As he closes in on the U.S. Senate, Cory Booker has wrapped up the support of nearly every New Jersey Democratic official in the state's primary, and his lead in the polls appears nearly insurmountable. This might be unremarkable were it not for the fact that he is far from the most progressive candidate in the field, nor anything approximating the down-the-line liberal you might expect blue state Democrats to want in the seat. All of which raises a simple question: What gives?
The Newark mayor, Rhodes scholar and national star famously got into trouble last spring when he slammed Barack Obama for going after Mitt Romney’s work at private equity giant Bain Capital in the thick of the president’s populist reelection campaign. "This kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides," Booker said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in May 2012. "It's nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity."
But, even now, while running in a four-way Democratic primary -- a seat having opened up earlier this year with the death of veteran incumbent Frank Lautenberg -- the neoliberal celebrity is not running away from the sentiment. “It's amazing how 15 seconds has been twisted and warped by everyone,” he tells Salon. “I have a problem with cynical campaigning where you can't get into substantive discussions of what's happening.”
The incident captures for many progressives exactly what’s wrong with Booker. He may have a wonderful résumé and be a splendid speaker, they say, but he’s also disturbingly tight with Wall Street and entrenched financial interests. If Obama has disappointed liberal activists with a conciliatory -- some say downright encouraging -- posture toward too-big-to-fail banks, Booker is regarded in some quarters as even more dangerous. It’s a familiar criticism America’s favorite mayor is ready for when I pose it to him.
“I've taken action on a local level on foreclosure prevention,” explains Booker, whose well-known story includes moving to the projects after earning degrees from Stanford, Oxford and Yale. “At the same time, I don't believe in wholesale vilification of any industry in the United States. You can look around Newark and see the billions of dollars in investment. If it wasn't for many of these financial firms, as well as community-based organizations and unions,” the city would be worse off.
Fortunately for the mayor, though he endured a brief stretch of notoriety on MSNBC and among the progressive pundit class for his apostasy -- “The Obama administration did not come down on me, they simply asked me to clarify,” he says of the private equity imbroglio -- that’s all in the past now. Obama is safely back in the White House, and Booker has gone back to doing his post-partisan savior thing without inducing much blowback.
And for his part, he’s adamant that “there's nothing in that realm of progressive politics where you won't find me.” To some extent, depending on what passes for "the progressive movement" these days, he may have a point. After all, the left had a chance to really take a bite out of the banking sector’s dominance, and declined (instead, under President Obama and a Democratic trifecta, we got a weak Dodd-Frank financial reform law). So, by that standard, Booker could fit right in when he gets to Washington.
"We just had the worst financial decline in my lifetime, and there were really, really bad actors involved in it," Booker says. "The mortgage lending agencies, ratings agencies, undercapitalized insurance companies. All of these things are egregious things that from a public policy perspective we must take action on.”
You’ll notice Booker didn’t include “banks” on that list. And those who have done battle with him in the rough-and-tumble world of Newark politics (the documentary about the 2002 campaign that helped launch him to stardom was called “Street Fight”) are skeptical of his zeal to take on these bad actors.
“Cory's definitely no Democrat but he plays the liberal game,” says Ronald Rice, the longtime Newark state senator whom Booker defeated in 2006. “His whole life is Wall Street and Silicon Valley. We picked that up when he first came here. He was always a part of the privatization movement.”
Booker’s critics point out that he collected over half a million dollars from the financial industry during that first, unsuccessful mayoral run against cartoonish machine pol Sharpe James. Since defeating Rice, James’ hand-picked successor, in 2006, Booker has overseen major layoffs of public employees, including over 150 cops in 2010. Murders are down substantially and the population is inching upward for the first time in decades, prompting talk of a revival, but unemployment, poverty and carjackings remain exceptionally high and public services are often maligned (even if tweeting at the mayor about an unplowed street can occasionally produce an encouraging response).
Booker is also a vocal fan of charter schools and “education reform.” He’s tight with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a hero to conservatives for hurling rhetorical grenades at labor unions whenever the opportunity presents itself, and New York City Mayor and unabashed 1 percenter Michael Bloomberg, who (like many titans of big finance) is raising cash on Booker's behalf.
And yet, for all of this, one other thing is true about Cory Booker that neither he nor his opponents can deny: Rather than revolting against him, New Jersey Democrats have gone all in.
The reason? As Booker puts it, switching to the third person, “Because he’s gonna win. Our internals reflect that.”
