Max Pizarro’s pre-game analysis of last week’s State of the City address includes a great point-counter-point between State Senator (and former Booker mayoral opponent) Ron L. Rice and his son, West Ward Councilman (and Booker faithful) Ron C. Rice: Newark in gear for Booker’s election-year state of the city.
“I know the mayor is not exactly renowned for showing up at the barbershop and hanging out, jawing around with the guys,” said [Ron C.] Rice. “Fine. That’s just fine. I would rather have a mayor who’s out there shaking the trees for my city like this one is – getting us money to build Nat Turner Park, getting us grant money to increase our police force in an economic downturn and to install surveillance cameras – rather than a guy at the barber shop telling me we have no money. I would rather have a mayor landing a grant from the Gates Foundation for resources, money for crucial prisoner re-entry programs rather than a glad-hander showing up at a chicken dinner and telling me the city has no money.”
Stack-like with his cellphone, the councilman said some members of the older generation – his father’s generation – will never catch get wired with email let alone text messaging and twitter.
But, in his view, modern communication devices have turned him — and the mayor — into better and more keyed in elected officials.
“My dad, when he was a councilman, relied on letters and phone calls to deliver constituent services,” said Rice. “Now I take complaints off my website, BlackBerry, cellphone, three facebook pages, twitter, etc. People tweet me. Constituents. I do this 24-7. I don’t have another job, like my dad did. Because of the accessibility, I have three to five times the number of complaints than my dad had when he was the West Ward councilman.
“Everyone my age or younger has no problem with Cory tweeting,” added the councilman.
The relentless narrative out there that Booker has mostly shuttered Newark while hitting New York and L.A. high society doesn’t comport with reality, Rice insisted, even as his father groused, “Most of my constituents don’t tweek and do computers.”
The definition of “availability” is shifting as more of our relationships are increasingly developed online. Let’s agree that — whether because he is on the speech circuit, trying to lobby for grants from philanthropists, or meeting with tech entrepreneurs — Booker travels a fair deal more than any former Newark mayor. It’s always been an undercurrent of this administration that a globally-connected Newark is a stronger Newark, precisely because we can leverage resources that aren’t available within the confines of the city, county or state geography.
(I think there’s also an argument to be made that because Newark’s travel options make it a global city, so the Mayor’s travel itself could be a good thing for the city’s image, in a medium-as-message kind of way.)
Doesn’t it make sense, then, that we’re starting to see our globally-connected, local politicians start to use technology to communicate with constituents here in the city? Acknowledging that technology, for all its benefits, can also be alienating: is this generation of 24×7 connected politicians more or less “available” to its constituents?
Sure, you can make the argument that high illiteracy and poverty rates in the city (which this 2006 Earth Day Network survey puts at 51% (!) and 28%, respectively) prevent a large constituency from participating in this new style of availability. But Rice Sr. isn’t raising the digital divide to claim that Booker and the council are out of touch with their electorate — that would actually be a compelling criticism. Instead, he’s using it as a sort of political shorthand to paint his former opponent as elitist and technocratic.
It’s no small irony that as Facebook, Twitter and Myspace continue to glom millions more registered users that the senator’s words might later paint him as the out-of-touch career politician. It wouldn’t be the first time that the senator failed to grasp a fundamental shift in his electorate, as his refrain during his 2006 mayoral bid that Booker wasn’t “black enough” revealed he had missed an important change in the perception of race in the city and our larger national culture.