January 2010
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
« Nov   Feb »

Day January 11, 2010



In the November 3 edition of The Signal, Newark native Delisa O’Brien praised the Honorable Mayor Cory A. Booker for his dazzling address to TCNJ students in the Mildred & Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall: “I’m proud that he takes the time,” she remarked. Many were indeed proud that Booker took the time. But were they aware that he also took the money?

Photo by Brandon Rodkewitz

According to Corey Dwyer, Sophomore Class Vice President and leading organizer of the mayor’s October 27 talk, the Student Government Association (SGA) received $11,000 from the Student Finance Board (SFB) to fund the event. Dwyer explained, “Some of this was used to cover administrative costs… and the cost of booking the Concert Hall.” The rest went into the mayor’s pocket. “We did not inquire as to what Mayor Booker intended to do with his portion of the money,” Dwyer said. “It’s not really our place to do so.”

But it is our place to do so, really.

After all, is it customary for sitting elected officials to accept such large payments for speaking engagements at colleges? Not for Cory Booker, at least. Just one day prior to his TCNJ appearance, the Newark mayor delivered a strikingly similar lecture at neighboring Rider University. That engagement fee? $0.00.

It should be noted that Rider is a private institution. And considering his rhetoric, which emphasized the importance of universal education, it seems a bit contradictory that the mayor would require taxpayer-funded TCNJ to hand over thousands of its scarce, tuition-garnered dollars for a ninety-minute presentation – especially in the midst of an ongoing recession that has forced the College to furlough professors and cut services.

Tim Asher, Director of Student Activities and Leadership Development, is the college administrator most responsible for coordinating the logistics of Booker’s appearance. Asher described his role as “basically a negotiator.” Having haggled the original price-tag from $20,000 down to $11,000, it would seem Asher has some skill in the craft. Booker was able to do “better” for the College because of its “proximity [to Newark], and other things of this nature.” But Asher said he was unaware of any attempt to secure an engagement gratis, as Rider apparently had received. “I didn’t know anything about that until I read your email,” he said. “I believe that avenue had been exhausted by the time Olaniyi came to me.”

Booker’s pricey visit was the brain-child of SGA Vice President of Legal and Government Affairs Olaniyi Solebo, who was most closely associated with the process of procuring the mayor’s talents. Solebo said he received a rough estimate of “around ten thousand dollars” from someone in Booker’s office over the summer – a figure that was then submitted for SFB approval. According to Solebo, Booker appeared at Rider without charge for two reasons: 1) Booker considered the Rider visit a campaign event on behalf of Gov. Jon Corzine; and 2) Rider is home to the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “The Institute does a lot of work for New Jersey politics,” Solebo said. “Among other activities, it gathers polling data. This gives them a bit more leverage in booking New Jersey politicians as speakers.”

But should Rebovich’s “leverage” affect the monetary terms of speaking engagements by public officials? Could this be considered an attempt on the part of Booker to appease a New Jersey political enterprise? Would TCNJ have received a freebee if it was home to a comparable entity? Before tossing around thousands of dollars, should we not expect the SGA to explore whether less expensive alternatives are available? These are questions that deserve answers.

Furthermore, an unattributed article found on Rider’s official Web site casts some doubt as to whether Booker’s appearance there was merely a campaign stop. According to the article, the mayor spent his Rider lecture discussing the history of Newark’s Brick Towers, his relationship with the wise Mrs. Jones, and the city’s coming renaissance.

Sound familiar? It certainly should if you attended Booker’s TCNJ event, as the topics appear identical. The Rider article also makes but a single passing reference to Gov. Corzine, suggesting that the mayor spent about as much time discussing the gubernatorial election there as he did at TCNJ (not very much at all). Assuming the talks were the same, is there any logical reason that a private university should have free access to a speaker who charges TCNJ thousands?

This is not to say that anyone expects Mayor Booker – whose commendable activities in Newark are undoubtedly time-consuming – to travel the land as an altruistic troubadour of inspiration. But as any campaign strategist could attest, Booker’s New Jersey engagements pay non-financial dividends in themselves. Upon being reminded that he could potentially win the Democratic nomination for governor in 2013, Booker never discounts the idea. He has consistently responded by maintaining that he is focused on the affairs of Newark. Coy deflections aside, the political reality is that Booker could very likely seek the governorship at some time in the near future. If this proves to be the case, surely the mayor’s university touring is a sound investment in his electoral fortunes.

Was anyone in attendance not impressed by his style and story? Won’t everyone who listened feel a little less fidgety about visiting Newark in the future – perhaps to peruse the booming downtown area Mayor Booker was so keen on promoting?

Booker could not be reached for comment on the ultimate destination of the thousands he reaped from the event.

We would hope, though, that TCNJ tuition dollars did not directly or indirectly go to funding the mayor’s 2010 reelection bid. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, one could speculate that Booker instead steered the revenue to his Newark Now! nonprofit – an ostensibly laudable endeavor. But according to State Sen. Ron Rice (D-Newark), even a contribution to that outwardly neutral organization could be considered a campaign contribution; the nonprofit serves to bolster Booker’s image around the city as a steward of good works. And in Newark, where gritty, machine-style identity politics still dominate – publicity is everything.

No one will refute that the mayor proved himself to be an adept orator – one who preaches with passion about his commitment to public service. But after all is said and done, did he really practice what he preached? If Mayor Booker is genuinely invested in the public good, his investment should not be bound by the beltway of Newark.

Cory, thanks for coming. But next time, cut us a break – don’t make us cut you a check.

UPDATE: PolitickerNJ follows up with the mayor…