The mayor of Newark, N.J., on fighting crime while cutting the police force, and learning how to make tough calls as his approval rating drops
I came into office in 2006 with a lot of national attention. Newark's government was running a structural budget deficit of more than $100 million, and we had to dial that down immediately. The No. 1 issue was crime: That year, 435 people had been shot. We needed to beef up the police force.
At first, I thought the best strategy was to keep my head down and get to work. Then we realized that appearances on Bill Maher or Stephen Colbert brought buzz and made it easier to get meetings. I spent 25 to 35 percent of my time fundraising, and we raised $100 million for initiatives like crime-fighting technology, a wireless network, and parks expansion. That's before Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million to improve Newark schools. Oprah and Jon Bon Jovi helped us get more affordable housing. As a result of all this, we've seen a significant reduction in crime.
The hard change was Governor Chris Christie's election in November 2009. He lowered state aid. There's not a Newark city department that hasn't been cut deep into the bone. The most painful decision for me was cutting 164 police officers right before Christmas. It was like I'd lost a bodily organ. These were young men and women that I had recruited, that I had looked in the eye and said, "Our city needs you." After double-digit decreases [in previous years], shootings were up last year. Now we're looking at options like shared regional policing.
Last year was the most difficult of my career. I've gone from an 80 percent approval rating to somewhere in the 50s. I love this job, but we ask a lot from people in public life. I can't go out to dinner without worrying about who will pick up the tab. I was buying a shirt in New York City, and a woman got in my face to ask why I wasn't buying it in New Jersey. At 41, I realize I need to develop a personal life because I would like to have a family.
I've become more data-driven in making decisions, rather than coloring them with my passion. But you still have to think outside the box. You can't surrender to the options before you. There's always another way.