NEWARK, N.J., Oct 23 (Reuters) - When Cory Booker became mayor of Newark, New Jersey, in 2006, he said he was on a mission to help the hardscrabble city turn the corner on years of crime and decay and make it a national example of urban renewal.
Over the past seven years, the charismatic Democrat has attracted interest and investment from Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, raising Newark’s national profile and leading to dozens of new construction projects downtown.
But endemic problems of crime, poverty and unemployment have remained mostly unchanged in the state’s largest city.
As Booker, 44, prepares to leave City Hall after being elected to the U.S. Senate, some in the city question whether the millions of dollars in investments Booker secured will pay off for the city’s 277,000 residents, one quarter of whom live in poverty.
“Mayor Booker has laid a foundation to tackle the chronic problems,” said City Councilman Ronald Rice. “The next mayor is really going to have to make employment and poverty and crime the priority.”
Booker has picked City Council President Luis Quintana to serve as interim mayor until elections in 2014.
Dubbed a “rock star” by supporter Oprah Winfrey, Booker is seen by many as a future luminary in the Democratic party and a possible contender one day for the White House.
He has said his tenure in office has been marked by improved wages after Newark passed a law requiring building contractors doing business with the city to pay their workers the prevailing wage for their jobs rather than the state-determined minimum. He has also pointed to a greening of the city, new industry and steady construction of homes and businesses.
“In Newark we showed that if you put in the hard work, if you take the more difficult path, if you bring people together, if you overcome differences, incredible things can happen,” he said in a victory speech after winning the New Jersey Senate Democratic primary in August.
A Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Stanford and Oxford universities and Yale Law School, Booker has drawn an estimated $1.3 billion in private investment from individual donors, hedge funds and big banks, according to the Private Equity Growth Capital Council, a private equity association.
In perhaps the most high-profile donation, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave Newark a $100 million matching grant in 2010 to reform the city’s schools. Dropout rates have declined since that grant, with the city’s high school graduation rate rising to 68.7 percent in 2012 from 61.2 percent in 2011, according to state education statistics.
Once a bustling manufacturing city with a busy port, just west of New York City across the Hudson River, Newark was devastated by race riots in 1967 and has struggled since with suburban flight and corruption.
In September, Panasonic Corp opened its North American headquarters in downtown Newark, and insurance giant Prudential is building a new $440 million office tower nearby.
In 2007, Prudential opened its namesake arena, the Prudential Center, perhaps the most visible sign of downtown’s rebirth.
Newark promoters such as real estate agent Sylvia Fragoso said they have been pleased with changes under Booker.
By contrast, she said, during the previous administration of Mayor Sharpe James, later convicted of fraud and conspiracy, Fragoso added, “There was a lot of crime and it never felt safe.”
Many parts of the city have not seen the same lift as downtown.
Unemployment during Booker’s tenure has been about five percentage points higher than the national average, hovering over 13 percent and up from about 11 percent in 2002.
Twenty-six percent of residents lived below the poverty line between 2007 and 2011, according to U.S. Census data.
Crime has remained fairly steady on Booker’s watch.
The FBI in 2012 listed Newark as the 20th most-dangerous city in the nation, and the murder rate has ticked up since 162 police officer jobs were eliminated in budget cuts in 2010.
There were 90 murders that year, 94 in 2011 and 96 in 2012.
Newark also has one of the highest rates of home foreclosures in the nation, according to the local nonprofit group New Jersey Communities United. The city’s foreclosure rate stood at 7 percent in 2012, compared with 2.5 percent nationally.
Booker’s acumen for attracting millions of dollars in investment for the city “hasn’t trickled down to the people in Newark,” said the group’s executive director, Trina Scordo.
Grace Alexander, 58, a nursing assistant and a homeowner in Newark’s West Ward, said she has seen her neighborhood decline in the 13 years since she moved in.
“Downtown Newark is nice to me now, but where I live it hasn’t happened,” she said. “A lot of my neighbors couldn’t pay their rent and have gone. Crime has gotten worse.”
Booker has been accused of being an absentee mayor overly concerned with his political image - including frequently tweeting to his 1.4 million followers - and traveling to meet with powerful backers.
During his Senate campaign, rival Republican Steve Lonegan said Booker “was anointed by Hollywood,” referring to supporters such as actors Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Eva Longoria.
”It’s a double-edged sword,“ said Rice, the city councilman, of Booker’s travels and his high-powered friends. ”We would not have had the interest, the investment, had he not left town to California, or to go and meet with people. So that’s the good side.
“The downside is it’s hard to do both,” he said. “But, you know, a lot of cities would love to have a mayor that would be shaking the money tree like this.”