Booker on Budgets, Being Mayoral

Up-and-coming political star and Mayor of Newark, N.J. Cory Booker, whose first campaign was documented in the entertaining documentary "Street Fight," recently sat down for a Q&A with Huffington Post. He offered some interesting thoughts on what it’s like to run a city in today’s America, and the challenges facing leaders in terms of both budget cuts and communication:

HuffPost: A trailer for the new season of Brick City starts with a quote from you, on the screen, where you say, "Squeeze everything else but police and fire." But late last year, the city laid off 164 officers, about 13 percent of the force. How did it come to that?

Booker: Look, budgets across the country — 60 percent of American cities have had reductions in their forces of public safety. And, so, this is not something that’s unique to Newark. In fact, right now it’s plaguing major cities in New Jersey. Camden has had major layoffs. Paterson is facing layoffs. Atlantic City. Jersey City. We’re facing, literally, the worst economy of our lifetimes.

So, we have dramatic losses in revenue. And public safety, frankly — police and fire — make up the significant majority of our budget. We were squeezing and starving every other area of our city. Furloughing employees, cutting staff. But it came to a point where we couldn’t cut enough to make up for the tremendous budgetary shortfall.

Challenges demand creativity. I’m grateful that the police director and my team really came forward with a substantive plan to make sure that the loss of those police officers didn’t affect the progress we were making in the street.

And, look, it’s been a difficult adjustment. We had really some challenges in the month of December. But now, as we’re going through January, things are really getting back on track. And I’m really encouraged. Remember, the first three years in office, we led the nation in percentage reduction of shootings and murders. And I’m really confident that now we’re beginning to get back to that nation-leading pace.

HP: I’ve heard that there are the same number of officers patrolling the street. But I also have heard from some of the union officials that in order to accomplish that, older officers have had to be re-deployed: People who were looking at retirement are now on street patrol. Are you concerned about officer safety?

CB: I’m always concerned about officer safety. I think when you are the leader of men and women who put their lives on the line — whether it’s firefighters and police, or national guard members in the military — that’s the most horrific thing, I think, for an executive, when guys who put their lives on the line get hurt or injured.

That’s a concern that hasn’t changed as a result of the layoffs. But in many ways, we have more experienced officers on the streets. Guys with more years under their belts, not people that are six months out of the academy. It’s a give-and-take in many ways.

Look, I’m very happy: We have our chief, who used to be doing other jobs, now in precincts, running our precincts. In many ways, we have the best talent of the agency closer to the street and closer to the ground on a daily basis.

HP: The city has also laid off other workers. How deep can the city cut before it just stops to function?

CB: Money is a necessary but not sufficient resource with which to get the job done. And I found out when I first came in — we were dialing down our budgets every year that I’ve been in office. What I’ve been finding is, if you are more creative, if you bring more resources to the table from outside your taxpayer base — you know, we’ve raised well over $200 million in private philanthropy for our strategic needs here in the city of Newark — it’s if you bring people together to volunteer, and do things that they weren’t doing before, you can still make tremendous progress.

A lot of our best innovations since I’ve been mayor have been public-private partnerships. Whether it’s our ex-offender reentry programs, or even the camera system that we put up all around the city — all paid for by philanthropy — Newark is creating a real good model for government effectiveness and advancement, based on its partnership with non-profits and the private sector.

HP: Does that include your own involvement in citizens’ lives? Especially via your Twitter feed?

CB: Today’s a great day. We got out early this morning. I’ve been myself inspecting streets, but I’ve got now thousands of more eyes on my streets, and people tweeting me about what’s wrong. In the last month alone, my Twitter feed has helped me get water main breaks addressed before I even knew they existed — to even traffic lights, to even bigger things, like people that are in need of emergency services but can’t get through.

Government in the 21st century in America is going to change dramatically. We’ve seen government obligations mushrooming, like pension costs and health care costs. It’s gonna squeeze out a lot of the other things that we expect from government, unless we get more creative and change the way government does business.

This is what Newark is trying to do. Under tough circumstances, in the worst economy of a lifetime, we’re actually making strides in areas, from affordable housing, to re-entry services, to grassroots financial empowerment and literacy, to public safety efforts.

We’re able to make some strides, even though this is such a tough time, because we’re thinking creatively. We’re bringing in new partnerships, we’re introducing technology. It’s not easy — we’re stumbling and falling, and we’re occasionally being set back. But all in all, if you look at Newark compared to five years ago, our shootings are dramatically down, murders are dramatically down, our population is dramatically up.

There’s a lot of hope in Newark. The arena, and the arts culture in Newark, is booming. There’s more basketball games — college and professional — played in Newark right now than any place in America, except for the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden. So much is happening in Newark right now that’s making me downright proud.

But every day, every inch of ground you’ve got to earn. It’s tough, it’s hard, but I’ve got great partners helping me in and outside of government.

HP: How do you make these budget decisions? How do you determine whether to close libraries, or lay off workers? Or cut toilet paper from the city offices?

CB: Well, the toilet paper never got cut. [Laughs.] It is tough decisions. I often joke that the decisions we had to make last year were between awful and godawful. But at the same time, that’s what you’re elected for. I would rather be in a game where you’re 20 points behind than 20 points ahead, because we can rally people together to do what other people don’t think we can do. If we’re willing to make the tough decisions, but at the same time be humble enough to reach out for help and engage others, we can make strides where other people can’t.

If you walk around the city of Newark today, you will see at least two dozen new parks all over the city that were built during this worst economic downturn. That’s because we’re bringing people together to do things other people can’t do. Literally, the largest parks expansion our city has had in over a century has happened in the worst economy, because of all the partnerships that we’ve been bringing together.

That’s how you have to get things done now. You have to find creative coalitions. We had a horrible spike in car-jackings in December. What we did was we brought together a state, Federal, local coalition, and we beat it back within weeks.

It was amazing. The law enforcement community in New Jersey rallied together in a way that left me humbled and inspired.