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Elections 2014

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Polar-Opposite Candidates Vie for New Jersey's Senate Seat

On everything from public policy to personal style, Democratic incumbent Booker and GOP challenger Bell are worlds apart

cory booker
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)

Cory Booker and Jeff Bell have one thing in common: they are both running for a U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey.

Other than that, Booker, the Democratic incumbent, and Bell, the Republican challenger, could well be campaigning on different planets.

The two men differ by generation, style, and background, espousing vastly different worldviews and policies. Despite their sometimes idiosyncratic approaches, both fall within the current mainstreams of their parties.

A high-profile former Newark mayor, Booker is beloved of the media and the finance industry, but also finds welcome along Springfield Avenue in hard-pressed Irvington. His platform is a checklist of liberal and neo-liberal issues, from combating climate change to investing in transportation, supporting the Affordable Care Act and charter schools.

jeff bell
Republican challenger Jeff Bell.

A lifelong policy wonk, Bell had a flash of fame decades ago, when he pulled an upset that changed New Jersey’s electoral landscape. After a long tenure in Washington, D.C., think tanks and consulting firms, Bell has returned with a shiny issue from the past -- reviving the monetary gold standard.

Social conservative may be too mild a term for Bell, a Columbia graduate and Vietnam veteran. He toes the line of conservative and oil-industry orthodoxy, from a constitutional amendment against gay marriage and ending no-fault divorce to keeping marijuana illegal and promoting TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL oil pipeline through the United States.

Voters might be forgiven for a case of déjà vu. Many of the same issues cropped up last year when Booker defeated rightwing stalwart Steve Lonegan to fill the final year of the term of the late Sen. Frank Launtenberg (D-NJ). This time, the candidates are vying for a full six-year term.

Even more than last time, Booker, 45, entered this year’s campaign with advantages in name recognition and finances. For seven years, he was one of the nation’s most publicized mayors during a burst of development in downtown Newark and his pursuit of corporate donors.

A Stanford graduate and Rhodes scholar who grew up in Bergen County, Booker became known for his assiduous use of social media to publicize his own good deeds, from rescuing someone from a burning house to shoveling snow for city residents.

But it was his personal political outreach that landed him on Oprah Winfrey four years ago with Gov. Chris Christie and Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who with great fanfare announced a $100 million donation intended for schools in Newark.

Bell, 70, had served as aide to President Richard Nixon and speechwriter for candidate Ronald Reagan when he struck out on his own in 1978, challenging four-term Sen. Clifford Case (R-NJ) in the Republican primary. In a low turnout election, Bell energized enough conservative faithful to win a stunning upset, but lost the general election to Democrat Bill Bradley.

No New Jersey Republican has won a U.S. Senate seat since Case, but Bell makes no apologies for that long-ago primary challenge or his long absence from the state. He moved away in 1982, after his defeat, and only returned to New Jersey, specifically, to Palisades Park, this year.

Bell takes credit for moving his party to the right nationally, particularly for his work on Reagan’s victorious 1980 presidential campaign.

“Ronald Reagan accomplished a lot because he believed in the power of ideas,” particularly in taking up the Kemp-Roth tax cut, Bell said.

Other ideas proved so potent that Democratic President Bill Clinton implemented long-time Republican talking points such as balanced budgets, workfare, “free trade,” and deregulating Wall Street, albeit with varied consequences.

Bell sees the current political moment as another such time, but describes Booker as a servant of entrenched interests rather than a change agent. Bell describes Democrats as “the party of Big Money,” saying his opposition “dominates fundraising on Wall Street, from the legal profession, in Hollywood.”

In contrast, Bell said, he supports legislation by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to restore Depression-era regulations separating commercial banks from investment firms.

“Deposit-taking banks should not also be involved in speculative activities,” Bell said.

But he absolves financial institutions of some responsibility for the lingering effects of the recession caused by the collapse of risky mortgage-backed securities in 2007-2008.

Citing a Wall Street Journal report that bank loans to small businesses are down 18 percent since 2008, Bell focused blame on the Federal Reserve. Since the onset of the financial crisis, the Fed has essentially giving money to big banks at low or no interest.

Small community banks cannot make money on low-interest loans, while large institutions have no incentive to use the funds to make small-business loans, Bell said.

For Bell, all economic issues tie into the idea he has made the centerpiece of his campaign: tightening monetary policy by requiring that the money supply once again be backed by gold.

