Candidate Booker’s Media Star Threatens to Eclipse Liberal Rivals

Mark J. Magyar | August 12, 2013 | More Issues, Politics
Democratic challengers question Booker’s closeness to Christie, monied interests

Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker
Workhorse or show horse? Media star or back-bencher? Liberal or post-partisan? Reliable Democrat or willing to cross the aisle?

Short catchphrases sum up the differences between the four high-powered Democratic candidates running in the shortest U.S. Senate primary campaign in New Jersey history, which will conclude tomorrow with a unique mid-August election likely to set a record for low turnout in a contested statewide primary.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker is the show horse, the post-partisan media star, adored by Wall Street, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and Oprah Winfrey, chalking up his close relationship with Republican Gov. Chris Christie as a positive example of his willingness to work across the aisle. Backed by virtually all of the state’s most influential party leaders, Booker has been the runaway frontrunner in every poll in what has quickly developed into a three-against-one race.

Booker’s three opponents — Congressmen Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) – are more traditional liberals campaigning on traditional Democratic themes, unknown nationally and even to most New Jersey voters, promising to shoulder the workhorse role of the late Frank Lautenberg in the U.S. Senate, and questioning Booker’s willingness to do the same.

“It’s more a difference of style, the issues they would emphasize and the kind of U.S. senator they would be,” John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, said in summing up the race. “You don’t see any great difference between Holt and Pallone on the issues. In temperament and in their campaigns, you hear Booker being more open to compromise and working with Republicans, and Holt and Pallone articulating more traditional Democratic positions.”

Similarly, Oliver, running without the support of — and apparently independent of — Essex County political boss and Christie ally Joseph DiVincenzo, is campaigning as a traditional Essex County Democratic liberal, not mentioning her role as Assembly speaker rounding up votes for Christie’s controversial pension and health benefits bill.

As much as Booker seeks to make a virtue out of his willingness to work with Republicans, the differences between the four Democratic candidates pale in comparison to the ideological gulf that separates them from Republican Steve Lonegan, the unabashed conservative who headed the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the grassroots organization founded by the Koch Brothers, and his unknown challenger, Dr. Alieta Eck.

“You are looking at the most clearcut ideological choice since Jeff Bell ran against Bill Bradley,” Weingart said, referring to the 1978 race when Bradley, the recently retired New York Knicks star, handily defeated Bell, a young conservative ideologue who had shocked heavily favored U.S. Sen. Clifford Case, a liberal Republican, in the GOP primary.

“The conventional wisdom has been that for a Republican to be elected statewide in New Jersey, you have to be moderate and pro-choice. Then Chris Christie didn’t follow that model and didn’t adhere to it as governor,” Weingart noted. “But with an election being held in October on a Wednesday, it’s hard to see how someone so clearly in step with the national Republican party could win against an attractive Democratic candidate and a united Democratic Party. In New Jersey, a united Democratic Party vs. a united Republican Party is not an even match.”


Lonegan’s campaign blundered badly last week when one of his staffers sent out a racist tweet labeling neighborhoods in Booker’s Newark with the names of African, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and South American nations. The tweet was quickly deleted, but Eck and the Independence Tea Party joined Democrats in attacking Lonegan for not firing the offending staffer.

Nevertheless, Lonegan remains confident of victory tomorrow, invoking the Alamo in looking ahead to “a real line-in-the-sand election,” a “mano a mano” battle he clearly expects to wage against Booker, whom he has already made the target of his campaign ads. Lonegan may want to rethink his use of an Alamo analogy: The latest Quinnipiac Poll shows him trailing the Newark mayor by 35 points.

This fall’s Senate debates promise to mirror the issue-oriented seriousness of the 1978 Bradley-Bell debates, just as this Democratic Senate campaign carries echoes of the Bradley-Lautenberg rivalry, with Booker in the Bradley role.

Bradley, a Booker mentor, was New Jersey’s “national senator,” working with Republican President Reagan to pass a major tax reform, appearing on the Sunday morning TV talk shows, and fending off questions every four years about when he would be running for president, which he finally did unsuccessfully in 2000.

Lautenberg resented Bradley’s fame and intentionally cast himself as “the Senator for New Jersey,” specializing in the transportation and environmental policy issues that were critical to the state, portraying himself as the “work horse” rather than the “show horse” – an analogy that his son, Josh Lautenberg, has used in campaigning for Pallone and denouncing Booker.

It is Lautenberg’s son and Oliver who have been most vitriolic in their attacks on Booker and his record, and in both cases, it is not only political, but personal. Both feel Booker is in too much of a hurry.

The Lautenberg family feels Booker was being disrespectful to the late senator by declaring his candidacy before the proud Lautenberg was ready to retire, and Oliver feels Booker was being disrespectful to her and other state political leaders who have paid their dues for decades by jumping to the head of the line, assuming that the Senate nomination was his due – a criticism that Bradley’s 1978 Democratic primary foes leveled against him.

