When Cory Booker Goes to Washington
August 21, 2013
Aug 21, 2013
4 Min read time
Few were surprised by Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s August 13 victory in the Democratic primary to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the late Frank Lautenberg. With high name recognition, the Midas touch for fundraising, and a truncated election cycle that favors the best-known candidates, Booker had all of the structural advantages in this campaign.
A Booker general election victory in October would be historic for a number of reasons. If he wins, he will become New Jersey’s first African American senator and only the ninth black senator in American history. (Currently, there is one other black senator: South Carolina Republican Tim Scott.) And New Jersey, whose senior senator is Robert Menendez, will become the first state ever to have two senators of color serving simultaneously. Booker’s ascent would help make the Senate look more like America. That is not a panacea for racial inequality and tension, but it is a good thing.
Booker’s ease in navigating our increasingly diverse country has served him well. He is simultaneously the son of civil rights–era foot soldiers and the product of white, middle-class suburbia. Though he is a Baptist, he quotes the Buddha, has studied with Hindu gurus, practices yoga and meditation, and has a deep connection with Jews and Judaism. He studied Spanish in Ecuador so he could more effectively communicate with his Latino constituents. And though gospel artists might serenade him, as Bebe Winans did at his 2006 inaugural party, in true Jersey fashion, in 2001 he readily admitted to a friend of mine in 2001 that “Bon Jovi rocks!”
This cultural fluency allows Booker to transcend the stereotype that black politicians care only about “black issues which generates the crossover appeal that wins statewide office. Black politicians seeking statewide or national office—from President Obama to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder—work diligently to cultivate support outside the African American community. Without it, they would lose.
However, the strategy is not without its downsides. As President Obama has found, black politicians who play it safe on racial issues can garner the sharpest criticism from black elites, who expect them to risk reelection by challenging the racial status quo. Booker has long encountered this kind of scorn. During his first, unsuccessful, mayoral campaign, his predecessor labeled him insufficiently black. And after he took his seat in City Hall, he faced criticism for not appointing enough blacks or native Newarkers to high-profile positions within his administration. Members of Newark’s black political establishment have long voiced their suspicion that Booker ran for mayor as a stepping stone to statewide office, not to govern and improve the city. During the short general-election campaign, Booker’s opponent, Republican nominee Steve Lonegan, will likely resurrect the accusation that Booker is all show and little substance.
Yet he has weathered the criticism and professional jealousy. As South Jersey political boss George Norcross once predicted, concerns about Booker’s street credibility in Newark would likely diminish as he moved into higher office. For now, Norcross appears to be correct. Booker easily carried his home county with 67 percent of the vote. And Lonegan will probably fall short, as his strident rhetoric is out of sync with the values of many New Jerseyans, who haven’t elected a Republican to the Senate in more than 40 years. A poll released yesterday by Monmouth University and the Asbury Park Press shows Booker with a sixteen-point edge over Lonegan.
Should he win the Senate race, Booker will have to adjust his style to fit the demands of his new office. He has already vowed to be an unconventional senator who starts difficult dialogues. In a chamber whose collective bully pulpit has grown in recent years, Booker will likely have opportunities to take controversial public stands on issues. But he may find that he can’t get away with so much celebrity hobnobbing and time away from his office, activities that have provoked resentment in Newark (despite Booker’s protests that such hobnobbing has generated millions of dollars in philanthropic support for the city). He may want to take a page from the playbooks of other renowned or telegenic new senators, such Hillary Clinton or John Edwards, who played down their fame and initially focused on their committee work.
Booker will also need to prepare for a partisan dynamic he has never faced before. Thus far his biggest political challenges have come from his own party and racial group. Should he win in October, Booker will join the most polarized national legislature of the last century and a half. And, for the first time, he will have to work with Republicans who are far more ideological than New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or the conservatives in the state legislature. Booker has genuine interest in bipartisanship, but it will be tough to put his rhetoric about reconciliation and unity into action. There will be obstacles and failures.
Still, as a senator, Booker will be in a position to elevate the discourse on issues that are important to him and his constituents, such as immigration reform, criminal justice reform, and gender equity. Here, his national profile and prodigious oratory will serve him well. While there is much speculation that Booker will run for governor of New Jersey or even president in a few years, if he makes it to the Senate and chooses to stay, he will have a chance to be a real player.
Photograph: Newark Mayor Cory Booker models a stuffed penguin at Affilliate Summit East, 2008 / Tris Hussey
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August 21, 2013
4 Min read time