Cory Booker pitches Newark as a ‘startup’ to New York tech elite

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Booker with his social-network benefactor, Mark Zuckerberg. ()
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This morning, Newark mayor Cory Booker was describing how he'd walked into police headquarters back in 2006 and caught the officers fighting over typewriter ribbons. (For non-Luddites: These machines transfer type onto police forms and reports by way of a steel letter key that pounds the ink-soaked ribbon into the paper.)

“C.I.s were so protective of this 19th-century technology that they would pull out their typewriter ribbons and take them with them,” Booker said. “In Newark, the important equipment that a police officer needed: you needed a gun, you needed a badge, you needed bullets and handcuffs but you also needed a typewriter ribbon in order to get your work done.

“It looked like a scene from Barney Miller,” he said.

He was telling this story in the Prince room at the Crosby Hotel, the jacket of a black suit stretched across his broad shoulders and a royal blue silk tie around his neck. Booker was speaking to a room of a few dozen of the city’s tech elite. New York’s chief digital officer Rachel Sterne and Personal Democracy Forum co-founder and prominent tech scene advisor Andrew Rasiej, who is an investor in Capital, were there, as well as Bob Lessin, vice chairman of Jefferies & Co.; Brandon Kessler, chief executive of ChallengePost and the man behind the city's BigApps competition; and Toby Daniels, chief executive of Crowdcentric and head of the city's Social Media Week.

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He was pitching them on Newark, in terms they'd understand: as "an incubator, a laboratory, of innovation and reform."

Over a breakfast hosted by Opera Solutions, an analytics firm that specializes in predictive data, he described with his characteristic charisma and joviality how the city's future will be infused with technology, bursting with charter schools that give lectures online and computers that alert teachers when a student is struggling with a calculus question at some other Terminal of the Newark Borg. The city would implement polling systems that would be able to predict when kids are susceptible to becoming gang leaders to target them for help.

Sometimes, when Booker talks about Newark, he sounds like he's building another planet. But that's also part of what makes sense about Newark as a "project" for the tech world. Picture Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey sitting in a conference room in the '90s, trying to explain how they would create entire new social worlds—complete with codes of conduct, business models and social contracts—that would transform people’s daily lives and the way business is done across industries and all over the world. They probably sounded like aliens too.

“There is this powerful wave sweeping the globe that’s changing the way we communicate with each other, that’s changing the way we do business, it’s even changing the way we relate to each other socially,” Booker said, still in pitch mode. “How can we start to use many of these tools to get results that other people aren’t?”

“I’m as ambitious as anybody,” Booker said. “Our mission for our city is that we will set the national standard for urban change and urban transformation.”

Many of Booker’s ideas are not necessarily new, especially when compared to programs already existing in cities like New York City. When discussing technological advances and city data initiatives, Booker admits to having "Bloomberg envy." But few mayors have had so little to work with: Newark is facing a $32 million budget shortfall, despite tax hikes; crime and homicides are on the rise again; the ranks of Booker's supporters have been thinning.

He isn't a superhero it seems (he admitted as much when he invited us to consider the following: "I was an athlete,” Booker said. “I used to be chiseled, if you can close your eyes and imagine that. Right now I just jiggle.”) But these days, he also jingles: He has millions of dollars in capital to work with—Zuckerberg, for instance, will give Booker $100 million in a grant, if he can match the donation, to innovate schools with new technologies. Two weeks ago, he flew to Silicon Valley and met with executives at Chegg (a kind of Netflix for textbooks), and at social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn to ask for ideas. He is also on the hunt for a chief technology officer.

Still, Booker admits he can only step so close to the bleeding edge of technological urban infrastructure if he is still running to catch up and keep Newark from crumbling in real life.

“Many other mayors and other cities are further up the hill,” Booker admitted. But being first up the hill is the distinction Friendster has taken to its grave. “Many have not gotten to the summit, nobody is at the mountaintop, nobody has been able to get to the roof,” he said, messing up the metaphor a bit; but we knew what he meant.

Booker is an infamous Twitter jock, coached to join the platform by Twitter's original celebrity captain, the actor Ashton Kutcher. Booker is perpetually evangelizing its use as a tool to communicate with his constituents; they tell him there's a pothole in their street—or a man with a gun in their street. It's a fire hose of constituent information. He has more than a million followers and he listens.

But the Booker cult of personality, he acknowledged, will not be enough to create Newark 3.0: the City of Newark is on Twitter for instance, and its followers are under 2,500.

“We want to try to get that technology integrated through every department,” he said.

The goal is also not to just use those crowd-sourcing data on Twitter and in programs at schools that can track students’ progress, but also give that data to Newark’s people so they can be more actively engaged with their city, according to Booker. But it's going to take a long time to get there.

“The potential is there for us to have citizenry that is more engaged, more informed, more connected, more able to influence and able to change, but the data is just not available for the average citizen," he said.

As the ever-ambitious entrepreneur (or presidential campaigner), Booker wrapped up his pitch with the broad picture.

“America’s history is a history of that kind of productive destruction, whether it was old agricultural models, old systems of labor like slavery or indentured servitude, the old structure had to reinvent itself, a bolder more richer pursuit of our values and ideals,” Booker said. “And we can’t let ourselves stop in the 21st Century and be stuck in models of the century before trap too many of our people below the poverty line, that trap too many of our people in prisons, that trap too many of our people in ignorance. If that is the case, our great American experiment will fail.”

BOOKER SPENT A FAIR AMOUNT OF TIME talking about the Newark police department to make his point. In his five terms as mayor, Booker turned around the city’s police force—not only by giving them computers instead of typwriters that “belong in the Smithsonian”—but by using the same kind of city data systems and gun-shot sensor technology that New York City used in the early-’90s to drastically reduce crime.

But breaking old paradigms often means breaking with long-held entitlements that are part of the fabric of local government. A long battle with the city's police unions resulted in victory (and a constituent support gamble) for Booker, who laid off 167 police officers.

“I walked in and said, ‘Wait a minute, the detectives in my gang task force, by union contract, were working Monday through Friday, nine to five?’ I don’t care what city you’re from, gangs don’t work Monday through Friday, nine to five,” Booker said, getting sympathetic laughter from the room. “You can’t have rebirth unless you’re willing to break old paradigms.”

For his next act of policing innovation, Booker plans to experiment with a model created by John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor David Kennedy. According to experiments in Cincinnati and High Point, N.C., police officers, community leaders, and social workers invite criminals to meetings to discuss the legal consequences of their drug or gang trades and offer them education and job search help in exchange for becoming a good citizen.

And after all, even if at-risk kids have been identified as mobile phone experts on the edge of technology, turning their lives around means a sit-down talk with a real person. No screens necessary.

“We stand up and say, we love you, you’re part of our community,” Booker said.

Note: Andrew Rasiej's title was edited from a previous version of this article. The fact that he is an investor in Capital was also added from an earlier version.