A destiny that leads a New Jersey mayor to national office is strange enough; but one that leads Cory Booker to become a frontrunner for U.S. Senate in 2014 is touched by the dark miracle of political and media spectacle.
News that current New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg will step down at the end of his term prompted plenty of speculation as to how the Newark mayor would fare in a statewide election. It bears mentioning that no official announcement has yet been made, but since Booker did file to set up a campaign committee in January, many see him emerging as a clear favorite in the race to succeed Lautenberg.
Despite Booker trying to minimize the hype on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday — while maintaining that the soon-to-be-vacated senate seat “clearly is a job I’m interested in” — his spot on the ballot sounds all but guaranteed. New York magazine has gone so far as to say that Booker is “most definitely running for Senate.”
Beyond early campaign projections, however, the buzz over a potential Booker bid represents the changing public image of the mayor himself.
It’s a rare day when Booker doesn’t make some sort of media splash, whether due to something said on his robust Twitter account (which has 1.36 million followers, almost five times the size of Newark’s population), or the latest high-profile publicity stunt or superhero-like feat.
Reporters have eaten up his public displays of conviction — like when he honored a challenge, posed by a Twitter follower, to spend a week on a $30 food stamp budget — and his seemingly too-perfect moments of Good-Samaritan heroism, like when he rescued a woman from a burning building. Along the way, observers hoped his flamboyant stances on issues like poverty and urban decay would result in tangible benefits for Newark, and not just political points for Booker.
For a while, the mayor even had many of his early skeptics convinced. As Julia Ramey wrote in the erstwhile Next American City print magazine in 2009:
Indeed, Booker’s celebrity has become his most valuable asset. In a city where the last mayor [Sharpe James] went to prison for doing favors for his friends, Booker has leveraged his fame to reach outside the city for help, to enlist newcomers instead of cronies in his fight to make Newark a proud place — instead of a punchline.
Simply put, Booker had cultivated an image that, not long ago, would seem more suitable to a singular office where he could continue to effectively advocate for the marginalized residents of Newark and elsewhere. In other words, not the U.S. Senate, viewed by many as the crux of federal governmental dysfunction.
So how did we go from Cory Booker, the charming face of reform in one of the nation’s most troubled cities, to Cory Booker, a politician willingly headed for the morass of Capitol Hill?
If you had to pinpoint any moment when the narrative changed, it probably came with a December New York Times story on the gap between Booker’s reputation as a fighter for Newark and his actual, on-the-ground achievements. Reporter Kate Zernike elaborated on the growing disillusionment with the mayor:
Taxes have risen more than 20 percent over the past three years, even after the city laid off about 1,100 workers, including more than 160 police officers. Crime has risen, and unemployment is up. Schools remain under state control, and the city’s finances remain so troubled that it cannot borrow to fix its antiquated water system. While new restaurants have risen near the Prudential Center downtown, those in the outer wards were placed under a curfew this year because of shootings and drug dealing.
“There’s a lot of frustration and disappointment,” said Assemblyman Albert Coutinho, a Democrat representing Newark. “People feel that the mayor basically is out of the city too much and doesn’t focus much on the day-to-day.”
Since then, Booker just hasn’t been the same media darling he used to be. There had once been talk of him moving on to the governorship, which Booker didn’t rule out at the time. But with Gov. Chris Christie being possibly the only New Jersey politician who enjoys more name recognition, it never panned out. In January, Booker got into a social media scuffle with a Star-Ledger reporter over a story arguing the mayor’s position on gun control had softened. A lengthy and defensive Twitter debate ensued. And just this week, Booker had to respond to claims that his Senate campaign is in disarray with a simple fact: Right now, there is no official campaign.
Even so, Booker remains an intensely popular mayor, and the recent handful of more critical media stories hasn’t undone years of undeniably great press. And it was never a secret that he would eventually strike for higher office. But for someone always honest about his political ambitions and how he wouldn’t let them impede his public service, the idea of a Senate run, specifically, should make even diehard Booker fans pause.
In December, Talking Points Memo reported a Booker adviser as saying that the mayor would run for Senate as “the champion of urban issues.” Whether it’s even possible to keep this promise will remain a nagging question.