Voters Lose in Pols' Race and Class Game

You wouldn't think the race card would be played in the mayoral race in Newark, N.J., where both the entrenched incumbent, Mayor Sharpe James, and his most serious challenger, 32-year-old City Councilman Cory Booker, are black.

But race has reared a particularly nasty head in a key strategy of the James camp to disparage Booker as not being "black enough" to lead the city. Booker's opponents are not referring to the color of his skin, but to the content of his character: He attended Stanford and Yale and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He did not grow up in Newark, but in a middle-class New Jersey suburb. His parents were IBM executives.

He's also not connected to the city's political machine, in which city workers are big James campaign contributors, the mayor's personal finances are mixed up with firms holding city contracts and citizens displaying Booker signs are fined for code violations. That's a whole other story. James claims that Booker's independence from this process is also proof that he is an outsider who is secretly "white."

James has publicly called Booker "white" and "Jewish" and churns out propaganda alleging Booker, a Democrat, is a pawn of the "American Hard Right." No one, not even the local press, even bothers to note that the mayor of a major city feels it is perfectly acceptable for the labels "white" or "Jewish" to be hurled as insults and disqualifying factors.

But if you think this is the eccentric shenanigans of local machine politics, consider that residents of Newark received a letter from the Rev. Al Sharpton, the man who positions himself as the nation’s pre-eminent civil rights leader, urging them to support James and reminding them again that Booker was not "black enough."

Let’s forget for a moment what Sharpton would say if some white suburban blue blood claimed a minority opponent recently arrived from the inner city wasn’t "white enough" to represent an upper-middle class district. I suppose white people should be flattered Sharpton and James seem to define "white" as being well educated, successful and incorruptible.

But what does this say about their definition of "black?" Is Sharpton’s message to inner-city blacks really that some kind of street legitimacy is more important than education or success? That those who aspire to or achieve a better life are betraying, and risking losing, their racial and cultural identity? That they are not entitled to have or do better and should have to apologize and explain themselves if they do?

It’s troubling enough that many of Newark’s poorest and disadvantaged residents probably don’t think they can see themselves or their future reflected in someone like Booker. Sharpton can back James on issues or out of history or loyalty, but he shouldn't be reinforcing that desperation.

There is, of course, a broader political reality at work here, the popular convention of casting one candidate as the "regular Joe" and the other as the Ivy League elitist. It’s an effective trick that plays on Americans’ deep discomfort with issues of social class and even deeper emotional investment in the mythology of the working-class hero. We may clamor like rabid coyotes to get our kids into Ivy League schools, but there’s nothing we think we like better than to see true grit and street smarts triumph over all that snobby book learnin'.

We saw this in the 2000 presidential election, where Al Gore had to campaign against the perception that he was "smart" and George Bush’s less than stellar academic record was touted as evidence that he was just like you and me. Of course, it was mostly smoke and mirrors. Both were wealthy political scions with privileged backgrounds and Ivy League pedigrees. Bush used the game to trounce Gore in the arena of personality and charisma, a contest in which Gore was painfully overmatched.

But whatever criteria voters used to select their choice for president, "smartness" should not have been a political liability for either candidate. A cultural rejection against "smart" is not a positive reflection of the culture.

Often, the regular Joe is cast as the outsider and reformer crusading against the fat stagnancy of the bureaucratic establishment, a la Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. But this can also be a smoke and mirrors affair used to distract and confuse voters.

In Newark, James, a career politician who has never lost a race, earns a higher government salary than the U.S. vice president, pulling down paychecks for serving both as mayor (for 16 years) and a state legislator. Booker is unquestionably the outsider, underdog reformer. (The James team doesn’t dispute this, but uses it to discredit Booker.) Yet, in a stupefying feat of role reversal, James has been able to crown himself the regular Joe in the race.

How? Because in communities like Newark, the regular Joe vs. the Ivy League elitist has darker implications. James and Sharpton have tied it to race and racial identity, where the regular Joe is the true black man (James’ campaign slogan is "The Real Deal") and the Ivy League elitist is a "fake" who has been turned "white" by education and advantage. It's a tool used to protect territory, not people. If the black community started to look to leaders like Booker, charlatans like Sharpton would be out of a job.

In the Gore-Bush face-off, in New York City, where "Mayor Mike" Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman who built a visionary company out of nothing, is considered the ultimate regular guy — in a local election where a small business owner takes on a lawyer or MBA type — the whole exercise is pretty benign. But in places like Newark, it metastasizes into a social malignancy that exploits the fears of the most vulnerable.

Most Americans would agree that government, at all levels, is increasingly demanding innovative, visionary, courageous leadership. The thing that we have a harder time accepting is that extraordinary leadership usually requires an extraordinary leader.

Robin Wallace is the Views Editor of