South Carolina

What ‘rock star’ mayor Cory Booker has to say to SC’s struggling small towns

U.S. Senator Cory Booker feels a connection with South Carolina

U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey spoke to an audience at Allen University about the midterm elections Thursday Oct. 18, 2018, in Columbia, SC.
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U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey spoke to an audience at Allen University about the midterm elections Thursday Oct. 18, 2018, in Columbia, SC.

Mayor Gerald Wright remembers when Denmark was a booming place, relatively speaking.

The small city in Bamberg County hosted timber processing and manufacturing operations that offered steady employment to local residents. But like other mill towns in South Carolina, the city has seen major employers shed workers or close their doors.

Small towns like Denmark have found a somewhat paradoxical champion in U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who made Denmark one of his first stops after he announced he’s running for president in 2020.

As the one-time mayor of big-city Newark, N.J., Booker has campaigned in South Carolina by focusing on small towns and rural communities in this first-in-the-South primary state. He’s touting his experience in New Jersey’s largest city as a guide to what a Booker administration could do for other struggling municipalities.

Booker will continue that focus later this week when he campaigns in Union, Clarendon and Hampton counties, his campaign has announced.

“When I was Newark’s mayor, we had 60 years of population decline and people leaving our urban base,” Booker said in an exclusive interview with The State. “Now, Newark has 6 percent of the state’s population, and one out of every three building permits are going on in the city of Newark.”

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Denmark might hope for a similar transformation. Just last month, the city’s Masonite plant, which manufactured doors, announced it would cease operations later this year and offer severance packages to its 110 employees.

Wright says that trend has left the city without ample opportunities for Denmark’s 3,500 residents to find other jobs.

“They all have to commute to other places in order to work,” Wright said.

Going from city hall to the White House might seem like a leap, but speaking to The State recently, Booker says his experience in the big New Jersey city where he was mayor for seven years showed him how to help smaller South Carolina communities that are struggling with similar challenges.

“I was there in rural areas and saw some of the great historically black colleges and universities,” or HBCUs, Booker said. “I saw that they’re trying to close some of our rural hospitals that are some of the main drivers of economic opportunity and jobs.”

Booker wants to “double down” on support for struggling HBCUs, and push for the expansion of Medicaid in states like South Carolina that have resisted the move in order to bolster rural health care services.

“Those are anchors of economic development that you can build upon,” he said.

Local elections can be a key source of support for national candidates running in South Carolina. In 2016, Hillary Clinton amassed a list of 27 African-American mayors supporting her campaign against Bernie Sanders, including Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is considered a coveted endorsement for any Democrat running this time around.

Mayors who talked to The State agree smaller communities in South Carolina face challenges, and Denmark has been emblematic of those challenges. In addition to its lack of major employers, the city’s local technical college, Denmark Tech, has seen enrollment plunge 82 percent since 2008. The school has filed a lawsuit against the state over its financing amid calls for it to be merged into Orangeburg-Calhoun Tech 30 miles away or demoted to a trade school.

The city has also been criticized for its use of an unapproved chemical in Denmark’s drinking water, one of several small communities that struggle to maintain safe drinking water in South Carolina.

Mayor Stephen Wukela of Florence said his city was unable to get any federal assistance for what turned into a $100 million regional wastewater treatment facility. The facility was ultimately funded through bonding, increased rates and some fortuitous growth.

“Many, many communities surrounding Florence and the Pee Dee can’t do that,” Wukela said, saying the wastewater example is typical of Washington’s “inactivity” when it comes to meeting local needs. “This was something to critical to the community, and they played no role at all.”

Wastewater rather than drinking water is an increasing concern for local governments, said Scott Slatton with the Municipal Association of South Carolina, because smaller communities can struggle to manage or staff the agencies. He cited a sewage spill in the town of Hollywood that poured into the Stono River for two months before workers could identify where the leak was occurring.

“These systems are very expensive to maintain, and many of them are old,” Slatton said. “Because of that, maintenance is often neglected.”

While he isn’t making any endorsements at this time, Wukela says it’s not a stretch to argue successfully running a big city could prepare someone for higher executive office.

“Because cities are kind of on their own, you need to have an independent, inventive coalition to get things done,” he said. “Unlike in Washington or to some extent Columbia, where you can engage in political rhetoric and walk away, we have to produce results. So to that extent I can agree with what Sen. Booker is saying.”

The ‘Supermayor’

Booker was the mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013, when he won a special election to the U.S. Senate. He gained a national profile while he helmed the struggling city, becoming known as the mayor who personally shoveled residents’ driveways after a snowstorm. He was called a “rock star” and a “supermayor.”

Others have questioned Booker’s success at the local level. The local news site points out that crime and unemployment rates remain high in Newark. The city was forced to lay off police officers during a budget crunch, and several employees of the city’s water treatment agency were later indicted for misuse of public funds.

But Booker has pointed to the growth and new businesses in the city during his time in office, and his focus on education reform that netted a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Booker has made an effort to focus on smaller towns in his campaign swings through South Carolina so far. He started his S.C. campaign with an appearance in Fairfield County before speaking at Denmark’s Voorhees College. He later held a town hall televised on CNN in Orangeburg.

“I come from a community – it happens to be an inner-city community – that like rural areas is too often looked down upon or overlooked,” Booker said. “I have a chip on my shoulder for communities that don’t get respect, nor do they get the investment that they need.

“So we’ll put front and center a rural agenda that deals with rural health care and hospitals, rural schools that are struggling, on getting rural infrastructure from broadband to roads.”

Denmark has benefited from federal funding. The city has seen improvements to its downtown streetscape with help from a federal grant, Wright said. In January, Denmark opened a stand-alone emergency medical center, the county’s only local health service after Bamberg’s full-service hospital closed its doors in 2012.

Wright says the area has also benefited from U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn’s 10-20-30 funding plan included in the 2010 stimulus package. That plan targets 10 percent of a program’s funding to areas where 20 percent of the population has lived in poverty for 30 years or more. Booker has supported Clyburn’s efforts to expand the funding formula to more federal programs.

But the Denmark mayor — who couldn’t attend Booker’s talk at Voorhees in February — is skeptical that promises from presidential candidates today will do much to turn around his city.

“He doesn’t have a monopoly on understanding deprive areas need help,” Wright said. “They’ve all been talking about it all the time. That doesn’t always translate into meaningful change.”

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