Cory Booker rode to victory in Newark’s mayoral race by pledging to end the corruption, cronyism, and incompetence that have plagued the government of New Jersey’s biggest city for decades. Not just Newark, but the entire state, has a big stake in seeing him succeed.
One of the country’s richest states, Jersey also has one of the deepest budget deficits. That’s in large part because its cities, led by Newark and Camden, have become so dysfunctional that they’re increasingly dependent on suburban taxpayers to finance their school systems and municipal budgets. While cities around America rebounded during the 1990s, rebuilding tax bases and welcoming new investment, the Garden State’s cities have continued heading in the wrong direction, plagued by crime, public-sector sleaze, and patronage-ridden schools that suck in tax dollars without producing results. Part of a necessary long-term fiscal reform for Jersey is to clean up its cities and stop them from sucking the vitality out of the entire state.
Take Newark. Once a thriving, self-sufficient city of some 450,000 people, it descended into chaos during the riot-torn year of 1967 and never recovered. Since the riots, state and federal programs have poured billions in aid into the city, much of it squandered on ineffective programs or stolen outright. Corruption charges have led to the removal from office of numerous officials, from city councilmen to a board of education member to outgoing mayor Sharpe James’s former chief of staff.
Crime became epidemic, while policing grew corrupt and increasingly ineffective. In 1996, while New York engineered an historic crime drop, federal officials were hauling away Newark’s police commissioner after discovering that he’d stolen money meant to finance anti-drug campaigns. The New York Times branded Newark’s police department “out of control.” The city earned a reputation as the car-jack capital of the country, and today its overall violent crime rate is twice New York City’s, its murder rate four times higher.
Newark’s education establishment also became a hotbed for nepotism and cronyism, wasting money on administrative jobs, while schools crumbled and test scores plummeted. After a series of damning investigations found that the system, in which only one out of four students could pass a proficiency test, spent only 42 percent of its money on instruction, the state took it over in 1995.
Not surprisingly, given these woes, Newark’s population has fallen to about 280,000, and its tax base has shriveled.
Camden hasn’t done much better. Since 1981, three mayors have had to leave office because of corruption charges, and municipal government has virtually stopped functioning. New Jersey had to call in state troopers to patrol the city because of the police department’s ineffectiveness. One annual survey ranked Camden as the country’s most dangerous city. The state also took over Camden’s school system and eventually installed an administrator to run the city’s finances.
The cost for all of this sleaze and mismanagement has been enormous. And Jersey’s suburban taxpayers and businesses have had to foot most of the bill as the cities’ tax base dried up, thanks to a series of orders from the New Jersey Supreme Court forcing Trenton to step up with money because the cities weren’t providing their students with a basic education, as the state constitution requires. In the last decade, the state has spent some $30 billion on urban school districts. The state now pays 90 percent of the cost of the Camden school system; local taxes make up just 2 percent of its school budget. The state provides three quarters of a billion dollars a year in aid to Newark’s school system and municipal operating budget. While all this money hasn’t done the city’s children or residents much good, it has helped to create a giant patronage-driven political machine that Sharpe James, in particular, has wielded in the service of the statewide Democratic Party, helping to elect governors and U.S. Senators.
Jersey’s $31 billion budget groans under the weight of this aid to cities, especially the more than $4 billion a year going to urban schools. That funding is a key reason why the state has a steep budget deficit in the midst of a national economic boom that is producing revenue surpluses in most other states.
After $3.6 billion in tax hikes during the three years that former governor McGreevey mismanaged the state, Jersey residents will likely face further state tax increases in Governor Corzine’s first budget. Meanwhile, local property taxes are also soaring. Suburban taxpayers, in effect, are paying for two sets of government and two school systems—their own (through property levies) and the cities’ (through income and sales taxes).
Booker arrives promising reform, and the people of Newark seem ready to welcome it. They not only elected him with 70 percent of the vote but also transformed the city council by backing a host of Booker-supported candidates. But now comes the real work. Having lived in a mobile home on some of Newark’s most dangerous street corners, Booker has pledged to shake up the city’s police department and has pledged zero tolerance of crime. He’s also advocating for the state to return the city’s education system to local control and has pledged to push for education reforms, including school choice, to help spur competition and better performance in the public schools. He’s promised to bring professional management into city hall, which one federal prosecutor likened to a “supermarket,” because “you can buy anything” there.
Of course, Newark has heard this all before. Sharpe James won his first election 20 years ago as a reformer, proclaiming that under his predecessor, Kenneth Gibson, Newark had become “fear city and dope city.” Gibson in turn had won election 16 years earlier on a reform platform, promising to rebuild Newark in the wake of the riots and the scandal-plagued administration of Mayor Hugh Addonizio. Newark has listened to promises of a better tomorrow for nearly 40 years now with little payoff, except for those in power.
But today the stakes are even higher, not just for Newark but for all of New Jersey. Someone has to break the cycle of bad government that has plagued urban Jersey for decades. Someone has to show the state’s cities how to join the urban revolution that has revived municipalities across the country. At the moment, smooth, charismatic, Yale-educated Cory Booker, the Rhodes Scholar, is Jersey’s best shot.