Video Transcript: Cory Booker on Tech Tonic Interface

June 3, 2013

Below is an unedited transcript of the video interview I conducted with Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ, in April.

Paul Smalera: Earlier today I had a great conversation with Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Let’s have a look. Mayor Booker, thank you so much for being here with me.

Cory Booker: It’s great to be here with a Jersey boy. A fellow Jersey boy.

Smalera: I wanted to ask you first of all, you have this reputation as the social media mayor, the tweeting mayor. What made you get onto Twitter in the first place?

Booker: It happened in 2009 where now co-founder with me of WayWire but really an extraordinary visionary woman who saw social media and was a social media maven before…she actually thought up the idea of a Twitter race to the top between Ashton Kutcher and CNN. For some reason she felt the platform would benefit from having indigenous, grassroots authentic leadership on it not just a place for triviality or celebrity but really a mission driven platform and to get more people like that on the platform would be better. She had seen a lot of the other things I was doing in Newark and finally decided to reach out to me. It was a great conversation but I really felt was too busy. I still didn’t understand the concept at all. She pulled a powerful persuader out on me which was Ashton Kutcher. I had this surreal moment where I thought my staff was punking me because Ashton Kutcher’s calling city hall in Newark? I can’t believe that.

I remember I was travelling back to my law school and this drive up highway 95 talking to him, he spent must have been 45 minutes on the phone, really challenging me and explaining to me the benefits of taking control of your own media, of connecting with thousands of people and said, “Look, I want you to do it but I don’t just want you to do it. I want you to dive in head first and be authentic on the platform, take risks.’ He counseled me to it and I said, “I’m going to give this a three month trial.’ And by month two I was completely sold and amazed. What really sold me was a veteran’s issue. I was greeting the largest deployment of New Jersey National Guard since World War II was coming back from the Middle East and I was tweeting back and forth about issues. A guy in California, very frustrated veteran, tweeted me, angry, frustrated, wasn’t getting support. We have a veteran’s one stop in city hall, the first of its type in New Jersey, and I just connected him with the people. Before you know it, he’s tweeting out that he got help, got housing. It was just an incredible moment and it took me seconds on my Blackberry.

Smalera: This has become a key part of how you govern the city, people do reach out to you over Twitter. I’m sure you describe it as a net benefit but what have been some of the surprising moments for you from connecting to your community in a way that probably no mayor has been able to do in a large city like Newark?

Booker: The biggest everyday benefit is now I can change a relationship with my residents as opposed to them coming before government and asking, demanding whatever they want. Now it’s created a collaborative relationship with my residents where they’re actually partners in governing. Every day people on their way to work, people in their neighborhoods will tweet me pictures, will blog at me, “there’s a water main break’ or what have you. For me it’s a powerful shift even with my departmental directors. I now will find out about things before they will; even major things happening in the city I’ll know first. Sometimes I’m even informing my police director who’s in charge of emergency response. This morning was a great example where people were furious about a major traffic back up on one of our main arteries so I texted the police director and said, “Obviously we’re not doing enough with traffic control. Can we do something about it?’ I wouldn’t have been able to make those connections if it wasn’t for my residents. Now they’re helping their government move at the speed of people and be far more responsive in a far more collaborative way. That’s one of the best benefits: I can crowd source thousands and thousands of New Jerseyians, thousands and thousands of Newarkers, from young kids to seniors, to collaborate on how to make our city better.

Smalera: Can we talk about the young kids and the seniors, the people that may be at the extremes that might not have ever heard of Twitter, might be too young to legally be on Twitter, might be too old to have a smartphone. Do you worry at all about your approach to government, that you might miss some of those people?

