Cory Booker prevailed in last week’s special Senate election in New Jersey, but rarely has a triumph seemed more like a setback. Long considered a rising star in the national Democratic Party, Booker ran such a listless campaign—his lead over Republican Steven Lonegan shrank nearly 20 points over two months—that Garden State newspapers are already asking whether he can withstand a sustained challenge from a better-financed opponent. (Booker will serve out the final year of the late Senator Frank Lautenberg’s term and must run again next year for a full term.)
Much of the criticism of Booker’s performance has portrayed him as a celebrity-obsessed, Twitter-infatuated master of political style over substance who struggled to define himself early in the campaign as a progressive. This was not the same Cory Booker that New Jersey voters thought they knew. That Cory Booker was one of the earliest Democratic backers of school choice in New Jersey. He won his first city council seat not through social media but by knocking on thousands of doors in Newark’s poor Central Ward. That Booker overturned a corrupt political machine to gain the mayor’s office and brought Giuliani-style “broken windows” policing to New Jersey’s largest city. “Newark is increasingly driven by people guided to come here because of Cory Booker and because of the new Newark,” Rutgers political scientist Clement Price said when Booker ran for reelection as mayor in the spring of 2010. But what a difference the intervening three-and-a-half years seem to have made.
Booker, who grew up in a wealthy Jersey suburb, established a foothold in Newark when he did volunteer community work there as a Yale law student. Inspired by Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which seeks to break the cycle of generational poverty in the Manhattan neighborhoods where it operates, Booker stayed on in Newark after graduation to work with local youth. Frustrated by what he saw around him—including the city’s dysfunctional and sleazy political culture—Booker resolved to run for city council in 1998 as a reform candidate. He upset a 16-year incumbent with a door-to-door campaign in the city’s largely black Central Ward but quickly found himself frozen out by Newark’s Democratic political establishment. So Booker began his own grass-roots reform efforts. Appalled at how drug gangs operated openly in Newark, he parked an RV on a street corner that served as a drug mart and camped there to call the media’s attention to how ineffective the city’s police were at shutting down the trade. Then-mayor Sharpe James called these efforts “stunts,” but they won Booker a following in a city desperate for leadership.
Four years after winning his city council seat, Booker ran for mayor in a race captured in the Academy Award-nominated documentary Street Fight. Some accounts of Booker’s career have unfairly described him as “starring” in the movie, as if it were a Hollywood production. The film got its start when a Booker supporter began carrying a camera to campaign events to capture the thuggery of James’s political operation, which used the machinery of Newark government, including the police department, to sabotage Booker’s election efforts. James prevailed in 2002, but his popularity was waning, and he declined a rematch with Booker in 2006. Federal prosecutors indicted the longtime mayor in 2007 on fraud charges and sent him to jail for 18 months, part of a pattern of corruption that plagued his five terms in office. A U.S. prosecutor once described Newark City Hall during the James years a as “supermarket” where everything was for sale.
Booker inherited a fiscal mess. Audits revealed that the city’s budget woes were worse than James had portrayed them, with unpaid bills and uncollected taxes contributing to a $44 million deficit. A federal investigation determined that the city’s housing authority had misused federal funds to pay for patronage jobs. Booker’s new housing chief was forced to lay off half the agency’s workforce.
Booker brought a new approach to Newark government. He hired as his police director NYPD veteran Garry McCarthy, who had helped shut down the drug trade in Washington Heights. Booker and McCarthy roamed the streets of Newark together, focusing on lowering crime with the kind of data-driven policing that the Giuliani administration had employed in New York. “I will be relentless in the enforcement of the law,” Booker said. “My residents shouldn’t have to deal with drug dealing on their corners punctuated by violence.” Booker also lobbied the state to relinquish control of Newark’s school system, which the state had seized from the city in 1995 after an investigation found widespread graft. When Trenton balked, Booker turned to expanding the city’s charter school movement, starting a private fund that raised $20 million for local charters. He also joined a coalition that attempted to pass a voucher program for low-income kids, but Trenton Democrats killed the effort with help from teachers’ unions, which erected billboards around Newark attacking Booker.
Some of Booker’s passion for governing Newark seemed to disappear after he won reelection in 2010. McCarthy, the police director, left to become Chicago’s police superintendent in 2011. After declines in crime during Booker’s first term, violent crime began creeping up again. Booker’s second term was also consumed with managing the city’s troubled budget after the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. Like mayors around the country, Booker watched revenues and state aid plunge even as costs continued to rise. City workers resisted his efforts to negotiate concessions, and some unions picketed in response to his demands. Booker was even forced to lay off 167 cops when the police union refused givebacks. Suddenly, Booker found himself branded a fiscal conservative and enemy of government workers in a party increasingly dominated by public unions. A whispering campaign in Newark revived the old criticism James first hurled at Booker—that he was an outsider. Critics began claiming Booker was spending more time away from Newark raising his national profile than governing the city.
It’s not surprising, then, that Booker’s Senate run seemed disconnected from the themes he emphasized as mayor. He campaigned, especially in the Democratic primary, on a progressive platform at odds with his reputation as a moderate urban reformer with support from across the political spectrum. He told Salon.com, “There’s nothing in that realm of progressive politics where you won’t find me.” That statement represented such a departure for Booker that one of his primary opponents, Rush Holt, ran an ad assuring voters that he was the only progressive in the race. “I approved this message because Cory Booker may be the front-runner in this race, but he’s no progressive,” Holt said.
It’s impossible to jump into the mind of a political candidate and say for certain what prompted an ideological shift. But the lethargic nature of Booker’s Senate campaign suggests that it was political expediency—not passion—that pushed him there. If his campaign is any indication, Cory Booker may turn out to be the most unenthusiastic progressive in Washington.