“This is going to be sick,” a Senate staffer gleefully told his companion as they settled in to watch two of Washington’s most junior senators speak at the Newseum across from the U.S. Capitol. Prison reform, the topic of the discussion, is a noble cause for sure, but that’s not what filled the seats on a recent stormy summer night. As one lobbyist in the hall announced, they were “just here for the show”: the first joint appearance by Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, and Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, Washington’s newest odd couple.
The two politicians appear to have little in common except, perhaps, the ambition to be president someday. One is a Texas-reared libertarian and longtime antitax activist who built a thriving ophthalmology practice before becoming a standard-bearer of the Tea Party movement. The other is an Ivy League-educated Rhodes Scholar, beloved by progressives, who built his political career in the postindustrial wasteland of Newark, where he was a councilman and then mayor. “I’m worried who’s Felix and who’s Oscar,” Booker joked at the Newseum event, organized by Politico and hosted by Mike Allen, the capital’s chief gossip.
In recent weeks the freshman legislators have established a close working relationship that harks back to a long-ago era of political cooperation on Capitol Hill. In June they teamed up to offer an appropriations amendment that would prohibit the Department of Justice from spending money to pursue users of medical marijuana in states where it’s legal. This month they announced a plan to introduce joint legislation, the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act, or Redeem, that would limit the solitary confinement of minors, restore some felons’ eligibility for government benefits, and make it easier for people to clear their criminal records.
Both men are iconoclasts whose celebrity makes it easier for them to transcend the boundaries of partisan politics. Neither have the committee assignments that come with seniority, but they have what every senator wants: regular attention from national media, robust followings on Twitter, and committed support networks beyond the borders of their home states. That sets them free to pursue the points of overlap between their otherwise divergent ideologies.
“I think they share kind of a libertarian bent,” says Ben Karp, a friend of Booker’s from Yale. In Newark, Booker drew criticism from liberal allies for embracing charter schools and voucher programs advocated by libertarians. He also championed “enterprise zones,” a free-market approach to solving urban blight credited to the late Jack Kemp, a hard-core supply-sider and occasional Republican presidential contender who helped raise money for Booker’s first mayoral campaign. Paul has been willing to depart from the conservative agenda to highlight the toll decades of harsh criminal penalties have had on blacks and Latinos. “I think he doesn’t want to be trapped in the box of one party so much,” Paul says, “and I’m the same way.”
Their alliance dates to Booker’s swearing-in last October, after he won a special election for the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Frank Lautenberg in June 2013. Although Paul actively campaigned for Booker’s Republican opponent, Booker says that once he arrived in Washington, Paul was one of the first people to shake his hand. “He said something to me like, ‘I heard you mention me during your campaign around drug policy issues, you know, so we should talk about working together,’ ” Booker recalls.
For Booker, an attention-grabbing partnership with an idiosyncratic Republican is a good way to establish himself as a serious politician. Kemp isn’t his only hero in the GOP: Two days after the Redeem Act was announced, Booker spotted his colleague Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, in the Capitol building and told reporters and bystanders how much he admired Hatch’s long history of collaboration with Democrats on issues such as providing health insurance to children. “What he did with Ted Kennedy is legendary,” Booker declared.
Redeem ultimately may benefit Paul, widely expected to run for president in 2016, more than Booker. One of the provisions in the bill would partially roll back the 1996 welfare reform bill’s ban on extending benefits for those with past drug convictions. “I think the Republican Party hasn’t done very well with African American voters, and I want to change the image of the party,” Paul says. The bill is tailored to appeal to Paul’s base of white voters, too. “I can go to the most conservative Christian evangelical audience and say, ‘Look, our religion is about redemption. You know, why shouldn’t the law allow people a second chance?’ ” Rather than restricting companies’ use of background checks in considering job applicants, as some cities have done, Redeem restricts what information the government can provide on people’s backgrounds. Booker says the bill was “absolutely” crafted to make it easier to win over conservatives.
The pair may author a standalone bill addressing prosecution of medical marijuana users, and Paul says they hope to soon introduce a piece of legislation that would make certain nonviolent crimes misdemeanors rather than felonies. Whatever the legislative outcome, they both intend to exploit any opportunities their partnership can offer. “I’m just wondering if we can get a reality show,” Paul joked at the Newseum event, “and whether Ethics will allow us to collect any compensation from it.”