Booker: I would worry about it if Twitter was taking the place of the other tools in my toolbox. I will still do community visits, community meetings, walk my neighborhoods. At the end of my day, sometimes at 9 or 10, 11 at night, I’ll still do patrols around the neighborhood. I’m still doing all those things. This is just an added tool that has supercharged my ability to connect with my residents. Even if I did on my best days, pre-social media, I could maybe meet with 2,000 residents, face to face, small groups, standing in fronts of schools in the morning, greeting parents maybe I could touch 2,000 people. Now I can touch tens and tens of thousands. It would be a problem if it was replacing it, if I was just sitting at home in my sweatpants tweeting all day but I’m still doing everything as mayor. As a matter of fact, Twitter is a seamless integration into my day. What I used to do if I was driving back from New York to Newark I would be checking with departmental directors. Now I’m checking with departmental directors, returning phone calls and scrolling through my Twitter feed. While I’m on the phone, often. We are both of a multi-tasking generation. Interestingly I’ve now seen some actual data that urban communities are over-represented on Twitter. In fact, African Americans are over-represented on Twitter than the population as a whole. These are folks who may not have a laptop at home but they have a smartphone.

My favorite days are when it’s snowing at night and my Twitter feed blows up with kids, hundreds and hundreds of kids saying, “Do we school tomorrow? Do we have school tomorrow?’ The questions will go until midnight. And my responses are, “Go to bed. Yes, you do.’ Then the next day, “Will we have early dismissal?’ No, you won’t. Don’t tweet in class. It’s amazing to me that people feel like they have a personal relationship with their mayor that they didn’t have before and I become more than just this distant figure, I’m now right in their pocket. And more than that…I think the mistake politicians make is they just use it as an announcement like the PA system when we were in high school. “I will be in this place here. I just cut a ribbon here.’ No. For me it’s giving people a real window in what my life is about. I let people see when I’m angry about something. When I see somebody littering on the street that’s one of the things that annoys me the most, I’ll tweet about it. I have horribly corny jokes and anybody who follows me…

Smalera: I’ve seen them.

Booker: … they’re pretty painful but I love to laugh at silliness. When something has us all deeply affected like what happened in Boston I’ll express my authentic feelings. In many ways sometimes those are the tweets that are retweeted the most. Now people see that their mayor is accessible to them, they see that he’s a real human being who has a strange addiction to two men, Ben and Jerry…

Smalera: I assume you’re talking about ice cream.

Booker: I am talking about ice cream. Would there be a problem if there wasn’t? You’re just a guy trying to serve. The wholeness of me is expressed on the platform. You’re no longer “the mayor’. You’re just a guy trying to serve.

Smalera: You’re the mayor, you’re a politician. Let’s say you’re over-represented on Twitter, you’re very engaged and I think a lot of people who’ve studied Newark and your interactions and would say that net it’s probably a positive because, as you mentioned, you continue to do all the other things to outreach and engage. How exactly do other mayors in other cities take your example?

Booker: We all need to be ourselves. Lincoln said, he said “man’ but I’ll skip the sexism for a second, “Everyone is born an original but sadly most die copies.’ We all need to be who we are and be ourselves but not being in social media is almost like Nixon not wanting to put make up on for a TV appearance. It’s going to become so ridiculous five, ten years from now because government is going to have to catch up to the rest of society. Non-profits, businesses, religious institutions, advocacy groups, they’re all starting to move at light speed, they’re all starting to create more collaborative engagement with their constituencies, they’re all creating more transparency to their actions. Government really is stuck. We’re going to have to unstuck government by opening it up to technology in general, social media in particular. I know five or ten years from now every political leader is going to be finding creative ways to engage on these platforms as they emerge because they are such powerful tools for making change.

My hope is that everybody doesn’t become me but that everybody is going to become entrepreneurial in their engagement with technology. We have to stop thinking…you said, “You’re a politician’ and I accept that in the sense that I’m elected by the people to represent the city of Newark, but what I knew is that if I just fit into the box that people thought of being mayor I would not be able to move my city forward in the ways I dreamed of doing it. We all should not, this is a new word I’m making up at the moment, “boxify’ ourselves. We need to get out of boxes because we live in a much more dynamic world. My parents worked for the same company 25 years each; IBMers, a tech company. The millennials, people born after 1980, of which you are not. I’m just trying to make you feel old today. You’ve got obnoxiously much too hair but I hope it grays quickly. The reality is we’re going to live in a lot more dynamic world where you need to define yourself not by your job and your title but by your purpose and your mission. Just in the same way that my Twitter account is going to follow me around no matter what I do, if I become a private citizen next year, if I become a United States senator next year…

Smalera: Which will it going to be?

