Future of Change

April 1, 2009
Their honors: Booker addressing Sanford crowd.

Their honors: Booker addressing Sanford crowd. Jared Lazarus

In the first months of the Obama administration, an endless stream of pundits seemed eager to discuss the future of political leadership. In February, Duke's Sanford Institute of Public Policy hosted a speaker attempting to live that future.

Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker called on members of the crowded audience in the institute's Fleishman Commons to commit themselves to political engagement, social justice, and developing a "moral imagination." Booker, who played football at Stanford University, was a Rhodes Scholar, and studied law at Yale University, is in his first term as mayor of a city that has been plagued with crime and poverty problems for decades.

Two years into his term, Booker has led initiatives that have reduced violent crime by 40 percent, collaborated with commercial leaders to incubate new small businesses, and worked with local foundations to improve education.

When he moved to Newark in 1996 to work as a community organizer, he chose to live in a notorious housing project, Brick Towers, in order to better understand the struggles of Newark's poor, he said. Soon after, he was elected to the city council.

He described his own education in politics, which often came by listening to his Brick Towers neighbors, and his growing frustration with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who obstructed his efforts to improve city services. (His opponent in his first mayoral campaign, who is now serving a prison sentence for fraud, routinely harassed Booker and his supporters, as chronicled in the 2005 documentary Street Fight.)

Booker turned to his faith, a mixture of the Abrahamic religions; during his talk, he quoted from the Bible, the Talmud, and the prayers of an Imam and also recited portions of Langston Hughes' poem "Let America Be America Again."

Booker, who campaigned for President Obama, noted that the nation has accomplished something significant. But, he added, "elections are not ends, but beginnings of opportunity." He urged the audience to reject false choices in policy in favor of pragmatism and to resist the temptation to demonize individual politicians.

Following his speech, Booker had a private dinner with undergraduates participating in Connect2Politics, an initiative of the Institute's Hart Leadership Program that connects students with influential politicians.