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Cory Booker's Twitter-Heavy Snow Removal

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, January 3 2011

Cory Booker spent the great east coast snowstorm of fin de 2010 tweeting up a storm and throwing his own back into the effort to dig out his city of Newark's snowy streets. So is Booker's hands-on, direct-services-by-tweet approach to being mayor more public relations than good governance? It earned him a largely glowing piece by Sean Gregory in Time magazine, a national publication, the sort of attention not generally lavished on mayor's of cities of just more than a quarter of a million people, at least not when they're not embroiled in some sort of sex scandal or corruption controversy:

After a blizzard started blanketing the Northeast on Dec. 26, an event that earned the Twitter hashtag #snowpocalypse, Booker turned the microblogging site into a public-service tool. Residents of the city, which has a population of around 280,000, swarmed Booker's account (@CoryBooker) with requests for help, and the mayor responded. He and his staff have bounced around Newark shoveling streets and sending plows to areas where residents said they were still snowed in. "Just doug [sic] a car out on Springfield Ave and broke the cardinal rule: 'Lift with your Knees!!' I think I left part of my back back there," he reported in one message. One person let Booker know, via Twitter, that the snowy streets were preventing his sister from buying diapers. About an hour later, Booker was at the sister's door, diapers in hand.

Booker stands alone, finds Gregory, in being a politician reacting to the snow deluge by connecting directly with the people he or she represents via Twitter, and Booker finds that a shame:

"I hope more elected officials discover the power of Twitter," Booker told TIME. "It truly is an effective way to connect with the body politic." Then he was off -- to shovel more snow.

The view in the local press was a bit more of a mix. The Star Ledger -- which endorsed Booker for re-election in May, despite, though the fact that "he tweets" was grouped with the fact that the mayor meditates and doesn't eat meat as reasons why Booker is seen as "a distant" figure by some folks in Newark -- gives a podium to largely unnamed sources on the ground in Newark who see Booker's reaction to the storm as ineffectual, self serving, or both. (Booker eventually won a second four-year term with nearly 60% of the vote.) From a piece by the Star Ledger's David Giambusso:

[O]n the ground in Newark yesterday, law enforcement officials, city leaders and residents saw the mayor’s performance as more akin to a "snowjob." They blamed Booker for an incoherent and haphazard approach to plowing that left many residents of the state’s largest city stranded 48 hours after the snow had stopped.

"This was not an impressive performance by the city at all," said North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos. Instead of tweeting, Ramos said, "The mayor needs to be in a war room executing a cleanup plan."

It's a question that seems to hang over Booker's head, storm season and not: Is this guy the model of a new kind of politician, a genius who is innovating a new kind of personalized governance? Or is he busying ginning up attention for himself that, in the end, doesn't do much to improve life in the city of Newark?

One possible answer is that all that Booker does to make Newark seem more livable/human/intimate helps the people of that challenged city have a little more faith in their urban experience. In the homemade video clip above, posted by one "MeanGreenQueen2007," a female voice expresses amazement at the sweatshirt and sweatpant clad helping to push out a snow-bound car. "Wow, look at our mayor, Cory Booker," says the voiceover. "He's here, helping everyone out on South Orange Avenue. Maybe he's not so bad afterall."

"I just sent him a clip on Twitter of how it looks on my street," she says.

And for what it's worth, Booker used his Twitter feed during the great snow lockdown to express some sympathies for his fellow mayor to the east who was having trouble cleaning up his city. "People far 2 rough on @mikebloomberg- still fighting 2 clear snow in NWK & we are 1/29th size of NYC," tweeted Booker.

It depends, though, how you measure things. Newark, New Jersey might be but a small fraction of the size of New York City -- but its mayor has more than 20 times the number of Twitter followers as that of the Big Apple's.