Cory Booker’s ‘Outside of the Box’ Approach to Political Problems

Thinking ‘outside of the box’ can help you to view problems in a different light. This can help you find solutions you have previously struggled with. This type of approach to problem solving often improves the quality of solutions or ideas. Within the political arena it is unusual to find a politician who incorporates this type of unorthodox thinking and problem solving to drive change. One example is Cory Booker the mayoral candidate for Newark, NJ.

Cory Booker has a long history of employing unorthodox solutions to solve pressing problems. Booker, 36, a Stanford, Yale, and Oxford educated Rhodes Scholar is preparing for his second electoral battle possibly against 20 year incumbent Newark Mayor, Sharpe James. James, who has yet to announce his intentions of whether he will seek a sixth term, defeated Booker by a narrow margin in the 2002 mayoral contest.

The symbolism of the potential bout runs deep: The city’s longest sitting Mayor squaring off against a man who was the youngest ever elected to the city’s Municipal Council. Many have labeled this the test of a new generation, others, a final showdown between the city’s entrenched political establishment and broad based reform.

There is little doubt that Cory Booker, if elected, would bring a new approach to governing. Over the course of his four years as Newark’s Central Ward Councilman, a seat that he surrendered to run for mayor in 2002, Booker was battered by many of his fellow council members and by the mayor for opposing status quo lawmaking. Booker recalls his frustration during his short tenure on the council. "I was consistently voted down 8 to 1, 7 to 2 on what I thought were common sense decisions."

Booker’s reaction, despite his own admission that he at times felt defeated, was to press forward but from a different direction. "Some of the greatest issues facing my former constituents are those of crime, gangs, and drugs. There simply aren’t enough police on the streets, particularly in the neighborhoods where they’re needed most," stated Booker. Mr. Booker vividly recalls receiving a phone call from the tenant president, Elaine Sewel, of Garden Spires, a high rise housing complex under siege by gangs and drug dealers. "She was pleading with me to do something," stated Booker. "She said ‘you’re my councilman. Help me.’ My response was that I had no power in City Hall, the police wouldn’t listen to me, and that there was nothing I could do.""It took a few hours a few hours too long if you ask me before I decided to act in the spirit of the great leaders whose shoulders I’m standing upon" stated Booker. The then 29 year old councilman bought a tent and set up camp in the parking lot of the troubled housing complex where the security booth was burned to the ground and the guards forced to flea by drug dealers several weeks earlier. After a 10 day hunger strike, feces and debris thrown on top of his tent, and threats on his life, Booker and the dozens who joined him received a visit from Mayor James. Booker had accomplished his mission, having negotiated with the gangs and drug dealers on the property and drawing attention to a series of problems which he believes are still all too prevalent in his city.

It didn’t stop with Garden Spires. The great success of his hunger strike led Booker to realize that he could compensate for the resistance he faced in City Hall with grassroots action. He bought a used recreational vehicle and lived in it for six months, parking on the worst drug corners in the city. While he was repeatedly awoken by the blasts of gunfire, he wasn’t deterred as his presence drove drug dealing from neighborhoods that hadn’t experienced peace in years.

After his six months on the streets, Booker returned to his home of several years: Brick Towers, a high rise public housing complex that he led in a fight against its slumlord as a young lawyer resulting in a successful federal prosecution.

The Future

Only time will tell with any certainty if Cory Booker’s unorthodox approaches to affecting change will persist. Any doubt, however, seems handily diminished by a track record that is strong to say the least and as many Newarkers have come to expect nothing less from Booker. In a city which Booker cites as having "incredible and unbounded promise stemming from remarkable resources, the greatest of which is the spirit of its people," his radical tactics may be just what Newark needs for it to achieve its potential.

The example of Cory Booker shows the possibilities of an ‘outside of the box’ approach to political thinking. This approach to problem solving requires attributes that are not normally associated with politicians. These include a willingness to take a new perspective on dealing with day to day problems, an openness to new ideas, and a desire to create value in new ways. Actions speak louder than words however, and results are achieved only when these new ideas are acted upon. And the truth is that at the end of the day, real results are the measure of the politician.

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