Nightly News   |  February 04, 2010

The Grio's 100: Newark Mayor Cory Booker

While the 40-year-old mayor of Newark, N.J. is clearly a politician on the rise, what he says he really wants is for Newark to be a great city again. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

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>>> finally tonight, we continue our reporting on black history month by looking at the list of 100 current history makers as compiled by our partner website the grio.com. tonight we look at a place most americans know by three letters, ewr, the airport code for newark , new jersey. it's considered one of the new york airports. newark is not considered a destination in itself for most travelers. newark , new jersey, has a young mayor named corey booker who is trying to change that city's image and its future. he's turned down a job offer in washington, says he prefers to stay home and do his job. when you meet anybody as single-minded as corey booker, these days you're conditioned to assume they're on the make. they are either out to get rich or famous. but the 40-year-old mayor of newark says he has no need for wealth and while he is getting more famous as a politician on the rise, what he says he really wants is for newark to be great again.

>> newark , new jersey, is one of the front lines of the fight for the american dream .

>> reporter: corey booker grew up in the new jersey suburbs, played high school football , went to stamford, oxford as a rode scholar and yale law school . while a lot of his class mates with those same degrees went out and made a fortune, corey booker moved into public housing in newark . worked with the poor and pledged himself trying to save the 56th largest city in america . the phrase "too good to be true," is something he is used to hearing.

>> there is a determination in this city that goes back before i was born of people who never gave up, who kept believing. and so i land here and i'm sort of adopted by a community of people.

>> and perhaps you know the newark story. it was once a teaming beacon of american city life . then came the bad years. white flight , the riots, the flames, the blight, but so much worse was the murder raid. about a decade ago it was the most dangerous city in america . considering the years of corruption before him and the fact that the last mayor went to jail, booker remains surrounded by skeptics.

>> the jury is out right now. anyone that lives and works in newark is waiting to see what he is going to do.

>> there has been real progress , a 20% drop in crime since his election. and a big increase in investment in the city. the mayor uses his suv as a mobile office and nightmarate as tour of the city as if it's the magic kingdom . he says he's inspired, which he says he got from his parents, both trail blazers . they were two of ibm's first african-american executives. active in the community, they raised corey with a devout baptist faith.

>> you can realize your dreams. and if not, there's always honorable work and honorable men and women who are doing that work.

>> he knows all the regulars at the diner, and he says he knows progress downtown when he sees it.

>> there are people in my city right now who are entrepreneurs who are doing it because they are employing people and creating value.

>> he is obsessed enough to call out anybody he sees littering and shovel an occasional walk for a senior citizen . and if his dream of a reborn city doesn't ever come true, it probably won't be because cory booker didn't work hardness. he has nothing else in his life right now. he lives where he works, and he works every day. he's aware that his life story as a young democrat with a new governing style and a decent jump shot has a parallel in national politics. he seems to have little patience for process or for the theory that his generation of african-american leaders is somehow post racial, to quote the phrase of the moment. what makes you yell back at your tv?

>> i don't want to hear anymore people step up and say let's create a post racial america , that we are not concerned about race anymore. that's ridiculous. i'm from jersey. let's celebrate that and thot get away from that.

>> it's impossible to have a resume and story like cory bookers and not get asked about higher aspirations. he says he can't think about newark beyond right now. in may, newark 's voters get to decide if cory booker 's story is indeed too good to be true or if he should stay right where he is. for now, that is our