Booker: There will be a gap of which I am a private citizen because they’re not proximate, the two offices. I see myself as a lot of different things. I definitely am a mayor if I’m going to accomplish my mission which is transformative change in my community I’ve got to be an entrepreneur, I’ve got to be a media syndicator, I’ve got to be a philanthropist. What I’ve tried to do is find every way to use all the ability God has given me to push toward my mission. What I am excited about is that the constitution gives constitutional offices different powers but as soon as we begin to think like private sector entrepreneurs do we being to develop and imagine different ways to use these powers but also other powers to make a difference. Do you understand what I’m saying? I can be more specific if you want.

Smalera: Be more specific.

Booker: I have no power over education in the city of Newark…

Smalera: That’s because the school board is a separate body.

Booker: I have no authority over schools whatsoever. If I thought of myself as a mayor in the box that the statutes give me I would not be focusing on that issue. But that’s not my mission in life. My mission in life is to create transformative change and to help America living up to its promise. When kids say “liberty and justice for all’ I believe we should all be working to make those words real. I had to be very entrepreneurial in how I was going to get it done. Entrepreneurial means that I’m going to talk to tech people and say, “There’s a technology revolution going on. How can I work with you to make it more available to my kids?’

Smalera: You talked to one specific tech person…

Booker: I talked to a tech guy, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. We connected not as the head of Facebook and the head of a city, but more as two citizens of this country that felt this nation was falling woefully short of developing the greatest resource this country have ever seen, not oil and gas but the genius of our children. If you look at oil and gas it’s a great metaphor. When I was in a petroleum engineering class at Stanford I still remember my professor telling me we would be out of oil by 2020. And he was right if we used the same technology to obtain oil but what he did not see is that we would find are new technologies that are fracking awesome and can get more of that resource out.

Smalera: Hydro fracking.

Booker: Exactly. A joke is bad if you have to explain it. The incredible thing is that technology has helped us to further cultivate that natural resource but the genius of our kids, remember: genius is equally distributed unlike oil which is only in certain pockets. There’s as much genius being born in Beverly Hills as there is being born in Newark, New Jersey. What we’ve done horribly is develop the technology and the skill to release that genius. For me as a guy that has an overwhelming mission I’m not going to be curtailed by what people tell me my job is. I’m going to partner with other people in different sectors who by the way, it’s not their immediate mission either. Mark Zuckerberg’s job at the board of directors is not telling him, ‘show me the data on education in Newark, New Jersey.’

Smalera: Or give Cory Booker $100 million.

Booker: I was his hundredth millionth friend on Facebook. That’s how we settled on the number. That’s what I mean by I need to be entrepreneurial in how I can make a difference and make a change. My favorite example of me using media to leverage philanthropy to leverage brand changing for Newark, because Newark had a very seriously bad brand. I’m a mayor but I’m thinking about what people here in Manhattan think about all the time which is how do we help this brand advance. My favorite moment is one that five years ago would not have been possible which is mayors of mid-size, American decaying cities. When I say “decaying’, losing population, losing tax base: Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, Pittsburgh, all these cities that got hit in the 60s, 70s and 80s. They get kicked around on late night TV shows all the time. I was sitting there with my buddies, Ben and Jerry, one night watching TV and Conan O’Brien comes on and says, “Newark, New Jersey has this great new healthcare program.’ Which excited me because I was so proud of this program, I’m like, “Conan’s going to talk about our victory here.’ Then he said, “I’ve got a suggestion for Newark, New Jersey,’ which got me even more excited because I thought, “Conan’s going to give me advice.’ Then he said, “The best thing for healthcare in Newark is a bus ticket out of town.’ The more you laugh at that joke the more I’m going to…in the old paradigm when you’re stuck in who you are you lack imagination to see your true power. Remember Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is not realizing they have it in the first place.’

