NEWARK, N.J. — Before closing his State of the City address Tuesday evening, Cory Booker said he would not apologize for his frequent trips outside Newark, making a tacit, but pointed, reference to critics who claim the mayor spends city time giving speeches and interviews across the country at the expense of City Hall.
Traveling outside the Central Ward, Booker argued, has helped attract investors and draw development into the city.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the mayor, “I am relentless and unapologetic in my pursuit of development for our city.”
“I will not stop, I will not yield, I will continue to crisscross this land, going state to state, door to door, CEO to CEO, investor to investor, philanthropist to philanthropist, making the argument to bring new capital, new companies, new properties, new opportunities, and new jobs to Newark,” Booker said during his seventh State of the City address.
Booker, who has 481 days remaining in his second and last term in City Hall, appeared to direct the comments to detractors who have argued that the mayor travels outside Newark in order to boost his national profile.
When Booker announced last December that he would “consider” a run in 2014 for the New Jersey U.S. Senate seat still occupied by 89-year-old Frank Lautenberg — who has since announced that he will retire and not seek reelection — the senator used the line of attack to fire back at his colleague.
At the annual New Jersey Chamber of Commerce dinner in Washington, D.C., in January — where Booker was not in attendance — Lautenberg planted a dig at the mayor in his prepared remarks: “I’m disappointed that Cory Booker couldn’t be here tonight,” said the senator. “I’d think spending time out of the city was one of his favorite activities.”
And last summer, a Star Ledger report found that, in an 18-month period starting from January 2011, Booker spent 21.7% of his time outside of New Jersey and the New York City area.
But in his address Tuesday, delivered at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Booker defended his travel time as a reason residents have seen what he calls “Newark’s boom.” It’s the way Booker claims he wooed Panasonic — “wooed with all the woo I had,” he said — to choose Newark for its new North American corporate headquarters, which began construction last year.
“And this is how it should be,” said Booker. “I, along with our great team, will attract new businesses, and woo new companies. No one can do the woo that I do. It’s like Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu.”
Asked after the State of the City about the section of the speech, Booker acknowledged it was “a little bit of a nod toward criticism we don’t hear from the grassroots, but we hear from others,” he said.
“Look, inside Newark, we’re doing great. My residents appreciate the work that I’m doing,” said Booker, in a press conference. “But there is this other media now covering my life more than before, and in many ways you’ve seen that narrative popping up. It takes reminding people.”
(Booker recalled a past State of the City — delivered by his predecessor, Sharpe James — in which a new International House of Pancakes, or IHOP, was praised as economic improvement in Newark. By contrast, in his address Tuesday night, Booker announced an additional $1.5 billion in development slated for the city in 2013 and 2014.)
“So it was a line in the speech,” he said, “that really was meant to say, ‘Hey, look, as mayor, these next 481 days, I’m not stopping. The proof is here right now.’”
Booker added that the “great thing” about his “profile right now” is that he can pick up the phone, and a CEO or real estate developer or investor will take his call without hesitation.
“Now I can call anybody in the country, and the assistant says, ‘Cory Booker’s calling,’ and they usually get on the phone with me, and they’ll usually talk and want to hear about the opportunities I have for them,” Booker said.
Booker’s defense of traveling outside Newark — perhaps the only politically charged passage in the entire State of the City address — was part of an effort, he told BuzzFeed after the press conference, to “dismantle these narratives one after the other.”
“The biggest one is that [I’m] more popular outside of Newark, more popular in the country,” Booker said of the long-time critique lodged against his administration.
That, he noted, was dampened in part by new poll numbers, obtained and released by the Star-Ledger last week, that show Booker at a 65% approval rating inside Newark.