POLITICS AUGUST 7, 2013
The New York Times’ front-page report on Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s involvement in a fledgling web-video start-up called Waywire contains some troubling and surprising revelations. The article details that the majority of Booker’s wealth—and up to $5 million—involves shares in the company, for which he tapped both celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and campaign donors for seed money. Unusually for someone who does not work on it day-to-day, Booker received the largest stake of its three co-founders. In both federal and municipal forms, Booker was late to formally disclose his ownership. Waywire employs a couple associates of Booker’s, and, as the Times drolly notes, it “has put Andrew Zucker, 14, the son of Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, on its advisory board and given him stock options.” Booker’s buckraking was brazen enough that it is likely he never could have gotten away with it had he been a senator—as he soon shall be, assuming he wins next Tuesday’s Democratic primary, which he is nearly certain to do, and a subsequent special election in October.
In fact, though, if you know Booker, this sort of thing is not all that shocking. It is not only that Booker is rabidly friendly to the investor class even by the standards of Tristate Area elected officials. Nor is it that this news makes him roughly the 800,000th less-than-upstanding mayor in New Jersey history. It is that the same reasoning he uses to justify his involvement in Waywire explains his philosophy of governing. Silicon Valley-inflected, do-gooder back-scratching is his credo.
To hear Booker as well as Waywire’s other principals tell it, Booker’s interest in Waywire, whose original mission (which is probably as-yet unfulfilled, since the company has already undergone one round of layoffs) was to magnify the “marginalized voices,” including those of “high school kids,” whose YouTubes were not getting deserved attention. “He stressed that he was drawn to exploring technology because he believes it can be, among other things, a democratizing force,” the Times reports. “What was exciting to me,” Booker says, “was that it was expanding entrepreneurial, economic, and educational opportunities for so many.”
Indeed, perhaps more than any other politician, and particularly more than any other nominal liberal, Booker has echoed Silicon Valley’s belief that public aims are best achieved at least partly through private enterprise. It is no coincidence that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg chose Newark’s school system for his $100 million donation—which was originally supposed to spur much smaller charity from ordinary citizens. (Am pretty sure that is what taxes are for?) As Salon detailed recently, Booker is as quick to credit private investment as anything else in helping Newark’s nascent recovery. He is not particularly friendly to unions; he loves charter schools. “He was always a part of the privatization movement,” said Ronald Rice, whom Booker defeated in the 2006 mayoral race. (Silicon Valley has hollered back at Booker; according to the Times, Booker has received more than one million dollars in his two most recent elections from tech executives and employees.)
Power to Booker for lowering crime and making life a little better in Newark, the land that urban revitalization forgot. But it has been curious, these past seven years, to see a Democratic politician—and a darling of many young liberals, who lapped his schtick up at this year’s South by Southwest—so eagerly embrace private enterprise as the solution to public problems. What happened to public solutions to public problems?
The source of much of Booker’s veneration among the younger generation of progressives is his outsize presence on social media, in particular Twitter. Not only is he an unusually charismatic tweeter, one who has truly earned his 1.4 million followers. He actually has used the platform to help ordinary citizens of Newark who tweet at him asking for aid. (As I write, his most recent tweet has him assuring @OhSoSexy424, a “Nwk resident” who “need[s] your assistance,” to check her direct-message inbox.) This side of Booker is also what apparently attracted Waywire’s co-founders to him: One “said she has wondered how the civil rights movement might have been different had the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had access to Twitter,” the Times reported. “‘Social media is a movement,’ she said, ‘and Cory Booker is a leader in this movement.’”
But Twitter isn’t 311. And Booker’s random acts of kindness, for which is he so widely celebrated and which have helped a great many individuals, are still a kind of benevolent vigilantism. A mayor personally helping citizens shovel their streets is democracy in the same way that Twitter is “democratizing”: ambivalently, unevenly, and above all not literally. (And guess what? Booker uses Twitter to shill for Waywire.) That some Silicon Valley types would help their man in Newark—soon to be their man in Washington—make an extremely nice living for himself, and that he would accede to this help, is not shocking. The only surprise, really, is that we are still surprised.