Even before the ballots were cast Tuesday in Newark, N.J. home of the hottest mayoral race in the country the lasting result was clear: Cory Booker had already won.
In the end, 33-year-old Mr. Booker garnered 47 percent of the votes, losing to four-term incumbent Sharpe James after a bitter campaign. But in fact, Booker and his team have much to celebrate.
Half a year ago, Booker was just a brash young councilman; after Tuesday's vote, he's a major Democratic contender. Over the past few months, Booker has entered the national spotlight with a bang. He raised millions of dollars, assembled a skilled staff, played the media like a fiddle, and eloquently communicated a message that Newark deserves safer streets, more jobs, and better schools, and that he's the man who can deliver.
Even though he lost, he rallied a significant portion of Newark's population to his side without the advantages of incumbency in a city that has long been run as a personal fiefdom. It won't be long before Booker's name is on yard signs again.
Like many Generation X-ers, I watched the Newark mayoral race with interest, as did many young American expatriates on this side of the Atlantic. In the days before the election, I heard his name bounce around tables in Oxford dining halls, a Turkish cafe in London, and a Cambridge tapas restaurant. The consensus is that he is fast becoming the standard bearer for a new generation of American leaders.
Even while his contemporaries may disagree with some of his ideas, such as support for school vouchers, they embrace him for his approach. A workaholic schedule and gutsy political stunts such as camping out and fasting for 10 days in a successful bid to get the mayor to assign more police to a drug-dealer-infested housing project helped craft his image as a committed and creative leader.
One New Jersey native studying urban planning at the London School of Economics said recently: "Too many people think of New Jersey as just a place to live because you can't afford New York or Philly. Having an educated, articulate, and charismatic young person as mayor of Newark would do a lot to change the profile of the city and the state."
It's precisely because he's become a political mascot of sorts that Tuesday's results are less interesting than the phenomenon of Cory Booker. He has proved that a relative neophyte can mount a credible campaign against an old-guard incumbent. Booker's media-friendly stance enhanced his underdog image. Unlike his opponent, Booker and his team welcomed journalists into their humble headquarters (in an old plastic-bag factory dubbed the Bat Cave).