Newark who brought more things to Newark. I don’t think Newark is going to collapse after his departure.”

Historically, Newark has teetered on the verge of collapse for quite some time-the city was once featured as one of America’s deadliest cities, where two out of five children live below the poverty line. But after being elected as mayor seven years ago, Booker is widely considered to have turned Newark around, at least in part; for example, the city’s murder rate reduced from 105 per 100,000 residents in 2006 to 94 in 2011.

Still, no one has considered the job done, not even Booker himself. Rone said that Booker’s successor must now effectively continue the progress the city has seen, especially with the economy.

“I think the next mayor needs to build the relationship with the business community that Cory has brought in,” she said. “A mayor who could build public-private partnerships to benefit the private and the public, and with the consciousness to do that-I think that is what Newark needs. Booker brought the business, and now we need a mayor who is business savvy but community-oriented to bring those two together.”

Newark administrators are hustling in the remainder of Booker’s term to ensure that plans are in place to continue this progress. Business manager Julien Neals said that city officials right now are in a “transition period.”

Booker is expected to resign as mayor shortly before he will be sworn in as senator on Oct. 31, leaving the current city council president-Luis Quintana-as the acting mayor. Neals said the council then has 30 days to appoint an interim mayor to serve through June 30, with an election in May to select an individual to lead the city in a fresh term on July 1.

If an interim mayor is not chosen within the 30-day window, Neals said a special election will have to be held in January. (The Star-Ledger reported that Quintana appears to be the likely selection.) But, he thinks the process of selecting a successor will be smooth, as will the city’s journey without Booker.

“I think the future of the city will continue on the same path,” Neals explained. “Mayor Booker-his personality, his magnetism-has drawn a lot of attention to Newark. But Newark in and of itself is worthy of the attention.”

In the final showdown in the senatorial debates, Republican Lonegan criticized Newark, referring to it as a “big black hole” in relation to the city’s budget. When it came to environmental issues, Lonegan zoomed in on violence in Newark, stating, “You may not be able to swim in that river but it’s probably, I think, because of all the bodies floating around from shooting victims in your city.”

But Newark has seen a decline in crime under Booker’s administration. When he first took office in 2009, the murder rate fell from 107 in 2006 to 68 in 2009. State police statistics also show that the number of murders have dropped 23 percent in the first half of 2013 compared to 2012. The summer of 2013, which is usually the most dangerous season when it comes to crimes, declined in assaults and motor vehicle theft.

Booker’s accomplishments also include doubling the production of affordable housing, opening Newark’s first new hotel in 40 years, the Courtyard Marriott on Broad Street, and bringing big businesses to settle in the city, like Panasonic. Booker’s tenure also saw a growth in Newark’s population for the first time in three decades, reaching over 277,000 residents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

The establishment of the Prudential Center and the move-in of the New Jersey Devils into Newark has also helped its economy flourish. In 2010, the Center ranked 24th in world ticket sales, with 358,814 tickets sold, passing up the ticket sales of the 30-year-old IZOD Center. Co-owner Michael Gilfillan stated that the Center was “doing really well” for Newark, where about $12 million was brought in for Newark alone and $16 million for Essex County.

Longtime Newark resident Theresa Singleton said that a connection with constituents is a necessity for the next mayor, aside from a continued focus on the city’s economy and education.

In fact, that quality in a political leader is something Booker pioneered as mayor, Neals said. Leading the city, Booker has accrued 1.4 million Twitter followers and has actively communicated with many of them online.

“Social media brings a new level of accessibility and transparency people expect from elected officials,” Neals explained. “[Booker] really stood for a different type of government experience.”  Whoever succeeds Booker, Neals said his work in “rehabilitating Newark’s reputation” will not be forgotten.

“People have kind of overlooked [the city] because of its reputation,” Neals explained. “He was able to show people that that’s not what Newark was all about. He was able to carry that message around the world.”

And he will now be carrying it to Washington, D.C. Rone and Singleton said they both backed Booker in the election, but Neals said that regardless of the public’s support for him in Newark, the city has rallied behind him in his bid for Senate.

“There are some folks who were part of the old guard in Newark who were very critical of the mayor throughout his tenure, but everybody has pretty much gotten behind him and supported him for Senate,” Neals said. “We may have had our differences here, but to send somebody on to the U.S. Senate who can help bring resources and things to the region, that’s something that everybody got behind.”