Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Murder and the Mayor

To understand why governing through crime is so attractive to American politicians of all stripes, watch Newark Mayor Corey Booker's public image soar in the aftermath of a brutal killing on a Newark school yard. Like most big city mayors, Corey Booker has an impossible job. Almost every big city is faced with the paradox that they must govern populations with far higher costs than others, with resources far more constrained than any other unit of government. If they try to bridge that gap by raising city taxes, they drive even more middle class residents and businesses to the suburbs, which can offer lower taxes because they have newer infrastructures and fewer high cost, needy residents. The more big cities lose these revenue-producing residents and businesses, the higher the proportion of revenue-absorbing populations, and the higher taxes have to rise, etc.

Newark, scarred by one of the nation's worst riots in the late 1960s, has an especially severe version of that problem. To be Mayor of Newark is to be the person most visibly responsible for managing that paradox, and is thus highly likely to become an icon for governmental failure.

Since Booker's election last year he has struggled to find a way to balance the impossible fiscal realities of urban management with the need to sustain popularity in a city who residents are disproportionately needy. As reported by Andrew Jacobs in a New York Times feature today, the public reaction to the shocking murder of three friends hanging out on a Newark schoolyard last week, has given the Mayor a much-needed dose of support.

Suddenly, instead of presiding over tough fiscal choices, the Mayor can move around the city, embracing grieving families, speaking out against "evil" to church audiences, and personally receiving the surrender of one of the suspects in the murder. Suddenly his inability to speak language that unifies lending institutions and impoverished residents is resolved by the unifying effects of the emotions that violent crime produces. He has become, in Jacob's apt phrase "the spiritual voice of a city in mourning."

And the Mayor clearly appreciates the difference:

“I’ve never felt more strong as a mayor and more determined that we are going to win this fight, that we are going to demonstrate to the nation the true nature of this city.”

Of course, Corey Booker is hardly the first Mayor in America to appreciate counter-intuitive effect of violent crime. Another mayor presiding over a much more promising fiscal situation, saw his flagging career revived by single worst act of murder in American history. Today that mayor, Rudolph Guiliani, is hoping to ride the strong approval over his handling of New York City on September 11, 2001 all the way to the White House.

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