N.J. Democrats Struggle to Crawl Out From Booker’s Shadow

Newark Mayor Cory Booker dabbed sweat beading his forehead, standing outside a home in New Jersey’s biggest city this week as he called for action to ease foreclosures. Then the three other Democratic contenders in a shortened U.S. Senate primary each got a chance to speak.

When candidate Sheila Oliver, the state Assembly speaker, went to a June 19 rally in East Orange supporting a higher minimum wage, Booker was there, too. At a June 22 gay-rights walk through Montclair, candidates Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, both congressmen, found themselves outflanked by Booker, who once put a marriage-equality symbol on his Twitter.com page.

As the four Senate hopefuls make joint appearances and avoid taking potshots at each other, Oliver, Pallone and Holt haven’t gained traction among voters against Booker. A poll from Quinnipiac University this week showed 52 percent back the mayor. Asked about the other candidates, 63 percent or more said they don’t know enough about them to even form an opinion.

“It’s like Gilligan’s Island right now -- Cory Booker and the rest,” said Patrick Murray, the Monmouth University polling institute director in West Long Branch, referring to the 1960s television comedy. “They’re just letting Booker have the spotlight to himself here.”

Replacing Lautenberg

Booker, 44, is considered a shoo-in for the seat long held by Frank Lautenberg, a five-term Democrat who died in office June 3. Governor Chris Christie, a Republican seeking a second term in November, set an Aug. 13 primary vote and an Oct. 16 general election for the Senate seat, and picked a temporary replacement, Jeffrey Chiesa, a Republican who isn’t running.

Christie’s move prompted an unsuccessful court challenge seeking to push the final vote to the Nov. 5 general election, which would include all 120 seats in the state Assembly and Senate. Democrats, who control the legislature, said the governor sought to boost his own chances in November by keeping the popular Booker from the top of the ballot.

The Newark mayor, a sometime Christie ally, dominated in the Quinnipiac Senate survey, with Pallone his nearest rival at 10 percent. Holt got support from 8 percent in the poll while Oliver stood at 3 percent, with 26 percent undecided. The survey of 400 Democrats from the Hamden, Connecticut-based school had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.4 percentage points.

‘Different Lenses’

Oliver, 60, of East Orange, said the race is still in its nascent phase because of the shortened timeframe. For now, the four are focused on common “Democratic issues,” she said. As the primary nears, she said she expects their differences in dealing with those concerns to become more apparent.

“I think you’ll see it in a couple of weeks,” she said after the July 9 foreclosure event in Newark. “While we have an interest in some of the same issues that are dealt with at a federal level, I think that we have different lenses by which we view those problems and how you can address them.”

Booker 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. A Rhodes Scholar and Yale University-educated lawyer who moved to Newark in 1996, he spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and helped lead its platform committee.

A frequent user of Twitter Inc.’s website, Booker has 1.3 million followers on it and has sent more than 29,000 messages, from inspirational quotes to responses to residents’ complaints. His efforts to turn around Newark have attracted support from Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and hedge-fund leaders including Bill Ackman and Leon Cooperman.

Booker raised $4.6 million in the second quarter from more than 7,000 donors, including almost 5,000 from out of state, Addisu Demissie, his campaign spokesman, said today in a statement. He’s garnered a total of $6.5 million so far. The other candidates haven’t disclosed fundraising totals.

Party Unity

Highlighting common issues and appearing together isn’t a bad plan for the Democratic Senate candidates, Booker said.

“I think we all are going to be communicating directly with voters,” he said. “I spent the entire weekend having substantive conversations, meeting with groups of pastors, meeting with groups of citizens and we’re all going to be doing that in this campaign.”

Pallone, 61, has faulted rivals for not signing a pledge against special-interest money in the campaign and singled out Booker for agreeing to only two debates, though he has never criticized their policy positions.

Booker Shunned

Lautenberg’s family shunned Booker this week by endorsing Pallone, who was first elected to Congress in 1988.

“Frank Pallone, like our Frank, will put in the hours and hard work necessary to fight for New Jersey in the Senate,” the family said in a July 8 statement. “Frank Pallone knows that gimmicks and celebrity status won’t get you very far in the real battles that Democrats face in the future.”

State Democratic Party leaders had wanted the mayor to challenge Christie, whose approval ratings soared after his response to Hurricane Sandy last year. Instead, Booker said in December that he would explore a Senate run. Lautenberg, who by then hadn’t said whether he would seek a sixth term in 2014, died of complications from viral pneumonia at the age of 89.

Party Loyalty

With Booker’s decision not to take on Christie, state Senator Barbara Buono became the governor’s challenger. Buono, a 59-year-old Metuchen lawyer, trails Christie by 32 percentage points, according to a July 10 Quinnipiac poll.

All four Democrats in the Senate race said the joint appearances have been an important show of party loyalties.

“I’d like to see more opportunities where we are together and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve asked that we have more debates,” Pallone said. “When we get together and can show where we have our similarities and our differences, I think that’s the most important thing leading up to this election.”

The novelty of a special election and the truncated timeframe are partly behind the inability of Democrats to distinguish themselves, Monmouth University’s Murray said.

“We have a crazy election because the governor gave us a crazy election,” he said.

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