That was common practice among Western nations in much of the 18th and 19th centuries, and Bell considers it a way “for people to have trust in where they put their money.”

The twin shocks of World War I and the Great Depression ended the gold standard internationally. It was revived after World War II, when the United States held the majority of the world’s gold, but faltered as other countries recovered. President Nixon abandoned it in 1971.

Reviving it receives scant welcome from most modern economists. Even when the gold standard was in vogue, nations regularly went off it to pay their bills during times of war or social turmoil resembling the early 21st Century.

But Bell has little use for mainstream economists, because, he says ,they were wrong about the Reagan-era tax cuts that he championed and are wrong now. As the author of a book titled “The Case For Divisive Politics,” Bell seldom shies away from controversy. His campaign website,bell2014.com is crammed with press releases, tweets, issues statements, smiling gun owners, and crossed-out marijuana plants.

Booker takes a far more low-key, almost New Age, approach. In an e-mail after Bell won the Republican primary, Booker promised a genteel response “no matter how bad the attacks get.”

“Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘The power of love, as the basis of a State, has never been tried.’ Well, I’d like to try,” Booker said.

Clicking “action,” one of the few links on his cheery campaign website, corybooker.com, leads to one of its several sets of buttons to “volunteer,” “donate” or “shop.”

In New Jersey and Washington, D.C., Booker has made a point of being seen to be bipartisan. He partnered with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) to propose a $1,500 credit for businesses that hire new employees younger than 25, or $1,000 for employees 25 and older. The two senators said they intend to promote apprenticeship programs at a time of high unemployment for young people, particularly those with just high-school diplomas.

Booker then worked with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) on legislation to overhaul the nation’s “broken” justice system. The Redeem Act would seek to keep juvenile offenders out of adult courts, allow some adult offenders to expunge their records, and permit some drug offenders to qualify for aid programs after they do their time.

“America has a justice problem,” Booker said in announcing the bill. “America should not lead the globe in incarcerating the nonviolent. We should lead in empowering our citizens -- even those who have made mistakes -- to succeed.”

Booker was quick to defend the initiative against Bell’s criticism that “our economy isn’t being dragged down by crime laws.”

“This statement exemplifies the thinking that created the dysfunction we see in the justice system today -- it ignores that communities struggling with crime are a part of our economy too,” Booker said.

While Bell ties economic issued back to the gold standard, Booker sees a wide range of other problems to address. At times he turns passionate, as when discussing the “common sense” movement to raise the minimum wage at a campaign event in Lakewood.

“If you’re willing to work a 40- or 50-hour week, working hard, you should not have to live below the poverty line,” Booker said.

Privatizing federal programs like Social Security would “plunge (recipients) into despair” during the kind of stock market panic that occurred in recent years after the housing bubble and mortgage-backed securities collapsed, according to Booker.

He also pointed to his party’s efforts to rein in the high interest rates charged on many student loans, saying the cost of college has become an overwhelming burden even for middle-class families.

Booker also introduced legislation to tax currently exempt professional sports associations, such as the National Football League, and funneling the revenue to aid for victims of domestic abuse.

Women’s issues are an area where the Booker campaign, though not necessarily the candidate, has responded forcefully to some of Bell’s colorful comments.

A Booker surrogate, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), chastised the Republican for suggesting that birth control demeans women. Bell does not understand that “99 percent of women -- married, unmarried, with children or without -- use birth control at some point in their lives,” she said in a campaign release.

Lauren Dikis, Booker’s campaign finance director, castigated Bell for his “despicable” statement to the Asbury Park Press that “single mothers particularly are automatically Democratic because of the benefits. They need benefits to survive, and so that kind of weds them to the Democratic Party.”

“I wish I could say I'm shocked, but we already knew that Jeff Bell is against abortion in the case of rape and incest, and that he believes that widespread access to contraception has led to more abortions,” Dikis said.

Like Bell, though, Booker has not had entirely smooth sailing. He faces occasional questions about a report by the state Comptroller alleging corruption among his political allies at the Newark Watershed Authority.

In May, city residents elected a new mayor, Ras Baraka, one of Newark’s major antagonists as a city councilman. He immediately set to work trying to repair the city’s leaky budget. Meanwhile, the “school reform” efforts touted by Booker degenerated into a clash between state-appointed School Superintendent Cami Anderson and many parents.

Still, as the campaign enters its homestretch, Booker has maintained his distance from those local situations, preferring to talk about overcoming “the cynicism crippling Washington.”

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