By Charles D. Ellison of the Philadelphia Tribune
At one point, Newark Mayor Corey Booker’s meteoric political rise seemed unstoppable when he ended up running from his security detail into a burning house to save its elderly resident. No contemporary American politician could compete with optics as legendary as that, and many commentators were overheard chattering on air and in cable TV green rooms about how Booker made other lawmakers look like “chumps.”
But fast forward through one miserable misfire on Meet the Press and a subsequent backseat during Superstorm Sandy, and the Booker brand hit its ceiling. Stories of the Twitter-happy mayor dashing into danger were distant memories. Booker found himself, his social media addiction and voracious appetite for national coverage under newfound scrutiny.
Booker is by no means a stranger to controversy. A fast-talking, telegenic mix of great debater and policy wonk, Booker rolls with the rhetorical punches with legendary flair. And while his detractors may be many, the young Newark mayor — accused of everything from being a media hound to serving as a gentrification enabler for aging white yuppies attempting to transform urban North Jersey — believes he’s changed the troubled city for the better.
There is an emerging skepticism surrounding Booker’s new political project: running for the U.S. Senate. It will be a peculiar and fascinating spectacle to watch in 2014, as Booker may be locked in one of the nastiest intra-state political battles in recent years. While the candidate field is still taking shape, the tension between Booker’s national star power and his very complicated relationship with his home state pose challenges for the man who could well become the first African American elected to the Senate since Barack Obama in 2004.
Comparisons to President Obama aside, Booker must first navigate a treacherous maze of Jersey politicians, giant egos and prickly voters who’ve made the Garden State read like a pulpy political thriller. When talking off the record with many Jersey politicos, there is a sense that Booker has very little in terms of a home-bred political base. While certainly the most famous Black politician out of New Jersey, he is not well liked by many in the state’s crowded Black political establishment.
“Corey has issues,” smirked one ranking Jersey elected official, speaking candidly on the subject. “And he needs to recognize that effective communication is not all about Twitter.”
Booker, however, is no ring-kisser — something that is known to irk many old guard politicos who spurn his new school approach. This will be a significant test in two ways. His ability to win the Senate seat now held by 89-year-old incumbent Frank Lautenberg will hinge on how he manages his relationship with an entrenched political machine. Running statewide as a Black candidate will require pulling together a solid majority of African Americans, a population estimated at 14 percent in Jersey.
Yet, his relationship with African Americans in places like Newark is complex. It took two tries before he was able to unseat former Mayor Sharpe James, the longtime “Black King of Newark” who ruled the city with a political iron fist, until finally succumbing to corruption charges and jail time. And many in the city’s Black political class, which for years operated on a civil rights model, see Booker’s agenda of charter schools and urban economic development as code for making the majority Black city more amenable to white interests.
Meanwhile, powerful State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a mainstay Black political power broker, is also showing interest in the Lautenberg seat. That move could end split the African-American vote between Booker and Oliver, thereby giving Lautenberg the opening he needs to keep his seat.
Despite his complex relationship with Black New Jerseyans, Booker is still considered a favorite in a 2014 Senate race — albeit momentarily. It was widely known that the Newark politician preferred a run for the Governor’s mansion.
Equally problematic is if Lisa Jackson, the outgoing Environmental Protection Administration head, returns to Jersey and decides to run for Senate also. Jackson was popular in Jersey before her stint as an Obama Administration cabinet member, and she already finished a round of deflating rumors that she might run against Republican Governor Chris Christie in 2013.
A Jackson–Booker match-up in a Jersey Senate Democratic primary could find the Newark mayor suffocating under the weight of a massive Obama political machine that would more than likely support a former cabinet official. Observers point to the president still being perturbed with Booker after he openly criticized the Obama 2012 campaign for demonizing Wall Street investors like Bain Capital.
But, ultimately, it’s all come down to Sandy.
“Superstorm Sandy not only sealed Mitt Romney’s fate — it may have forced Mayor Cory Booker’s political hand as well,” adds Peter Groff, a former elected official familiar with Booker and a lecturer on African-American political history. “Gov. Chris Christie’s handling of the storm all but sealed his re-election and caused the mayor to look toward the Senate.”
For now, the problem for Booker appears to be Lautenberg, the aging statesman suddenly turned into irate octogenarian. Lautenberg reportedly fumed when Booker made his announcement, angry over the perception that the young politician was overstepping his bounds.
“I have four children, I love each one of them. I can’t tell you that one of them wasn’t occasionally disrespectful, so I gave them a spanking and everything was OK,” Lautenberg told the Philadelphia Inquirer in reference to Booker. The Senator’s recent open hazing of Booker is stirring bad blood between the two, even as the younger mayor attempts to show public deference. Still, Lautenberg hasn’t mentioned an intent to retire, raising the prospect of an ugly primary, and he recently said Booker “has got a lot of work to do” in Newark.
“It would be an uphill battle for Lautenberg, though,” says Jersey-based Democratic strategist Tara Dowdell of the Dowdell Group. “Jersey is a grind game and a money game.”
So far, recent polls suggest Lautenberg could find himself being slaughtered by Booker. A recent Quinnipiac Poll found Booker slamming Lautenberg in a likely match-up 50 percent to 34 percent.
Dowdell cautions that Booker’s challenge is marshalling a home state base despite his name recognition. He could end up getting more out-of-state support and contributions than in-state. But, she also notes that her old boss, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., shouldn’t be counted out of primary contention. Pallone has indicated he’ll base a decision on whether or not Lautenberg decides to retire.
“If Sen. Lautenberg doesn’t retire, he’d give the mayor a tough battle,” says Groff. “But with outside money, youthful energy and ideas and running against a Senate that could be the most dysfunctional ever, Booker should win the primary and coast in the general election.”