Five years ago when a mayor heard their city insulted, this used to happen, they could write an angry letter and it would be read by the intern’s intern on the Tonight Show or they could call a press conference. Remember, they don’t control media now; they’re dependent upon the media of others…channels 5 and 32 might be the only cameras that might show up. But I realized this is a different era and I’m far more entrepreneurial and I looked at Conan, after I grabbed another pint of Ben and Jerry’s because that’s usually what I do when I get down, I opened up my laptop and said, “How many viewers are there of Conan?’ And there were 2.5 million. That number shocked me because I know the views on my social media platform are many and many multiples of that. In a good week I can get 10, 20 million people who have seen my social media feed. So I said, “Wait a minute, I control more media than this person.’ I filmed a film at my desk and I put the flags behind me. And I tell you, when a politician puts flags behind them they are serious. I said, “I’m Cory Booker. Conan O’Brien has insulted the great city of Newark. ‘ I bragged about my city for a few moments and then I said, “By the power invested in me by the people of the City of Newark I am banning you from Newark Airport. You’re on the no-fly list. Try JFK, buddy.’ The video, which was a joke video, went so viral that we got hate letters from civil libertarians. Then the TSA got so nervous…

Smalera: You don’t have the authority to ban someone from Newark airport?

Booker: …the TSA getting nervous, as government institutions often do, clarified that very point and said on the front page of their website they just made sure that people understood mayors could not indiscriminately ban people they don’t like from their airports. I wish I did have that power; there would be a lot of people I would ban. It become such a big story that I had gone out and done this and it commanded more media attention than the 2.5 million who saw the joke in the first place that Conan had to respond. So he banned me from Burbank Airport which if you know LA is not a big deal to not be able to go into Burbank Airport. It’s a little out there. I’m an LAX guy myself. But the testosterone kept escalating, we were banning each other. The Cory and Conan Kerfuffle became one of the top news stories of the week. Eventually the Secretary of State for the United States of America, a woman named Hilary Clinton, filmed her own joke video saying in a Rodney-King way, “Why can’t you guys just get along?’ Lo and behold I’m on Conan O’Brien’s show, now I’m in front of his 2.5 million people, we apologize, we made up and he gave me $100,000 of philanthropy for the city of Newark.

This to me shows you the unimaginable potential for entrepreneurial public servants and when I say that I don’t mean elected officials. I mean all of us are entrepreneurs, all of us are collaborators in helping our democracy live up to its highest level, to its aspirations. If you think about this the power of technology and media together is what’s created really great transformations from our parent’s generation. Martin Luther King, in the same month we’re filming this in April of 1963 though, hit a wall. He was imprisoned in a jail cell in Birmingham, wrote one of the most eloquent pieces of literature in modern American history, Letters from Birmingham Jail, but what people don’t know and if you read some great accounts of this, Taylor Branch’s book and some others, he wasn’t succeeding. He couldn’t get people to organize. He didn’t have Twitter or Facebook. He didn’t have a way to affect media in the way that we do. He couldn’t do a WayWire video. What two ingenious young people, King was young at the point but these folks, Dorothea Cotton, James Bevel were younger than him, and they convinced him to do something which captured the media and transformed the city of Birmingham and brought segregation to an end. They said, “Let us organize kids, the next generation, and do a kids march.’ The power of Bull Connor and eight year olds and ten year olds and 14 year olds are still some of the most powerful images from the Civil Rights movement with the dogs and the fire hoses. It so captured media attention from the Soviet Union to newspapers in Iowa it was on the front page of the nation. This is the power King knew, if I can be creative in capturing the media and controlling the national dialogue…I get very upset and this is one of the reasons we founded WayWire…

Smalera: Let me stop you for a second. You do live the entrepreneurship. I do want you to explain what WayWire is and why you founded it. You’re an entrepreneur so you’re starting a company that is basically trying to change the way media works.

