Tuesday, January 02, 2007

street fighter

New Jersey has a reputation for some of the most notoriously dirty politics in the country, and I found out a little more about why watching the documentary Street Fight last night about the 2002 Newark mayoral race between Sharpe James and Cory Booker. Booker’s bid that year was unsuccessful, but he won by a landslide in 2006 after James dropped out of the race. James is now the focus of some ethics inquiries for traveling to Brazil on city funds and cutting supporters shady real estate deals.

During the course of the campaign, both candidates essentially bribed voters by sponsoring free meals and handing out expensive gift bags. Both candidates spent an inordinate amount of time schmoozing to pay for the costly campaign—that seems to be unavoidable in modern elections. But James was a thug—there were several instances of jawdropping corruption documented in the film.

James used city police officers to intimidate the filmmaker and members of the press, threaten local businesses and individuals with legal consequences if they supported Booker, and tear down Booker ads throughout the city. He called Booker a Jewish white Republican who had accepted money from the KKK. Hruh? That doesn’t make any sense. Booker is an African-American lifelong Democrat whose parents fought in the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. When a Booker aide was reported to have attended a strip club, he said he would fire anyone on his staff who had attended a “house of ill repute.” The owner of the strip club later revealed that James had visited the club himself. James yelled at a reporter who had asked him questions about some of Booker’s allegations to “show some respect” and asked if he knew who he was talking to. He had to be physically restrained at a campaign debate from attacking Booker supporters. It seemed that James couldn’t open his mouth without either lying or threatening somebody. He was completely and utterly insane. Thirty-two years of unrestrained power had clearly gone to his head.

I also got the distinct feeling that Booker was often campaigning in spite of his campaign consultants. During a prep session for a campaign debate, his press advisor kept telling him to keep it short and simple, and asserted that the substance of what he said wouldn’t matter at all because the audience wasn’t going to hear it anyway. Booker expressed a desire to talk about facts and explain why his substantive positions were better than James’; the adviser told him argument and persuasion didn’t matter. Booker’s pollsters told him at one point to start running negative ads; Booker said he wanted to campaign hard and “punch James in the nose” but retain some dignity and not stoop to the level of the James campaign. The pollsters didn’t seem particularly interested in listening to Booker’s input. Booker ran a tough campaign, but in the end lost to the James machine.

Kos and Jerome Armstrong talk about the corruption and incompetence of Democratic establishment consultants in Crashing the Gate. The basic idea is that the consultants, who are often foisted on candidates by the national party, get their cut whether or not their candidate wins. Their compensation is usually based on a commission structure, which means that consultants often push for expensive ad buys when other ways of campaigning might work better. Republican consultants pay a flat fee, which is why the Bush campaign ended up paying several million dollars less to its consultants in 2004 than did the Kerry campaign. The outside consultants weren’t featured enough in Street Fight for me to get a good idea of their background and tactics, but the advice they did give didn’t seem to suit Booker’s “direct to the people” campaign style.

It was disturbing to see how uninformed the voting population was, and how slimy and outright illegal James’ tactics were. In a city with the some of the highest rates of violent crime and poverty in the country, graduating 40% of its high school students, the incumbent should not be in office for 36 years. If this is how democracy works in America, then we badly need to change the way things are done.

No comments: