As Newark, New Jersey, mayor Cory Booker talked about his support for mayor-led school systems, one attendee at last week's Leadership Academy luncheon turned to her friend and hissed, "He just fed the beast!"
Booker, Newark's charismatic mayor of two years, had just said, "I love school boards, but in large cities, you can't manage institutions by committees.
"This is where I get controversial."
Indeed. All 900 sets of ears perked up.
From his seat on the stage with interviewer Gayle Rose, Booker spoke directly to Memphis mayor Willie Herenton: "I hope you get control of the schools, because if the mayor here can do it ... I hope the mayor of Newark gets a chance, as well."
While attendees were eating pasta and pecan pie, Herenton was being offered a slice of something different, and it certainly wasn't humble pie.
With Booker supporting Herenton's long-awaited hope of taking over the school system — a thing he has tried to do by consensus, state legislature, and resignation — it's no surprise people were concerned the statement would go to the mayor's head.
Before running for mayor, Booker was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, a Yale Law School graduate, and was elected to the City Council at the age of 29. His first unsuccessful bid for Newark mayor in 2002 was the subject of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Street Fight.
He is clearly hyper-intelligent and funny. After Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis treasurer Martha Perrine Beard referenced the honor of sitting at a table with three mayors, Booker corrected her with "three sexy mayors."
More substantially, and a subject that has garnered its share of press, was Booker's decision to live in Brick Towers, a public housing project, from 1998 to 2006. He obviously likes to be in the thick of things.
Rose asked Booker about the economy — "This is an opportunity for our generation to show who we are, to show our salt, our mettle," he said — and poverty — "I tell people the biggest problem in America is poverty, but I say it's poverty of imagination, poverty of action, and poverty of love."
As mayor, Booker's goal is to turn Newark into the national standard for urban transformation. So far, murder and shooting rates are down 40 percent in the New Jersey city, so it seems he's well on his way.
Booker said you have to do "whatever it takes." And sometimes that means doing it yourself, especially when you consider yourself the city's chief accountability officer.
In trying to decrease Newark's high crime rate, Booker started driving the city from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., pulling over and checking up on on-duty police officers (something he joked he enjoyed doing as a black man).
"There's a belief that urban areas have to tolerate a certain amount of crime — that's a toxic belief," he said.
He asked a number of police officers to help him patrol the early morning hours, but he said he lets them chase the criminals.
"I ran once and pulled my hamstring," he joked. "Now I help them search for drugs. I'm on my belly in someone's backyard looking for drugs. People are coming out of their houses: 'Mr. Mayor, is that you?'"
His story garnered laughter and applause from the crowd, and I couldn't help but remember the 2004 incident when Herenton observed several officers rough-housing during a routine traffic stop.
At the time, there was laughing, but I'm not sure how much of it was with the mayor. And there wasn't much applause, especially after former police director James Bolden was forced to retire roughly a week later.
So what's the difference between Booker and Herenton? I think it boils down to "we" versus "I." Herenton has had a lot of good ideas (and some stinkers, too) over the years, but he seems to stand alone most of the time.
Booker seems to be more about group effort.
"Just find two or three things to focus on as a group," he told the Leadership Academy. "Even if it's just for a year."
But if Booker had one thing to say that I hope everyone heard it was about what he considered Memphis' best asset.
"You're big enough to be significant," he said, "but small enough to show change quickly."