Newark Mayor Cory Booker heads into tomorrow’s special-election primary with a commanding lead among Democrats for a U.S. Senate seat after rivals failed to overcome his celebrity and money advantage in the 10-week campaign.
The well-known leader of New Jersey’s most populous city is favored to win the primary as well as the Oct. 16 special election for the seat left open by the June death of Senator Frank Lautenberg. Booker can “start looking for a Washington apartment,” Quinnipiac University pollster Maurice Carroll said after an Aug. 7 survey showed the mayor dominating the race.
Booker’s fundraising machine has collected $8.6 million and the 44-year-old has won national name recognition as he looks beyond the special election and concentrates on winning a full six-year term in 2014. Even his recent disclosure that he became an Internet millionaire last year -- an acknowledgment that some say is at odds with his image as someone who has lived among the poor -- isn’t seen as a political obstacle.
“Cory Booker is a rock star and that’s great for a candidate, but sooner or later rock stars get caught doing something they shouldn’t do, and to some people this seems like something he shouldn’t have done,” said Matthew Hale, who teaches politics at Seton Hall University in South Orange. “I still see him winning.”
Booker’s Democratic challengers include two veteran congressmen -- Representatives Frank Pallone and Rush Holt --and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, the first black woman to lead a legislative chamber in New Jersey. The three have struggled to gain traction with voters, as Booker avoided run-ins and focused on raising money.
A Rhodes Scholar and Stanford University and Yale Law School graduate, Booker grew up in the northern New Jersey suburb of Harrington Park. In 1996, he moved to Newark, where 26 percent of residents live in poverty, compared with 9.4 percent statewide. The city has struggled to recover from 1967 race riots that left 26 people dead and turned neighborhoods into ruins.
Booker won the mayor’s office in 2006 and again in 2010. His efforts to foster development and reduce crime have attracted investments from Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who pledged $100 million to the city’s schools, as well as hedge-fund managers including Bill Ackman and Leon Cooperman.
The mayor 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 federal aid program. A frequent Twitter Inc. user, Booker has 1.4 million followers on the company’s website. He spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and helped lead its platform committee.
State Democratic Party leaders had wanted Booker to challenge Governor Chris Christie, a Republican seeking re-election in November. Instead, the mayor said in December that he would explore a 2014 Senate run.
Lautenberg, who didn’t plan to seek a sixth term next year, died June 3 of complications from viral pneumonia. He was 89. Christie, 50, set the schedule to fill the seat, generating criticism from Democrats who said the October vote would cost the state $12 million and was politically motivated. The governor defended it as needed to quickly replace Lautenberg.
Booker’s drive raised $8.6 million as of July 24, according to Federal Election Commission reports and his campaign. Pallone had $3.67 million in his accounts, mostly from the transfer of surplus congressional campaign funds. Holt reported $1.46 million on hand while Oliver had just $11,690.
The mayor was supported by 54 percent of likely primary voters surveyed by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac, followed by Pallone with 17 percent; Holt, 15 percent and Oliver, 5 percent, in a poll released Aug. 7. In a special-election matchup, Booker beat Republican Steve Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota, New Jersey, 54 percent to 29 percent. State voters haven’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972.
In an Aug. 1 display of confidence, Booker skipped a debate in Newark for a fundraiser hosted by Oprah Winfrey at a Jersey City restaurant on the Hudson River waterfront.
“It’s August and how many people are really paying attention -- that’s the reality,” said state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford. “We had very good candidates, but Cory’s name recognition and his social-media presence put him way out in front of everybody.”
The Democratic runoff grew testier in its final week as rivals took shots during the last debate at Booker’s frequent travels for speaking engagements, his ties to Wall Streeters and his stake in an Internet startup that he co-founded last year.
He spent the final day of the campaign today on a bus tour of senior centers in southern New Jersey, where he roused a crowd of about 150 senior citizens in Camden with lines such as “the power of the people is greater than the people in power.” He held similar events in Cherry Hill, Willingboro and Trenton. Tonight he’s scheduled to hold a rally in Newark with “Desperate Housewives” actress Eva Longoria.
Booker’s campaign had reported earnings of $1.3 million from speeches, noting that he had given almost $620,000 to charity and paid $476,000 in taxes since 2008. He amended his Senate filing last month to reflect a $1 million to $5 million interest in Waywire LLC, a New York-based company that runs a video-sharing website. He submitted a similar report with Newark officials Aug. 6, a week before tomorrow’s primary.
“The mayor talks about how he’s hands-on, but he’s not even in Newark at least 20 percent of the time and now he’s got this new Internet startup,” Pallone said in an Aug. 8 debate.
Pallone, who first won his congressional seat in a 1988 special election, helped lead passage of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and has championed environmental-protection initiatives. His Senate campaign was endorsed by Lautenberg family members, who called him a “workhorse, not a showhorse.”
Booker has said he wouldn’t attack his fellow Democrats during the primary campaign. His advertisements never mentioned his opponents.
“He’s one of the more dynamic and clear voices out there among America’s mayors,” said Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who spent Aug. 8 promoting Booker’s candidacy among voters in Trenton and Paterson.