Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, has decided to spend some time living off food stamps. It is a bold move, the result of a Twitter conversation with a constituent aimed at highlighting the nation’s economic disparity. But it is a risky move as well.
Booker has proven himself to be a highly passionate and determined public official who at times turns to unorthodox methods of connecting with his Newark constituents. Whether rescuing neighbors from burning buildings or inviting victims of the recent hurricane into his home, he is prone to think — and act — outside of the box.
The latest episode started with a chat that ultimately led the mayor to propose that he and the person with whom he was corresponding agree to live at least a week on food stamps. Booker later tweeted that he would like to see other people get involved in a similar plan. He plans to start this sojourn after Thanksgiving.
Bold? Indeed. However, there is a level of potential jeopardy in undertaking this challenge. For one thing, Booker risks looking like a political opportunist, prepared to benefit from the publicity of taking on the struggles of those dealing with financial pain.
Sometimes, such undertakings don’t go well. Some years ago, Jane Byrne, Chicago’s first and only female mayor, decided to move temporarily into the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects to bring attention and resources to the high crime rate in that area.
However, Mayor Byrne’s brief time as a resident of the projects was widely viewed as a crass publicity stunt. The criticism was even more stinging when, shortly after she moved out of Cabrini-Green, residents reported that gang violence and fear had moved right back in.
Booker has already risked seeming like a political opportunist earlier this year when he criticized the Obama campaign for its attacks on Mitt Romney’s work in private equity firm Bain Capital. It was seen as a curious and unnecessary position from a man who was supposed to be a prominent surrogate for the president’s campaign. But Booker’s move was widely viewed as an attempt to position himself more favorably with more moderate voters in New Jersey, in the event he runs for statewide office.
More than anything, people are generally not so interested in knowing whether their elected leaders can endure the hardships that are a part of the everyday lives of the less fortunate. What they care about is that public officials actually do something about rectifying the conditions that produce those challenges.
If Mayor Booker can meet that expectation, he will develop a tremendous record and legacy, no matter how many weeks he lives on food stamps.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)