Booker: We are told in America what is important every day. By the oligarchy of media. They say, “The top stories today are, you should pay attention to who’s dating who or this divorce or this person got pregnant, the princess in England should be the most important thing we should be talking about.’ That’s very anti-democratic because people in the grassroots might be struggling with a lot different issues. Suddenly America decided because of a horrendous tragedy that I wept as I watched, America decided that gun violence was the issue and now that’s…there are millions of American daily basis in their communities and it was never decided to be a top story because the media was telling us what to pay attention to. There’s a problem with that. What I loved when I saw other social media platforms, which are really micro blogging platforms, what I started seeing is that there’s no way to really accelerate that social change through the most powerful version of media to me which is the moving picture, it’s video. I saw that the younger generation was consuming video in different ways and the appetite for short form video was growing and user generated content was exploding but there was no real way to get those voices, compelling voices, articulate voices. I met with the head of CNN recently…can I mention them?

Smalera: We’ll bleep it out.

Booker: Good. Bleep it out. I met with “bleep’. And I was telling him, “What’s more compelling: you sending a reporter to cover bullying or this amazing content being created by high school students that is so gripping?’ That’s going to be the powerful news of the future. It’s not this news agency going in but the voices of people actually talking about their experiences with deeper authenticity and independence of thought. When I started seeing that I said, “there’s something missing right now.’ I know as Cory, as a mayor, that YouTube is a very valuable utility which has hundreds of thousands of hours being put up, I don’t know. Every week? Every minute? Of new content. My problem is that there’s probably thousands of hours in that utility that I would probably love but I can’t find it and those voices that are really important being buried by the sheer volume that’s out there. Sarah Ross, who’s one of the three of us founders, and Nathan said, “We’ve got to crack this nut, figure out a way to pull out content that is compelling and important to an individual and then give ways for people to better share video content and even more than that’. Say we have an interesting conversation. One of the best parts of this conversation is right before the camera started when we were talking about sci fi and revealed the level of your geekiness and nerdiness…does not compare to mine…

Smalera: We can see about that.

Booker: …but now I want to know a little bit more about you. I have no way of knowing your favorite music videos, your favorite sci fi videos, your favorite videos about important news issues. You don’t have a video identity. I can look at your Twitter feed and read through that but that’s not even organized; it’s organized by time but not by issue. These are some of things we said were lacking out there: my video identity is not pulled in one place because I’m sure people might be interested in the most compelling videos that I might watch in a month that I have no way of…I always call it the “Pandorafication’ of video, pull videos that are important to me and better share those and by doing that, by creating a virality into the social stream of certain videos it helps to elevate them in the consciousness of our country and God willing, democratizing imagery as opposed to the oligarchy controlling it, giving more power to the people.

Smalera: Did going to a school like Stanford, where you went as an undergrad and graduate, being in a start up mecca like that, being around those people, being on campus at the same time as the founders of Google and so many other start ups, how did that impact you?

Booker: Powerfully so. I was there at the dawn of the internet age and was surrounded by people whose names we know. Like Reid Hoffman. I just had dinner with the fifth person hired by Yahoo who was a Stanford classmate, being around these dynamic folks and even organizations. I was passionate about working in east Palo Alto. I was running a crisis hotline so I was very involved in non-profits at the time and I still remember having a tech guy on our main team in the Bridge, the counselling center, and him using these Apple computers to better help us create data and metrics for what we were doing. Being in that environment, in that cauldron of creativity in the technology world, really seeded for me the way I wanted to live my life. We’re all entrepreneurs. In fact, Reid Hoffman wrote a book, The Start up of Me, and it definitely did give me that bug to do things. And also the courage to say, “You’re not going to tell me what my job is. If I have an idea that is burning in me I’m not going to do it even though it puts me as an outlier in what you perceive as being a mayor.’

Smalera: What are your hopes for the tech industry as far as your mission, as far as being someone who is trying to help elevate the quality of life for their citizens.

