About halfway through my meeting with Cory Booker, I ask him an embarrassing question. What's it like to be called "a genius" by Oprah Winfrey in the pages of Time magazine?
The 42-year old mayor of New Jersey's biggest city looks slightly abashed. "She's incredibly gracious, but that was way over the top," he says.
He goes on to muse about how nice it would be to have a person on his staff "who tells me that my sweat don't stink." After I leave, he asserts, his communications director will tell him how badly he did in our interview.
This is absurd - Mr. Booker doesn't do badly in interviews.
The mayor of Newark is possibly the worst-kept secret in American politics. Meeting him is like encountering a human light bulb radiating charisma. Mr. Booker's talents and résumé have elicited comparisons to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Like Mr. Clinton, he is a former Rhodes Scholar who has a gift for connecting with the person in front of him. Like Mr. Obama, he is part of a new generation of black politicians successfully navigating the shifting terrain of race in America.
In many ways, though, his story is all his own. Mr. Booker grew up in a prosperous New Jersey suburb, but moved to a housing project in one of Newark's poorest neighbourhoods while still a law student. Over the years, he has passed up opportunities that would bring him more money and prestige, including a role advising on urban policy in Mr. Obama's administration.
By sticking with his quest to improve Newark, a place once considered unsalvageable, Mr. Booker has emerged at the forefront of the fight to advance American cities in an era of scarce resources.
Faced with cash-strapped budgets and struggling schools, he secured a $100-million (U.S.) donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to reform the education system. He has deployed his considerable charm and extensive Rolodex to lure large businesses to the city. Mr. Booker is also at the vanguard of a group of politicians, among them Calgary's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, who have embraced social media with zeal.
Less than 20 kilometres from New York, Newark was once a poster child for urban decay. Today, it is a city where concrete signs of renewal co-exist with problems ranging from poverty to gang violence to low graduation rates. If Mr. Booker can show progress on such issues, it will not only determine his path toward higher office, but also offer lessons that will resonate throughout the country. The clock is already ticking, literally: Mounted on a wall in his office is a digital display that reads 1,099. A gift from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it is counting down the days left in his current term.
On Mr. Booker's desk is a selection of the world's holy books, from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita, together with a humble lunch of hard-boiled eggs and three smart phones. One of them is devoted solely to social media, which he believes are transforming politics. Mr. Booker is the undisputed Twitter champ among American mayors, with four times as many followers as constituents (more than one million at last count; Mr. Bloomberg, by contrast, has 90,000).
Although he was skeptical at first, Twitter "has blown me away," Mr. Booker says. People send him tweets about broken water mains, busted streetlights or potholes. He responds briefly - "On it" - and keeps up a flow of news about Newark and inspirational quotations ("If the wind will not serve, take to the oars.").
During the massive snowstorm that struck the New York area this past winter, Mr. Booker hit the streets with his phone and a shovel, personally answering pleas by residents posted on Twitter to dig them out. His efforts won him fans well beyond the city limits. One New Yorker wrote, "Hey @CoryBooker if you come plow my street in Brooklyn, I'll vote for you when you run for President. Bloomberg hasn't done jack."
Mr. Booker's passion for connecting extends to some high places. Last year, he attended a retreat for media and tech moguls in Idaho. While there, he fell into conversation with Facebook's Mr. Zuckerberg. The result was his unprecedented donation to Newark's school system. "This is a guy I want to invest in," Mr. Zuckerberg later recalled thinking.