Booker’s Path to NJ Senate Seat May Be Bumpier than Expected

The recent death of New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg has complicated Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s march to the U.S. Senate, speeding up the election calendar and giving him only two months to raise money and increase name recognition before an August 13 primary.

Most observers in the Garden State don’t expect Booker to have much difficulty winning the primary, with his enormous name-recognition advantage and fund-raising prowess. But according to published reports, his critics and potential opponents are not sitting idly by.

They are taking pains to point out that if he leaves the Newark mayoralty before his second term expires next year, he will be breaking a major promise he made to the citizens of Newark during the last election.

Asked about his promise to Newark,  Booker acknowledged that his plans had been upended by recent events.

“The reality is we have put so much into the pipeline here in Newark,” he said during his campaign kickoff. “The momentum is clear. There is about $1 billion worth of development projects rolling into the city. As much as you might think I am necessary to complete those projects, this momentum will continue and I will continue to be a part of it.”

Booker, 44, has been attacked for his ambitions ever since he came to Newark in the 1990s upon his graduation from Yale Law School. Though he has been a part of the city’s landscape for nearly two decades, his critics have been waiting for him to bid for higher office and leave Newark behind. When he announced that he would run for Senate, they finally got their chance to say, “I told you so.”

“Our infamous name for him is ‘Mayor Hollywood,’ because he’s never here,” said Newark community activist Donna Jackson. “Or we call him ‘Story Looker,’ because every time you look around, he has another story.”

It’s been more than 40 years since a Republican has held the Senate seat vacated by Lautenberg, so the winner of the August 13 Democratic primary is a shoo-in to win the Oct. 16 general election. One recent poll showed Booker with a lead over the rest of the Democratic field by as many as 40 points.

Booker faces another African-American from Essex County, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who attacked Booker by saying, “I don’t bring a sense of entitlement” to the race.Some observers expect Oliver to attract minority and female votes that would otherwise go to Booker.

Booker will also face a challenge from Rep. Frank Pallone, a 24-year veteran of Congress with deep ties to organized labor, and Rep. Rush Holt, an astrophysicist and son of a former senator. Both challengers have voting records more liberal than Booker’s.

The powerful public teachers union could come out against Booker because of his push for charter schools, school vouchers and other urban education reforms the union opposes.

In addition, election experts predict a turnout of as few as 200,000 voters, which could add to the uncertainty.

Booker’s fans see evidence of  uber-commitment his incessant Twitter updates, his effort to live a week on the equivalent of a food stamp recipient’s budget, and his stints of heroism, such as helping a car crash victim and rescuing a woman from a burning building. But his critics see a self-serving opportunist.

“I’ve heard it,” Booker said  “too much Twitter from the mayor, too much exposure. There’s not a criticism I haven’t heard over the years. I’ve heard it all. But there’s one thing everyone has to admit about my life as a professional, from my days working in housing high-rises here in Newark as a tenants’ rights attorney to my time as mayor, is that I do not run from challenges. I run toward them.”

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