We expect members of Congress and holders of other national offices to have rigorous travel schedules, visiting constituents in their home districts, attending to duties in Washington and meeting with leaders around the world.
It might not be surprising, then, that one New Jersey politician spent 21 percent of his time on the road over an 18-month period - except that this particular elected official was not a member of Congress, but rather the mayor of Newark.
Cory Booker has spent much of his time out of town appearing on television, including appearances on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “The Daily Show,” and “Meet the Press,” and speaking before auditoriums of non-Newark residents at graduations and other events. Oprah Winfrey dubbed him a “rock star mayor.” In Newark, he’s more often known as the “absentee mayor.”
Booker claims that his nationwide networking is critical to attracting funding for his city and has helped his administration to raise $400 million in philanthropic contributions. Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for Booker, explained to Newark’s Star-Ledger newspaper that the speeches “have helped the mayor connect to philanthropists and developers and attracted talented people to the city.” Booker’s speech-making has also brought in $1.3 million for Booker himself, according to documents he disclosed recently. The mayor’s typical honorarium for delivering a speech runs around $20,000, the documents revealed.
Newark residents who cannot spare $20,000 to get an audience with their mayor must often make do with responses of 140 characters or fewer. Booker, who once tweeted 106 times in a single day, is a Twitter devotee, and frequently uses the site to communicate with his constituents.
Booker has also become known for high-profile activities that do a lot to bolster his personal brand but little to affect policy. In 2010, he personally helped to shovel snow after a blizzard - although he apparently still had his hands free often enough to thoroughly document his efforts on Twitter. Last December, he embarked on a weeklong challenge to live on the $4-a-day meal budget allotted to those who rely on food stamps. The mayor also once pulled a neighbor from a burning building. That was certainly a heroic act - and nobody wants personal publicity that badly - but, as The New York Times recently pointed out, the incident occurred shortly after the city was forced to eliminate three fire companies.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with combining political experience and personal charisma to make a job out of touring the lecture circuit. The problem, in Booker’s case, is that he already has a job. Few high-level jobs can be done effectively while taking off an average of one day a week to pursue a side gig. It turns out running the largest city in New Jersey is no exception.
Other Newark politicians complain that the mayor’s frequent travels make him less able to connect to residents and understand their concerns. “I don’t know the last time the mayor was in my ward,” West Ward Councilman Ron Rice told The Star-Ledger. Booker also faced focused criticism for his failure to attract support for a school overhaul measure in 2011.
Even if Booker thought he could govern just as well part time, the decision is not his to make. The voters of Newark hired him as a full-time mayor, at a salary of $174,496 a year. His time is already bought and paid for. If Booker genuinely believes that the best use of that time, in the service of his city, is to raise money through his personal charm, he ought to put the proceeds of his speaking engagements back into the city’s coffers. It would at least give Booker the distinction of being a public servant who unarguably earns his keep.
Booker does, in fact, donate much of the money he makes from speaking. He estimated he had given away around $620,000 of the $1.3 million he made from speaking between 2008 and 2013. Rather than giving the money directly to the city, however, he donated it to a variety of individual, mostly Newark-based charities, churches and schools.
But charity for which one hopes to get a reward is simply spending, and that appears to be the case with Booker’s donations. Last year, Booker was already openly fueling rumors that he might challenge Gov. Chris Christie. Since then, he has shifted his sights to the U.S. Senate, specifically the seat of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who is retiring next year. That may help to explain his congressional-style schedule. In the what-goes-around-comes-around economics of politics, Booker’s donations to private charities may return to him in the form of support from those organizations’ leaders and members.
If Booker does make it to the Senate, he will have to cut back on his speaking engagements, or at least on his fees. Members of Congress are not permitted to earn more than 15 percent of their salaries in “outside earned income.” Congressional rules recognize that serving is a full-time job.
In Newark, where 26.1 percent of the population lived below the poverty line from 2007 to 2011, many people need to work multiple jobs just to get by. The mayor is fortunate enough not to be one of them.