By a commanding margin of 55 percent to 44 percent, Newark Mayor Cory Booker bested his Republican opponent Steve Lonegan, the former Bogota mayor, to become New Jersey’s next senator—only the ninth African-American to serve in one of the world’s most exclusive clubs.
Booker has been a star for years, with his massive Twitter following and abundant tales of his heroic acts in Newark, including pulling a woman from a burning building and rescuing a car crash victim. In fact, his star is so ascendant that he has already been pegged as one of the Senate’s top fundraisers, and there’s talk inside the Beltway of Booker as a possible vice-presidential pick for 2016.
It would be ironic if he were chosen to run with Hillary Clinton because hers is the model of a freshman senator that most observers are suggesting Booker should follow – keeping his head low and working hard to gain the trust and respect of his colleagues, rather than maintaining a high profile.
But as the only other African-American in the Senate besides a Republican from South Carolina, Booker likely won’t be able to avoid the glare of the spotlight.
“The fact that there are so few blacks in the U.S. Senate and the fact that he’s the only black Democrat in the U.S. Senate means that he’s going to be thrust into this major national role,” Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta and author of “The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America,” told the Star-Ledger.
In all the chatter about what kind of senator Booker will be, one academician even suggested that Booker say “No” to television appearances early on.
“If they ask him to go on Meet the Press, I think he should say no,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “That would be looked upon by his colleagues, I think, as a very wise move.”
But he can’t totally disappear from the public eye because he will have to run for re-election in November 2014, since he’s now filling out the rest of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s term. Because of that, Booker will join the Senate right away, rather than waiting the customary months as the senator-elect until January.
While most observers expected Booker to cruise to an easy win in a blue state against a Tea Party-certified conservative, his campaign did experience a few bumps along the way, as too much attention was paid to Twitter messages he exchanged with a vegan stripper on the West Coast, and the millions he earned as part of a Silicon Valley startup was scrutinized.
In a Rutgers-Eagleton Institute survey a week before the election, Booker’s positive rating of 54 percent among likely voters was a nine-point dropoff from early September—while his unfavorable ratings had nearly doubled to 32 percent.
In addition, a third of likely voters said his career had been more about self-promotion than improving Newark, a charge he’s been hearing since he started his career running for City Council in New Jersey’s largest city.
The campaign “made Booker more human, less Superman,” David Redlawsk, the director of the Rutgers poll, told the New York Times.
But Booker, the perpetually upbeat orator, a former football star at Stanford, Yale Law School graduate and Rhodes scholar, never let the negative attacks drag him down.
During his acceptance speech at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center last night, he promised to bring a new kind of politics to Washington.
“Too many people are forgetting that the lines that divide us are nothing compared to the ties that bind us,” said the triumphant Booker, who has vowed to continue to live in Newark. “It forgets that old saying, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.’ ”
Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for Booker, said the nagging question about what kind of senator Booker will be was a false one.
“People want to put senators in two types of categories: The head-down, attract-no-attention senator, or the always-on-television senator,” he said. “I think that’s a false choice. The mayor will forge his own path. But I think it’s a path that will be focused on New Jersey.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid issued a statement Wednesday night to welcome Booker to the Senate, where the Democratic caucus controls the majority, 55 to 45, over Republicans.
“As the mayor of Newark, Cory showed a can-do attitude and was not afraid to literally roll up his sleeves to serve the citizens he represented,” Reid said. “We saw him work tirelessly through the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, tending personally to the city’s residents. At the same time, Cory is deeply engaged on issues of national import, such as climate change and economic development.”