Booker: First of all I hate that we’ve gotten to this point where “mayor’ is a pejorative. This is the greatest job I could ever dream of. Mayor Bloomberg gave me a clock that counts down my days with a little note that says: don’t count the days, make each day count. Every day I feel…I was texting with the head of the ACLU right before I came in here for New Jersey saying, “The clock is ticking, we’ve got to get some opening data sets in Newark up. We’ve got to get this stuff done.’ I love being mayor but technology, as I sit both as a participant and a witness, is charging my imagination every day as I see these democratizing forces flow through.

Banks, here in New York, if I needed access to capital in the past I had to supplicate myself, prostate myself before big banks and say, “Please, please, please give me money.’ Now we don’t have to do that; we’ve got Kickstarter and we’ve got Kiva as democratizing access to capital. We’ve got forces that are democratizing work. One of my friends, again from the Bay area-Stanford community, started [SOMA Source] taking micro tasks and using them in developing nations, giving people internet hook ups and liberating their economic potential. I’ve got friends that are liberating in the United States using technology to better monetize their very being with collaborative consumption from Uber and AirBNB and Lift. I’m seeing in every sector education and how online Stanford courses are now being taken by people in developing nations who are outperforming Stanford students. We’re creating greater access, we’re creating greater equality. Somebody, just because they’re in a certain geography or a certain race or a certain sexual orientation, or certain socio-economic status, are being liberated. In fact, I listened to a presentation from a guy who has a company called Huge, which I thought should be my company given my size, who said, “Look, we’re talking people with a formal education in the ninth grade. But we’re seeing that people who are learning coding in college half of that stuff is not even useful anymore.’ The whole way we think about education is wrong. In fact, we don’t have an unemployment problem in America; we have a training and education problem in America. They were hiring people with six figure salaries who maybe only had a ninth grade education because that’s how demand people in coding is. Why isn’t our education system reflecting this demand that we have?

These are amazing forces going through everything and for me as mayor these are forces I want to capture and draw into my city in an entrepreneurial way. Whether we can use technology in job training, technology is helping us clean the environment, technology in creating more efficiencies for our cities, technology in better educating our children, all these things technology is going to afford us the ability to do better. And more. That’s what’s exciting for me. What gets me more excited, I do think time is ticking on the time that I will be able to call myself a mayor, and I think about running for statewide office at the federal level, I get very excited about this idea that we could hack the Senate, disrupt Congress in a great way, in a righteous way. Why do we have these omnibus bills that are so dense, there’s no light, there’s no accountability, there’s no understanding, there’s no people leaning in and collaborating. We have government really drawing away from people recently. Special interest groups, people who can obfuscate information, people who can distract people, we have lobbyists, all these people that are creating…in fact, the only place that’s not being democratized is our democracy in some ways because these people are creating a less than democratic process. The cure for that is getting more people involved.

I’m very frustrated about campaign finance rules. Very frustrated by them. I’ve been telling people for a long time, “I don’t know how to solve this problem,’ especially with the Supreme Court moving in a direction I’m not in favor of. They’re creating more and more access for large money givers to do what I subvert the system. The solution that was just given recently by a friend of mine said, “You talk about this Cory. The solution to that is people getting involved.’ You have a woman like the now senator of the great state of Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, who was facing that. Facing super PACs, facing these individual donors and what stopped that was hundreds of thousands of Americans giving small donations, a dollar online giving her a chance to fight back and overcome that. “Wow. Wait a minute. I, a dollar giver in Alaska, can help counteract the forces working against our democracy?’ That’s power. By the way, another call I made as I drove in here was to my oldest friend from fourth grade who, now knowing that I’m looking potentially to run for Senate, was bragging to me that he’s calling all my high school friends and they’re giving $5 and $20 and $100 and he was so excited about it because he really feels like he’s participating. He doesn’t need to be a super PAC guy. He can help me. Lo and behold, in our first financial filing our average donor was really, really small. I was one of the lead senators, I think I saw an article today me and Al Franken were two of the biggest fundraisers in this cycle, had so much of that push from small donors. That’s a democratising of our democracy and we need to do more of that.

Smalera: Thank you so much for being here at Reuters on Tech Tonic. I really appreciate it.

Booker: I’m grateful. Thank you.”

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