Several years ago - and under much more positive circumstances - I did the same thing. I thought it might be helpful for me to share some of what I learned.
As far as I can remember, the first time I really paid much attention to Booker is after watching this interview with him in 2008.
What struck me was how similar he sounded to the young black professionals I work with every day. I noted a desire to honor the civil rights leaders of the past, but to recognize that todays leaders need to be prepared to develop their own responses to the challenges we face. This "roll up your sleeves and get to work" attitude is something I hear very often from the younger generation.
What I found when looking more closely at Booker was that understanding who he is needs to be grounded in the fact that - in becoming Mayor of Newark - he made some enemies. He defeated 5-term Mayor Sharpe James, who was incredibly corrupt. Eventually James was indicted by the FBI on 25 counts of corruption and convicted of 5, serving 27 months in prison. Much of the criticism of Booker in Newark comes from those who lost their hold on power when Booker came to office. I don't automatically discount what they have to say about him, but its important to see it in context.
If you've never watched the documentary Brick City, I highly recommend doing so. It is often compared to a real life version of the HBO series "The Wire." I agree. It will give you not only an idea of Booker and his work in Newark, but you'll learn a lot about the challenges that city faces and the tensions between the Booker/James camps.
Perhaps my favorite scene in that documentary is the story they tell about when Mayor Booker was the victim of a crime committed by a couple of young black men. He went to court and asked the judge to sentence them to a mentorship with himself. This - to me - is a person walking his talk.
I know that some people are hearing about Mayor Booker's support for school vouchers and find that troubling. I do too. But once again, I put it in the context of what I hear from the young black professionals I work with. We have this conversation often. They, like Booker, are tired of seeing their kids fail and have grown inpatient with the lack of progress in our public schools when it comes to issues like the achievement gap. While most of them work every day to do what they can to improve things, the idea of losing yet another generation of young people to a system that is failing leads them to look for whatever alternative is out there.
I believe this is a pretty common sentiment in urban black America and something Democrats need to wrestle with more directly than they have to date. I'll just note that President Obama has also faced a lot of push-back from education advocates for the same reason. He and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have
Finally, Mayor Booker is simultaneously doing everything he can to improve public education as well. His work on getting and directing the $100 million gift to Newark public schools from Mark Zuckerberg is an example of that.
Lately I've seen several people link to a diary at Daily Kos taking on these and other issues about Booker. I would simply warn people that the source for much of the material in that diary comes from this article at The Black Agenda Report. I don't know if people are aware of that publication's point of view. But if not, you might want to take a look at what they say about President Obama. Its not that I would dismiss every thing they say. But videos like this (highlighted on their web site) provide the context for their agenda.
Perhaps the most common thing I'm hearing about Mayor Booker is people citing this article about contributions from the financial sector. I would caution folks that this is the very same argument we've been hearing from the poutragers for almost 4 years about President Obama's contributions from Wall Street firms in 2008. I didn't buy it then as a way to demonize the President and I don't buy it now as a way to do the same to Booker. I'd suggest we look at the man's record in both instances and make up our minds based on that.
I hope people will see this kind of information as a contribution to the discussion. I know feelings have been running pretty hot lately about Mayor Booker. I've tried to make it clear that, while I recognize the damage he did in his statements on MTP last Sunday, I'm committed to dialogue that embraces our differences without condemning the person. I hope people will be willing to place Booker's recent mistakes into the context of who/what he's been in the past.