Cory Booker joins the U.S. Senate with one year to show New Jersey voters he can transition from being mayor of Newark, where he charmed Wall Street into the start of an economic and philanthropic revival.
The 44-year-old Democrat, who won an Oct. 16 special election to complete the term of the late Frank Lautenberg, will be sworn in tomorrow at the U.S. Capitol. He takes office amid partisan fights over federal spending, with an aim to show a record of accomplishment as he campaigns for a full term in 2014.
“It’s going to be kind of bewildering for him,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “He had his own corner grocery store in Newark whereas here he’s basically going to be in competition with 99 colleagues for media attention.”
Booker beat Republican Tea Party candidate Steven Lonegan by 11 percentage points to become the state’s first black U.S. Senator and return Democrats to a 55-45 majority. A rising star in his party, Booker cast himself as a new kind of lawmaker who would bring change to Washington.
His campaign seized on Lonegan’s support for Republican politicians including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who he blamed for this month’s 16-day partial government shutdown. Still, Booker won by less than half the margin projected by polls in August after Lonegan accused him of being more focused on gaining the national spotlight than on New Jersey.
A Rhodes Scholar and Yale University-educated lawyer who moved to Newark in 1996, Booker spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and helped lead its platform committee. He gained national attention last year for saving a neighbor from a fire and for living on food stamps for a week to show the difficulty of relying on the government-assistance program.
His election victory capped a nine-week campaign during which Booker raised $11.8 million through September, more than seven times Lonegan’s $1.6 million. Booker accepted contributions for four races at one time, which is permissible by law, with donations of at least $10,000 from more than 150 people, including Christy R. Walton, the world’s richest woman; Christopher Drake Heinz, an heir to the H.J. Heinz ketchup fortune; and cosmetics company founder Bobbi Brown.
The Senate contest ended calls from some Democrats for Booker to challenge Republican Governor Chris Christie’s re-election bid on Nov. 5. Christie, who scheduled the special Senate election three weeks before his own, led his Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono, by 33 percentage points in an Oct. 29 Quinnipiac University poll.
Booker, who was endorsed by President Barack Obama, and Christie, who hasn’t ruled out running for president in 2016, have worked together in New Jersey on education policies. The two appeared together in 2010 on Oprah Winfrey’s television show to announce a $100 million donation from Facebook Inc. (FB) co-founder Mark Zuckerberg for improving Newark’s schools. Zuckerberg, 29, has contributed to both politicians’ campaigns.
On Oct. 28, Booker began a sort of farewell tour in Newark, New Jersey’s most populous city. He joined Christie, 51, and other politicians for a statue dedication. He then attended a ribbon-cutting for a weight room at a local recreation center, where he joked that he was “yesterday’s news” and introduced acting mayor and City Council President Luis Quintana as the man in charge.
Standing beside his black city-owned SUV after the event, Booker said he’s aware of moving to the bottom of the Senate’s pecking order.
“In D.C., look, I’m one senator in 100 and I’m number 100 in seniority,” he said. “I might even be 101 in seniority. So I know those challenges, but I’m going down there with the experience of bringing people together in uncommon coalitions to create uncommon progress.”
Julien Neals, Newark’s business administrator, said Booker’s ability to bring disparate groups to a consensus drove “99 percent” of the efforts that were successful in Newark during his term.
“He’s going to do tremendously,” Neals said. “It’s his understanding of the political process: how you can get consensus and win people over with the right thing. He’s going to continue to do this on a grand scale.”
State Senator Ron Rice, a frequent Booker critic who was deputy mayor for his predecessor, Sharpe James, said Booker is leaving Newark without lasting fiscal improvement, and the city doesn’t have enough police officers. He pointed to Booker’s reliance on outside funding and support for charter schools, a model pushed by financial industry figures as a way to force change in under-performing classrooms.
“He’s part of the privatization movement,” Rice said in a telephone interview. “He’s part of the hedge-fund people. He can’t get away from them. If he lives to be 100 he’s not going to be his own person.”
Booker’s efforts to add development and reduce crime in Newark lured investments from Nicolas Berggruen, chairman of Manhattan-based private-equity firm Berggruen Holdings Inc., who is among the backers of Teachers Village, a $150 million development downtown. Hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman, founder of New York-based Pershing Square Group LLC, donated millions of dollars for security cameras and other law-enforcement tools.
Booker said such financial support has helped Newark fight crime and poverty that took root after the 1967 race riots left 26 dead and led people to flee to the suburbs. He said he’ll seek to expand such alliances across New Jersey.
“A lot of our progress here is because of public-private partnerships and just innovative, creative thinking,” he said. “I’m going to be working for the whole state, and so I’m going to be focused on doing things right now, in New Jersey, and that means spreading a lot of the innovative things we’ve been doing here in Newark.”
Booker declined to say prior to taking office what legislation he plans to introduce. Anti-poverty initiatives will be one focus, he said. His election brings Senate Democrats one seat closer to the 60-vote threshold needed to advance most major legislation.
Party leaders typically help a newcomer like Booker with committee assignments and legislation “that hopefully moves,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, a Washington-based nonpartisan newsletter that tracks federal and state elections.
“He’ll get some help -- they’re well aware that he’s got to run” for a full term, Duffy said.
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