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Star-Making Turn As Newark Mayor Launches Booker Toward D.C.

U.S. Senate candidate Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., speaks to the media after casting his ballot for the Senate primary on Tuesday.
Eduardo Munoz
U.S. Senate candidate Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., speaks to the media after casting his ballot for the Senate primary on Tuesday.

He's subsisted on food stamps, lived in public housing, saved a dog from the cold and a woman from a fire, housed hurricane homeless and famously shoveled a constituent's driveway after a snowstorm.

And Tuesday, the man, the myth, the media machine that is Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker added another entry to his heat-seeking resume, crushing three opponents — including two congressmen — in the Garden State's Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

In addition to his name recognition, Booker has raised more than $8.6 million for his Senate run, according to the Sunlight Foundation, and spent about $4.6 million on the primary — vastly outspending his rivals.

Tuesday's win puts the 44-year-old Yale-trained lawyer on the brink of bringing his established national celebrity and 1.4 million Twitter followers to Washington.

As Booker prepares to decamp, New Jerseyites are taking stock of what their native son would leave behind after nearly seven years leading a city where more than a quarter of residents live below the poverty level and the unemployment rate remains north of 13 percent.

And they and the Washington political class are musing about what kind of senator the social-media-savvy Booker would be, if, as anticipated, he defeats Republican opponent Steve Lonegan in the state's October special election to fill the late Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg's seat.

"On the day that he announced that he was running for Senate, I was in the front row," Bob Ingle, senior political columnist for Gannett New Jersey newspapers, told It's All Politics this week. "I asked the mayor if he could give me the top three things he's done for Newark."

The mayor smiled, Ingle says, and replied, "Only three?"

That's the confidence — or swagger, as his critics might say — that has characterized Booker's tenure as mayor. He has provided a new face and story for a city that routinely makes the short list of the nation's poorest.

"To give him credit," says Ingle, co-author of The Soprano State: New Jersey's Culture of Corruption, "Newark is a tough town to run, and its previous mayor went to prison for fraud after leaving office.

"It's not going to be fixed overnight," he said.

A New Image For Newark

Even Booker's staunchest supporters acknowledge that the mayor wouldn't leave Newark hailed as a turnaround artist.

And he has been dinged in the press recently for taking settlement buyout payments from his former law firm while mayor, as well as for coziness with investors funding the Web video startup Waywire, in which he has a stake.

"Nobody cares," Ingle says.

Michael Murphy, a New Jersey Democrat and lobbyist who ran for governor in 1997, also says it's no big deal.

"I don't think people in New Jersey are moved whatsoever that he has an interest in a dot-com, or that he has relationships with Wall Street," Murphy said this week. "He's like [former New Jersey Sen.] Bill Bradley — both are pretty friendly with the finance folks, both have Ivy League educations, both were Rhodes scholars, and both had big personas prior to elevation to the Senate."

That big persona, Murphy says, is akin to that of Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Both men, he argues, have helped redefine New Jersey.

"Ten years ago, New Jersey was Brigadoon, between Philly and New York City," he says. "Under Booker, Newark's reputation has been moving from utterly corrupt and unlivable, to maybe livable."

Changing the image, he and other Booker advocates argue, is the first step to changing the city.

So, What Did He Do?

Booker, raised in suburban New Jersey by parents who were IBM executives, was Newark's third, and third consecutive, African-American mayor.

He succeeded the legendary Sharpe James, an old-school Democratic political boss whose two decades in the mayor's office were followed by 18 months in a federal prison camp for rigging property sales to benefit his mistress.

Booker, says Clement Price, a noted Newark historian, is a new black politician — one who has not been seen before in the city, and one who he says hasn't shown an appetite for sustaining the party machine or galvanizing a constellation of support in the black community.

"Newark has never had a political figure such as Mayor Booker," says Price, a professor at Rutgers University in Newark. "He's been enormously popular and has an ability to draw media attention to himself and to the city beyond anything I've ever seen."

That attention has translated into more than just self-promotion, argues Price, a Newark resident since 1968. It has sparked philanthropic interest, he says, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's 2010 donation of $100 million to Newark's schools.

Booker also paid more attention to drug- and gun-related crime, and, Price says, has pushed the city toward a "new urbanism — planning, greening, creating more spaces for kids to play."

A Senate Future?

Bringing his celebrity and "supermayor" persona to the plodding Senate may be a bit of an uncomfortable fit for Booker.

The Senate is a notoriously difficult culture to navigate. Booker would come in with no seniority and would perhaps face clubhouse resentment from less well-known senators who have spent many fruitless hours waiting for the Sunday morning talk shows to call.

Price says that Booker has been criticized for his short attention span when it comes to the nitty-gritty work on big problems.

"These require due diligence, a wallowing in the weeds of building coalitions," Price says. "He has just not spent a lot of attention on that kind of work — and that's real work."

Booker's detractors also say he's been more interested in making money, appearing on television and hobnobbing with celebrities than addressing their issues.

Some political analysts have argued this week that Booker's adeptness at homegrown political gestures — and at making money before he was elected mayor — suggests he'd either be a fish out of water in the Senate, or a perfect fit. Take your pick.

Ingle — who said that on a scale of 1 to 10 he'd rate Booker a 7 as mayor — sees him bringing to Washington an ability to bring people together, a desire to turn things around.

And Murphy, the Democrat, says that Booker may face a situation similar to that of Hillary Clinton when she first came to the Senate in 2001.

"He won't have to establish himself in popular culture, or in the minds of people," Murphy says.

How he uses that built-in renown, how he navigates the byzantine practices of the U.S. Senate, if elected, is a tantalizing exercise given Booker's documented promise and what would be his almost singular position: There is currently one African-American in the U.S. Senate, conservative South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, who was appointed to fill out the unexpired term of retired Sen. Jim DeMint.

(Note: This post was updated 10:50 p.m. ET to reflect outcome of Tuesday's primaries)

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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