Office location in relationship to Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s chambers in City Hall is a good determinate of power, access and influence.
So it’s not surprising that Baraka’s chief of staff, his brother Amiri “Middy” Baraka, has an office next to the mayor’s chamber. What might be surprising is who occupies the office on the other side of the mayor’s chamber.
Tai Cooper, who served as Baraka’s spokesperson and policy advisor during last year’s highly contentious mayoral campaign, has become one of the mayor’s most trusted and closest advisors.
As a member of the mayor’s tight inner circle, the 33-year old Cooper wields tremendous power in the state’s largest city. A recent weekday witnessed Cooper getting called constantly into meetings, shuttling between a backroom passage to Baraka's inner sanctum.
"I love Newark,” Cooper said. “I love what I do behind the scenes.”
Cooper's role as chief policy advisor is a prime example of how Baraka has elevated women into positions of prominence, including Dr. Lauren Wells, the mayor's chief education officer, Majorie Harris, the mayor's press secretary and Jennifer Kohl, senior advisor on special projects.
Cooper's office was previously occupied during the administration of Mayor Cory Booker by Matt Klapper, who is now the U.S. senator's chief of staff in Washington, D.C.
A graduate of Montclair Kimberley Academy, Rutgers University's Douglass College and New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, Cooper gained her political experience in the office of the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg's, serving as a senior projects specialist.
Cooper’s first exposure to Newark's not-for-the-faint-of-heart politics came from her father, Marshall Cooper, 67, who worked in city government for two decades as a director in the administration of former Newark Mayor Sharpe James. The two met while Marshall Cooper was a student at Weequahic High School, where James was the track coach.
“I was that nerdy kid who went with my father everywhere,” Cooper said. “When they blew up the Stella Wright projects, I was right there with my dad. I watched my dad, and I learned to love Newark through his eyes."
Loving the city is easy; helping to make it better is difficult. Cooper understands the Baraka administration faces challenges that have vexed previous administrations, from public safety, economic development, job creation and improving the quality of education for all children.
“Having worked in politics for a long time, you get to see that there is a distinction between public servants and politicians," Cooper said in reference to Baraka. “The mayor's finger is on the pulse of what the people want and what the people need. It's in his blood. He knows public service is about the people, not about the individual."
With a little more than one year in office, Baraka has begun to address the challenges. He got his wish when Cami Anderson was removed as the state-appointed schools superintendent, but in return, Gov. Christie appointed former state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, who many see as a continuation of Anderson's reign.
Baraka has also pledged to spread economic development from the downtown core to the outlying neighborhoods, especially in the South and West wards, which have yet to benefit from the increased interest in Newark.
Faced with a reduction in police, the mayor has been struggling with a persistent crime problem and last week called on the Christie administration for reinforcements.
For Cooper, however, these urban policy quagmires can be molded into opportunities as solutions are shaped and sought by city government.
“You have to have an army of supporters behind you, and you have to understand the key issues that are driving your constituents' concerns, such as public safety and education," Cooper said.
“We need different types of interventions in order to reduce crime. We have to work with our state legislators to get something on the books to increase police and firefighter residency from one year to five years,” Cooper said.
Increasing access to quality education for all Newark residents can lead to dramatic reductions in crime, she said.
“Economic development is contingent upon public safety, which is contingent upon education,” said Cooper, who lives in the city’s North Ward. “Development has to happen throughout all of Newark's neighborhoods, and not just in our central business district. This trifecta of issues all feed into each other.”