Cory Booker at a campaign in Newark, N.J.
There’s a saying that democracy is a contact sport. The Academy Award-nominated film Street Fight gives you a ringside seat. Even if you know the outcome from national reports, or lived in Newark at the time, this insider’s chronicle of the 2002 race for mayor in Newark, New Jersey is riveting, delivering a dramatic account of youthful energy and ideals running headlong into old-guard machine politics and racial demagoguery. These opposing forces are, of course, nothing new in American elections. But, in Newark in 2002, a black mayor was using these tactics against a black challenger.
Early on, a staffer for Cory Booker, the upstart challenger in the race, warns that this election will be decided in the streets. Street Fight lives up to the staffer’s prediction — and to its own title — as the campaign between Booker and four-time Mayor Sharpe James devolves from dirty tricks to intimidation to the threat of worse. The film crew itself becomes a target for Mayor James’ supporters — and the mayor himself — who see everyone as either for them or against them.
At first, the 32-year old Booker, a recently elected councilman for the city’s poor Central Ward, mounts a rather respectful challenge to the incumbent. In Newark, after all, politics are non-partisan, and both men are Democrats. Booker recognizes that the mayor, representing a first generation of black politicians who came up the hard way, is personally popular and has raised Newark’s stature with corporate, downtown-centered development, including a new Performing Arts Center and minor-league baseball stadium.
But Booker questions the value of the mayor’s policies to the city’s poorer neighborhoods and residents. He cites Newark’s sky-high murder rate, a poverty level over 30%, and an astounding high school dropout rate of 60%. Booker suggests that it’s time for a new generation to bring Newark’s downtown “renaissance” to all the city’s residents.
Booker is well positioned to fight the mayor on the issues while projecting a positive image. A son of civil-rights activists who integrated a white neighborhood in northern New Jersey, Booker is a poster child for the civil rights movement. Excelling in high school where he was an all-American football player, he went on to Stanford, to Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and then graduated from Yale Law School. Upon graduating, Booker didn’t seek high-paid law work, but instead embraced his parents’ activist ideals, moving to Newark, setting up house in the Brick Towers high-rise projects, and starting a nonprofit to fight slumlords. He also got himself elected to the city council when no one gave him much chance. He undertook unorthodox actions, such as living in an RV parked at notorious drug corners to drive away the dealers.
Sharpe James, Newark’s mayor for 16 years, promptly labels Booker a carpetbagger engaged in publicity stunts. He turns Booker’s “golden boy” image to his own favor, contrasting with great effect his own background as a native son who pulled himself up from the city’s meanest streets. This mayor will be no pushover for any golden boy. He has achievements to point to and support from state Democrats. More to the point, the mayor has solid support among poor blacks and Latinos — the very constituency Booker claims to be standing up for — who identify with James’ rags-to-riches story or who have benefited from the mayor’s patronage.
The mayor claims that Booker is funded by right-wing white interests, and anonymous fliers charge that he is part of a Jewish conspiracy; he is, in the language on the street, not “black enough.” The mayor’s campaign turns Booker’s education and success — not to mention his lighter skin — into evidence that he is a “great white hope.”
The race turns uglier as city police show up at public housing projects to bar Booker from canvassing for votes. Local merchants who display Booker signs, or hold house meetings for him, find their businesses raided and closed down for code violations. Anyone doing business with the city is made to understand they must support the mayor. Public housing residents fear eviction; city employees fear demotion.
These are brutal machine tactics; livelihoods are on the line. Booker’s team has to run a “stealth” campaign that shields the identity of many local supporters. But this is only the beginning of James’ bare-knuckle tactics — which turn menacing when the mayor’s bodyguards accost Street Fight‘s film crew at a rally. Despite director Curry having gotten permission and encouragement from the mayor’s campaign press director to attend, Newark police in suits eject him. The next time Curry attends a public, outdoor James rally, the mayor himself approaches the camera and has his security shut down the filming. In the middle of it all, a strip club scandal taints both campaigns, and as the election nears, federal law enforcement sends in observers to monitor cheating and violence.
“In the James-Booker mayoral race, we saw a story very different from the one found in other recent campaign films,” says director Marshall Curry. “This wasn’t a story of mass-media politics; it wasn’t about spin doctors and photo ops, but a story about politics in the city streets.”