Best Frenemies

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter J. Boyer

The polls say Cory Booker could beat Republican dynamo Chris Christie. But he'd rather cheer him on.

Democrats were meant to take heart from a poll released earlier this year showing that Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, could be beaten by the right opponent.

But the poll (conducted by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling) was not exactly a repudiation of Christie's policies. The one Democrat who could beat him: Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey's deeply distressed largest city, who happens to agree with much of the Christie program.

The Booker-Christie alliance--they communicate nearly daily by telephone or text--is one of the more intriguing friendships in politics and one that is not necessarily embraced by their respective fiefdoms. "There are people in his camp, and I know there are people in mine, who are not really happy about that," Booker says. "People would rather predict a 2013 political contest between us. But the one thing I have to say about the governor is that he is really interested in solving problems."

From his vantage point in gritty downtown Newark, Mayor Booker has watched Christie's rise with a mix of amusement and admiration, although the former prosecutor's approach occasionally strikes Booker, the conciliatory community organizer, as a bit too aggressive. "I try to stay away from critiquing the governor's style," he says, "but sometimes I'll cringe a little bit about the way he'll go about engaging certain people or certain factions."

Booker, who at 41 is seven years Christie's junior, grew up in the prosperous, mostly white New Jersey suburbs, played tight end at Stanford before studying at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, and earned a degree from Yale Law School. Arriving in Newark in 1998 on a personal mission to rescue the city, which had become a national symbol of urban decay and corrupt bossism, he was an outsider who favored a politics of opportunity over that of grievance and entitlement.

Communion with Christie is practical as well as philosophical. His first priority when he entered office in 2007 was to curb Newark's violence, and he largely succeeded. His abiding goal, though, is to rescue Newark's wretched schools, which had so badly failed the community (the system was incompetent and corrupt, with principalships being bought and sold, and only one in four students passing proficiency tests) that the state had taken them over in 1995. …