“Booker would start his Senate career as a celebrity like Bill Bradley, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama did, and he would have to figure out how to fit that celebrity into the life of a senator,” Weingart said. “Hillary Clinton worked to win the respect of her colleagues by doing the hard behind-the-scenes work, but Obama never stuck around long enough.

“It takes time to learn the rules of the Senate and to really get to know your colleagues so you can find common ground, and that takes a lot of work — and you don’t accomplish that by appearing on TV shows and doing media interviews,” he said.

Both Pallone and Holt have emphasized that they know how Washington works, and that they already know many U.S. senators from working with them in the House, while Oliver points to her experience leading an often-fractious Democratic Assembly caucus in Trenton – a level of legislative background that Booker lacks.

All three have stressed their commitment to be the kind of hard-working, New Jersey-focused senator that Lautenberg was, and have criticized Booker for spending 20 percent of his time out-of-state traveling to speaking engagements, meetings with CEO’s and celebrities, and fund-raising events — time that they say he should have spent in Newark working to solve the persistent problems of New Jersey’s largest city.

However, the most striking difference between Booker and the two congressmen he is running against, Holt and Pallone, is over what the role of a U.S. senator should be in an era of virtually unparalleled political partisanship.

Pallone and Holt have spent the last 25 years and 15 years, respectively, in a U.S. House of Representatives where party-line votes are increasingly the norm, and where it takes a natural disaster on the order of superstorm Sandy to bring together even Demcratic and Republican congressmen from the same state to work together on a sustained basis.

That was the way the New Jersey Legislature was going until Christie and Republican legislators teamed up with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Oliver, with the open backing of Democratic powerbrokers like George Norcross and DiVincenzo — and Booker — in an evolving series of bipartisan alignments to forge a new political center in New Jersey.

The “UniGovernment,” as Record columnist Charlie Stile dubbed the new ruling bipartisan coalition, pushed through legislation that required public employees to pay more for their pensions and health benefits and suspended collective bargaining on health benefits for four years; changed tenure laws for teachers, expanded charter schools and championed school vouchers; merged the state’s medical schools into Rutgers University; replaced the Camden city police with a county force; and weakened binding arbitration for police and firefighters
That’s the type of accomplishment — and bipartisanship — that Booker wants to bring to Washington, and it would make him a likely candidate to play a leading role in the ad hoc “Gang of Six” or “Gang of Eight” working groups that spring up in the Senate and bring together a handful of Democrats and Republicans to try to hammer out a bipartisan consensus on an important issue, Weingart noted.

Pallone and Holt, meanwhile, are considered not only two of the most reliably liberal Democrats in Congress, but also boast strong pro-labor voting records, with Pallone earning an average rating of 98 percent from the AFL-CIO and Holt coming in at 95 percent.

“They are two of labor’s best friends in Congress,” Sherryl Gordon, the executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 1, said at her council’s summer conference last month in a room filled with Pallone and Holt posters, but not a single sign for Booker or Oliver.


The powerful New Jersey Education Association feels the same way. Pallone and Holt have sharply criticized Booker for his support for the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a pilot program that would provide vouchers to schoolchildren at failing inner city schools to attend private schools — an issue the Rev. Reginald Jackson, head of the Black Ministers Council, favors so strongly that he endorsed the Republican Christie for reelection for supporting it.

Booker also used about $50 million of the $100 million grant to help the Newark schools that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated on the Oprah Winfrey show — a program that showcased Booker and Christie’s partnership in front of a national audience — to fund a merit pay program for Newark’s teachers that is anathema to the NJEA.

Booker has repeatedly emphasized that he disagrees with Christie on more issues than he agrees with the GOP governor. But Holt and Pallone have seized on Booker’s friendship with Christie and Booker’s closeness with the Wall Street executives and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have funded both of their campaigns to assert that the Newark mayor is too close to both the GOP and the monied interests to serve as a Democratic senator from New Jersey.

Pallone proudly touts his role in helping to write the Affordable Care Act and campaigned publicly and proudly for the bill at a time when Tea Partiers were shouting down its supporters at town halls and forums in New Jersey and across the country.

Holt, meanwhile, has campaigned on his support for a “single-payer system” of government-funded health care for all Americans along the line of Medicare and Medicaid, whose administrative costs are far lower than private-sector plans.

Neither position is designed to build consensus with Republican lawmakers who have made repeal of the Affordable Care Act their top priority if they take control of the U.S. Senate in 2014 to go along with their majority in the House of Representatives.

Indeed, Booker’s emphasis on the importance of changing the way Washington works to foster bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle has no tougher critic than Lonegan, the Republican he is likely to face if he wins tomorrow’s primary.

“There is no such thing as a middle ground with the liberal left,” Lonegan proclaimed in an interview with NJ Spotlight.

Nor is there with the Republican Right, Pallone and Holt argue — a fact they predict that Booker would find out quickly if he wins.