James Brennan: A perfect politician?

By James Brennan, Columnist
Published September 2, 2013

One of the most difficult concepts to grasp as we grow up and mature is that no one — absolutely no one — is perfect. We learn that some of our greatest heroes in life often have equally great flaws, challenging our relentless admiration of them. In recent months, I began to see the darker side of one of my most treasured idols.

Reading about Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker, I quickly found every reason to adore him. Booker has made a name for himself as an intelligent and charismatic politician with the commitment and work ethic of a community organizer. As mayor, Booker has personally shoveled snow for constituents, allowed hurricane victims to stay in his home and even ran into a burning building to save someone’s life. His energy and personal involvement have led to an explosion in his national profile, and last month he won the Democratic nomination for New Jersey’s vacant Senate seat.

In many ways, Booker is the epitome of what a public servant should be. He cares deeply for his city, he works tirelessly and he connects intimately with his constituents. However, Booker also appears to be the epitome of everything wrong with high-profile Democratic politicians. The progressive activist group Blue America refused to endorse Booker, citing his cozy relationship with Wall Street and Silicon Valley elites, his support for privatized education reform and a willingness to cut Social Security.

President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and countless other Democrats have taken similar paths, trying to be “pro-business” as a way to garner bipartisan support while filling their campaign coffers. They championed deregulation, cut into the social safety net and abandoned the middle class on their way to the top. As a bona fide rising star, it appears Booker may be no different.

The accusations raised by his opponents on the left are not unfounded, as Booker has accepted millions in donations from Wall Street, has made close friends with the leaders of tech giants and has supported dubious charter-school initiatives. It seems that the mayor many have dubbed “Superman” is not quite the hero he was made out to be.

As disheartening as it may be to mature and realize that people like Booker are not the gods they seemed like at first, part of growing up is also finding the good in situations rather than the perfect. The critiques of Booker’s political stances and potential to be a national leader overshadow what truly matters about him, which is a concept that no poll or study will ever be able to quantify.

People like Booker inspire all of us to do what it takes to really make change happen. When I look at the list of the would-be senator’s accomplishments, I say to myself, “I could do that.” I don’t know if I could get Mark Zuckerberg to give my school district a $100-million grant, but it doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters. It also doesn’t take a mayor to shovel snow or give people displaced by natural disasters a place to stay.

As much as progressives can and should call into question what Booker really supports, they have to look past political positions and realize what’s really important. Booker deserves his “Superman” moniker purely for inspiring thousands of people to do the little things that make big accomplishments possible. Going out to shovel snow motivated dozens of Newark residents to do the same and suddenly an entire community was helping people get to work, go to the store and take their kids to school. It’s not the most glorious, headline-grabbing achievement, but it makes a difference. Being a public servant is not about writing laws, just like being a hero is not about dressing up and fighting crime. Being a true public servant — and for that matter, a true hero — is about helping others.

You don’t have to be elected mayor or get a law degree from Yale University to be a public servant. Would I have voted for Booker had I lived in New Jersey? I honestly can’t say. What I can say for certain, though, is that I will always admire Booker for the way he inspired me to help others, even in little ways. He has inspired countless others, and the ripple effects of his symbolic acts have made a difference that cannot be quantified. Booker will always be a superhero to me, not because of what he does, but because of what he symbolizes and how he inspires me.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.