I saw the most overtly political of the 5 Academt Award-nominated films for Best Documentary over the weekend. It's called "Street Fight," and the study of the Newark, NJ mayoral race in 2002 has a lesson for all of us who wish to stop the status quo from continuingto rule the roost in the Democratic Party.
The major two candidates for mayor in Newark in 2002 were both Democrats. One, incumbent Sharpe James, was seeking his 5th term, and touting a "downtown Renaissance" in the city. The other, Cory Booker, was a 32 year-old Stanford, Oxford (Rhodes Scholar) and Yale Law School graduate, a city council member in his first term, who sought the mayoralty as an agent of change. The result was perhaps the ultimate matchup between the institutional machine and an outsider, with a large dose of racial politics thrown into the mix.
(SPOILER ALERT below)
The James campaign systematically sought to alienate anyone in the city who sided with Cory Booker. Supporters would take down and paint over Booker campaign signage. Businesses with Booker signs in their windows would suddenly be cited for phantom violations and shut down. Some would be shaken down to contribute to the James campaign. The mayor called Booker "too white" (he's light-skinned), an agent of "The Republicans," "The Jews," "The KKK" (how does THAT match up?), and generally a carpetbagger who came to Newark to buy the election (James repeatedly overstated Booker's campaign war chest to make this insinuation). The filmmaker, Marshall Curry, was banned from Sharpe James' public events simply because he was also filming Booker. Booker's campaign headquarters was broken into and lists of supporters stolen. Campaign staff were threatened, the doors of their homes kicked in. Police show up at housing projects to bar Booker from campaigning. You name it, the James campaign did it.
And they won by about 3.500 votes.
Ultimately, you get the feeling that you "can't fight City Hall," especially one this powerful. The movie makes Newark look literally like a different world politically, a throwback to the time of Tammany Hall.
But there is a message of hope. Booker ran a smart and generally respectable campaign in the face of all of these tactics. There's a great scene where the campaign discusses whether or not to go negative at a crucial juncture, and eventually they do. It's an acknowledgement that you have to fight back, a moment of clarity for the "street fight" nature of politics. Ultimately, he was above the fray, trying to focus on the issues that mattered to his constituents.
I feel like this is something all of us in the netroots experience all the time. The establishment slanders us, disparages us as "beholden" to this or that far left cause, and fights to maintain power on their terms. The Sharpe James machine is obviously a pretty ugly example of Establishment power. But metaphorically speaking, the same issues are at play. Do we need new leadership in the Party? Fresh ideas? A removal of entrenched, out-of-touch interests who seek to reward themselves and their friends with the spoils of victory? Certainly. But to wrest power away will take a street fight. The consultants and elected members of the Establishment didn't get to where they are by accident. We need to be relentless in changing the party and making it fit for the future.
Here's what's interesting: this is all going to happen again. Cory Booker is running for mayor again
in just 3 months; the election is May 9. And while nothing is official, it appears that Sharpe James will seek a sixth term
as well. Maybe 2002 was too soon to crash the gate; 2006 might be just the right time.