Newark Mayor Cory Booker addressed a large audience at the Terry Sanford Institute for Public Policy Wednesday on the future of political leadership.
Although he has only served as mayor for two years, Booker has developed a national following. Journalist Gwen Ifill devotes a chapte to Booker in her book about up-and-coming black politicians, "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama."
Booker's address, sponsored by the Hart Leadership Program's Connect2Politics initiative, covered a wide variety of topics, including the importance of leaders having a strong and positive vision for the future and a belief in their ability to bring about change.
"My mom made it very clear to my brother and I when we were growing up that this nation was founded on these perfect ideals, and they were so profound and so beyond where we were as a nation at the time," Booker said. "The history of the nation is a history of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to make real the promise of this democracy."
Newark is a city with a history of political corruption. Sharpe James, whom Booker unsuccessfully ran against in 2002, is currently serving a 27-month prison sentence for fraud. But Booker said that despite the flaws in the political process, there is still a need for good people to be engaged in politics.
"[Politics] is a sphere that touches everything we do, and it can't be surrendered. It must be participated in," Booker said.
Booker said he learned quickly that a public office is not for the weak of heart. In order to work in the field one cannot be satisfied with things as the way they are.
"So many of us resign ourselves to what is," Booker said. "We start to have a lack of moral imagination about what can be, and we begin to limit ourselves. Imagination is more important than knowledge."
Booker said he is pragmatic in his approach to governance and believes that society is too quick to condemn.
"We should avoid the temptation to demonize people. We all have ranges. We all have peaks, and we all have valleys," Booker said. "People are far more complex than late-night talk show hosts make them out to be."
After his speech, Booker spoke with The Chronicle about his background, his foray into politics and how he came to become the mayor of Newark.
"I would have never imagined that if you told me that when I was in college or law school even. I didn't think it would happen," Booker said of his political career. "I always said that the best way to make God laugh is to make plans for yourself."
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The Rhodes scholar, who is also a graduate of Stanford and Yale universities, said he is satisfied with his life.
"I'm very grateful for how my life is going so far," Booker said. "I really do believe that life is not about the position you hold but the purpose you have."
Even with the pressures of his job, Booker said he stays grounded by the relationships he has with the people he serves.
"I feel like I serve the greatest city on the planet, and I'm not exaggerating," Booker said. "This mission is so exciting, and I am really excited by what we are trying to achieve-and that keeps me going."
Ifill, however, acknowledges in her book that some of Booker's critics suggest that his mission is currently off-track. Although crime and poverty rates have decreased and schools' test scores have risen, for some the improvements have not come soon enough. But Booker said he is not fazed by his critics.
"I focus on the results. Measurable, quantifiable results," Booker said. "I just focus on continuing to achieve results. You're always going to have detractors, and if you allow them to be your focus, you're not going to accomplish as much as you would have."
Booker said he does not consider himself to be a phenomenon or a celebrity, despite the attention he has received recently.
"I think that I am a part of a generation of millions who are doing extraordinary things and breaking through in various areas," he said.
Still, many students said they admire Booker and will strive to follow his example.
"He is an inspiration to me," said senior Aria Branch. "He could have pursued corporate law and big money, but instead he dedicated his time to helping people and rescuing a city."
Some students who came out to hear Booker said they would consider working in public service instead of the private sector.
"I want to work in the public sector," said Andrea Dinamarco, a first-year law student. "I was thinking about interning at [Booker's] office last summer. I think that the public sector is where you have the most effect on people's lives."