NEWARK, NJ - The former mayor of Newark who tossed his hat in the 2020 presidential election today said there should be fewer corporate tax breaks and more investment in infrastructure to address elevated lead levels in Newark and around the county.
Booker, who was mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013, earlier this morning announced he would seek the presidency in 2020. He held a press conference this afternoon at his Central Ward home in Newark, a city which has been cited four times since 2017 for increased levels of lead in residents’ water.
“Here in Newark, down in Camden, kids are drinking out of bottled water because of the lead in their pipes," Booker said when asked about lead. "We have a nation where there's hundreds of places where it seems to be easier to find unleaded gasoline than unleaded water."
The current mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka, and other city and state officials are being sued by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The environmental group alleges officials violated federal regulations that caused lead levels to increase in the city.
The NRDC, which filed suit in June 2018, initially asked a federal judge to order deliveries of bottled water or water filters. The city didn't begin to distribute filters until October, when the results of a draft report were made public and showed that the city’s corrosion control method had become ineffective at preventing lead from leaching off from residents' pipes.
Bottled water has not been distributed by the city thus far.
Top city water department officials may have known eight months prior to the start of the filter distribution program that an ineffective corrosion control inhibitor was causing lead levels to rise, according to an email cited in the NRDC’s federal lawsuit. The city also repeatedly said Newark's water was "absolutely safe to drink" around the time the NRDC filed its lawsuit.
Although Booker today initially said people should be "uncompromising in talking about justice and holding people accountable," he later added that "a lot of this is not about pointing fingers.”
Baraka has not released a public statement yet about Booker's bid for president.
Although Baraka was once an outspoken critic of Booker when he served as mayor, the two have since become supportive of each other in their plight against President Donald Trump. Baraka came out in support of Booker in October when Trump said the U.S. senator "ran Newark, New Jersey into the ground” when he was mayor.
Baraka, who was first elected mayor in 2014, penned a letter to Trump last month demanding him to repair the nation's deteriorated infrastructure. Booker, standing in Newark today, said there should be more investment in infrastructure.
“We all have to start taking responsibility because it seems like we're more eager to do something like giving tax cuts to corporations … as opposed to investing in the infrastructure that will keep our children safe and strong,” Booker said.
“The most valuable natural resource this country has is not oil or gas or coal, it’s the genius of our children. If we're going to compete in a 21st-century knowledge-based economy we should all be morally outraged -- outraged -- at so many of our children's minds being addled by lead levels. That should tear at the heart of all of us.”
Booker first got his start in Newark politics as a Central Ward councilman in 1998. Today, he said one of the reasons he got involved in politics was because of a lead paint crisis Newark was having around the time he became a councilman.
One of the people who was a key player in Booker's mayoral administration will assist him his run for president.
Modia Butler served as Booker’s chief of staff when he was mayor, and he’s stuck by lawmaker’s side ever since then. He will now serve as senior strategist on Booker's 2020 presidential campaign.
Butler is also a partner in Mercury Public Affairs, a public affairs firm the city retained last month with a six-month contract worth up to $225,000 to handle messaging surrounding the lead issue.
A message left with Mercury Public Affairs’ Westfield office seeking comment from Butler was not returned.
The Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corp. was a nonprofit that was in charge of water treatment for the city during Booker’s tenure as mayor. The organization dissolved in 2013 and was beleaguered with corruption.
The city’s Department of Water and Sewer Utilities began handling treatment after the Watershed Conservation and Development Corp. dissolved.