03/05/2012 05:13 EST | Updated 05/05/2012 05:12 EDT

Remembering Leaders Who Don't Make Robocalls


There's almost no one better positioned to give the inside scoop on U.S. politics than CNN's star political pundit, Wolf Blitzer.

Blitzer, who has moderated three of the last Republican primary debates, told a gathering of about 40 advertising executives, with us as observers, that the GOP had hoped the public exposure from all these debates would lead to a boost in the polls. In fact, the debates (26 so far) have had the exact opposite effect.

In mid-October, President Barack Obama's approval ratings dipped to 38 per cent. As of last week, they've reached an impressive 53 per cent and he is leading all of his potential opponents in head-to-head contests. Sure, it's partially that the economic roller coaster is starting to level out, explained Blitzer. But he attributes that largest boost to the prolonged Republican primary. Each debate seems to be giving the President another 0.5 per cent hop in popularity, Blitzer joked.

With each debate the rhetoric gets more toxic and it's turning Americans off national politics. Blitzer believes people no longer feel inspired by their leaders.

Later at the same event, there was someone who stood out as a counterpoint to Blitzer's bleak assessment. The Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, of all places, a city labeled in 1996 by TIME magazine as the most dangerous city in America.

Mayor Cory Booker impressed the group of cynical advertising executives, and received a prolonged standing ovation. He's personable, energetic, and down-to-earth, with an infectious smile.

Even many Canadians have heard of Booker. He earned fame in 2009 for taking on late-night icon Conan O'Brien in a good-humoured feud after the talk show host ridiculed Newark on his show.

Booker graduated from the prestigious Yale Law School and could easily have started a profitable law practice, earning six figures and a life of luxury. Instead, he chose to take a cheap apartment in a Newark housing project notorious for crime and landlord neglect, and to help the tenants fight for better living conditions.

In 1998, Booker ran for Newark Municipal Council. It's a humble position, and a far cry from the prestigious Illinois Senate seat immediately sought by Obama. Booker believed that he could better help the people of his community with a personal touch from within city government.

Much like Americans today, Booker told us that he became disillusioned with politics. He was ready to give up as he struggled to draw attention to issues like crime and education and to propose solutions, but could never make headway against old-school career politicians like the Mayor at the time.

Then one day in 1999, his walk home brought him past Garden Spires, another housing project plagued by drug dealing and violence. A woman resident begged him to do something -- anything -- about the crime situation. Bypassing council, Booker got a tent, set it up in front of Garden Spires, and went on a 10-day hunger strike, garnering massive public and media attention until the police agreed to take action.

The following year, Booker parked a motor home by one of the most dangerous, drug dealer infested corners in Newark and lived there for five months to raise awareness about the problem.

How many politicians do you know who would have the chutzpah to try something like that?

With Newark's terrible reputation, there were likely few less glamorous political careers in the country than Mayor of that city. Nevertheless, Booker twice ran for the position, and in 2006 he got it. We're awed by what he has achieved since then.

Booker tackled crime. He improved policing, but also created support programs and incentives for people released from prison, reducing the chances of recidivism. Once the most dangerous city, Newark is now way back at number 23. In 2010, the city had its first murder-free month in more than half a century.

He has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropy to improve education and other initiatives.

Booker is turning Newark from a late-night punch line to a city people are proud to live in.

We've thought about what Wolf Blitzer said. It seems to us the real problem is so many leaders in politics, especially at the national level, become career politicians always chasing after the top prize. They get focused on the game -- seeking their next re-election. They forget they're supposed to be there to serve the public.

This goes for Canada too. We respect those who choose to be in the public life, but our last national election saw unprecedented levels of toxic politics. Today the news is full of stories about fraudulent phone calls and fake Twitter accounts.

If there's an antidote to this poison, it's to be found in leaders like Booker.

With the fame and popularity he's earned, Booker could easily have run for a seat in Congress, possibly higher. Yet he continues to focus on serving the people of his city.

In 2010, a resident tweeted a message to Booker that her aged father needed help to shovel his driveway. Twenty minutes later, Booker showed up with a shovel and a team of volunteers recruited on Twitter.

We don't believe Booker is unique. In all our towns and cities there are public officials who continue to focus on serving and bettering their communities with little reward, recognition or getting distracted by the game of politics.

If Canadians and Americans want leaders who inspire us, we just have to look around. We must find the Cory Bookers in our communities, and support and encourage them.