Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and a rising Democratic star, has chosen a 2014 U.S. Senate run over a challenge to Governor Chris Christie.
Booker, 43, said today in a video that he formed a committee to explore a run for the seat held by Senator Frank Lautenberg, an 88-year-old Democrat in his fifth term.
“It would be a privilege and honor to continue his legacy of service,” Booker said in the video posted on his website, referring to Lautenberg. “There are challenges in our city, in our state and in our nation.”
Christie, a 50-year-old Republican, is enjoying record approval ratings for his response to Hurricane Sandy. Booker, who spoke at his party’s national convention this year, had led the field of potential challengers to the governor, and several Democrats said he was their best hope for ousting Christie. He would be the state’s first black senator.
“He’d be a great U.S. senator because he’s intelligent and he really knows how to identify the issues,” said Assemblyman Al Coutinho, a Democrat from Newark who is close to Booker. “That’s where his skill set is. That’s where he can best serve the city of Newark and this state.”
In the video, Booker said he wants to “bring urgency” to fixing public education, legalizing same-sex marriage and mending an immigration system he said is broken. He also said he wants to “bring sanity” to U.S. gun laws.
The mayor didn’t immediately respond to a telephone call seeking comment on his announcement.
Lautenberg has been working on a disaster-relief bill after Sandy, the worst Atlantic storm on record, hit the New Jersey coast Oct. 29, costing the state about $36.9 billion, by Christie’s estimate. The senator also has been “addressing America’s broken gun laws” after Adam Lanza, 20, slaughtered 27 people, including 20 children and his mother, before killing himself in a Newtown, Connecticut, school Dec. 14, according to a statement issued by Caley Gray, a spokesman for the senator.
“This is not the time for political distractions and the senator will address politics next year,” Gray said in the statement.
Newark has received national attention since Booker and Christie appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s television show in September 2010 to announce a $100 million donation from Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg for improving Newark’s schools. Winfrey contributed to Booker’s mayoral campaign.
The donation led to a lawsuit against Newark by the Secondary Parent Council, a group of grandparents and other caregivers to school-age children, for public records that may contain information about the gift. Superior Court Judge Rachel Davidson, sitting in Essex County, yesterday ordered the city to give 36 e-mails to the group, which was seeking details of the donation’s terms. The court didn’t set a deadline.
Booker has said the e-mails are of no substance.
Among Wall Streeters who have backed Booker are Pershing Square Capital Management LP founder Bill Ackman, retired hedge fund manager Julian Robertson and Omega Advisors Inc.’s Leon Cooperman.
Cooperman, who lived for 40 years in the Newark suburb of Short Hills and gave more than $5 million to renovate 13 city parks, said today by e-mail that he resides in Florida now and declined to comment on Booker’s plans.
Booker, a Stanford University and Yale Law School graduate, is a frequent Twitter user with 1.3 million followers. He has sent more than 23,000 messages about everything from responding to residents’ complaints about garbage to sending inspirational quotes about being a leader.
He gained national attention for rushing into a burning building to rescue his next-door neighbor in April, and living on food stamps for a week this month to show the difficulty of relying on the U.S. supplemental nutrition assistance program.
Now, he’ll have to persuade Lautenberg, who hasn’t said whether he plans to run again or retire, to step aside.
Lautenberg is “not going away,” said Julie Roginsky, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Democratic Governor Jon Corzine. The senator is a tough fighter and, even at his age, will prove a formidable foe, she said.
“A generation of politicians have forgotten that at their own peril,” she said before Booker’s announcement.
A November survey from Quinnipiac University shows Booker’s statewide appeal. He would dominate a hypothetical Democratic primary for governor with 41 percent of the vote, followed by former acting Governor Richard Codey with 12 percent, according to the poll. No other candidate topped 4 percent.
Democrats had hoped with Booker in the race against Christie, the party would rally around a marquee politician who would head off a competitive primary and provide coattails for candidates in local races. The governor has said he’ll seek re-election next year.
Booker trailed Christie by 18 percentage points in a potential match-up, according to the poll from Quinnipiac in Hamden, Connecticut. Before Sandy, the governor bested Booker by 4 percentage points in a similar head-to-head survey.
“I am disappointed that Mayor Booker has chosen not to seek the nomination for New Jersey governor,” John Wisniewski, a Sayreville assemblyman and chairman of the Democratic State Committee, said in a statement.
The poll’s list of potential Democratic challengers also included Barbara Buono, a senator from Metuchen who was the first to declare her candidacy; Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald of Cherry Hill; and Wisniewski, who said Dec. 8 that he won’t run.
Greenwald said in an interview that he’s leaning toward remaining in the Assembly. Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford, said before the mayor’s announcement that he was considering a run if Booker passed. He didn’t immediately respond to a telephone call seeking comment.
Booker said today he plans to consult with Lautenberg in the process of starting the run.
Lautenberg had retired from politics in 2000 and Democrats brought him back in 2002 after Democratic U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli abandoned his campaign amid ethics complaints.
If Booker gets the Senate nomination, he’ll win, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville.
“We elect Republican governors all the time,” he said. “We don’t elect Republican U.S. senators.”
Booker, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England, took over in 2006 from former Mayor Sharpe James, a Democrat who held the office for 20 years. James later went to federal prison for helping a woman profit off city land deals.
Booker served as co-chairman of the platform committee for the Democratic National Convention in September. He was the choice of more than half, 59 percent, of party primary voters to replace Lautenberg, according to a Nov. 29 survey released by Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, North Carolina. Only 36 percent of that group said Lautenberg should seek re-election.