For starters, the early polls give the Newark mayor a lead of about 40 percentage points over the competition. It doesn’t hurt that he has worked the parlor game of state party politics perfectly, securing the endorsements of several key Democratic county chairs, which guarantees preferential treatment on the primary ballot in August. He also snagged the early and vocal support of George Norcross, the notorious and influential insurance and hospital magnate who runs South Jersey Democratic politics and is easily the most feared power broker in the state.
Who, exactly, is Norcross? For starters, the owner of several local news organizations, he was caught on tape making what appeared to be illegal threats in 2005, with the state attorney general widely criticized for not developing a case against him. The incriminating information would later be passed on to Christie, who also declined to prosecute, blaming the attorney general for allegedly mishandling the case. Politically, Norcross is also known for guiding his allies in the Legislature to help Christie push through his major legislative agenda, including a controversial pension overhaul.
Choosing to emphasize his campaign's grass-roots energy, Booker tells me volunteers have signed up in the thousands, making paid canvassing unnecessary. And though he expects Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, the two accomplished House incumbents who along with state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver are challenging him in the primary, to make an issue of campaign donations (he is a favorite of the hedge-fund world), neither of them is exactly pure, either.
“I'm not going to take shots at my opponents, even if Pallone’s money comes mostly from D.C. PACs,” Booker says, without irony. He does have a point in that both men, like most members of Congress, have raked in dough from the financial and real estate industries.
And Booker’s story is a compelling one. He speaks often about how his family was “refused housing in countless neighborhoods” and that he doesn’t know what they would have done “if it wasn't for the intervention of people in the Urban Housing Council,” the point being that he believes in activist government. As a boy, Booker says he’d strut around the house like he owned the place, and his dad would chide him, “Don't walk around like you hit a triple, kid, you were born on third base!”
Booker also points to a litany of accomplishments that are attractive to Democratic base voters. “We created affordable housing for women trying to escape domestic violence,” he says. “You can take any progressive issue, and see that in a practical way, we've done things that have become a model for not just the state of New Jersey, but around the country.”
But his rise speaks in large part to the perilously weak condition of the progressive movement in a state whose demographics tend to be extremely favorable to the Democratic Party’s candidates. As is usually the case in politics, an organizing void has been filled by money.
“This party right now is a disaster,” says Dick Codey, a Democratic state senator who became governor for a little over a year after Jim McGreevey resigned in 2004. “It's very upsetting to think in the year 2013 you have a private citizen with more influence in state government than anybody except the governor,” but Norcross does. “He's almost a co-governor.” And the business giant known for using politics to further his personal financial interests rather than any particular ideological agenda is a big fan of Cory Booker.
“I believe he’s a winner,” Norcross told the Philadelphia Inquirer, which he owns, in June. “And he’s representative of a new Democrat — a Democrat that’s fiscally conservative yet socially progressive.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it should. President Obama, not long after his first victory in 2008, told the “New Democrats” in Congress -- moderates who fit Norcross’ mold -- that he was one of them. And it’s all the rage right now, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo playing much the same game in Albany, going out on a limb for social liberalism but generally not upsetting the rich too much. Booker doesn’t shield himself from press, but rather bathes in it, confident in his own skin, unafraid of populist anger with the Davos set. He is an open admirer of Norcross, for one thing, and is grateful for the support.
“He's truly one of the more interesting players in the state of New Jersey,” Booker says. “He's done a lot of good, and frankly we bonded over the fact that he really is passionate about Camden.”
Now the pair sees an opportunity. When Lautenberg -- whom Booker offended by publicly mulling a run even before he died -- passed away, the mantle of New Jersey’s top Democrat was left open.
“He's spent so much time and effort creating a brand,” explains Codey of Booker. “Going all over the country, being on every TV show humanly possible. He doesn't have a family to have to worry about or spend time with. He's got one income and the other income is delivering speeches which only enhances his reputation.”
Whether it’s taking on the food stamp challenge and (loudly) subsisting on next-to-nothing for a week, palling around with Mark Zuckerburg (who donated a billion dollars to the Newark school system after Christie arranged a meeting), rescuing an older woman from a burning building, saving a freezing dog when a (shameless) TV reporter tweeted to him about its plight, or generally just being a constant presence on national media outlets and Twitter (where he replies to strangers, whether they be citizens of Newark or Internet trolls), suffice it to say Booker gets around.
But his fiercest critics argue that a victory would cement business-friendly social liberalism as the ethos of the modern American left. They see him as advancing a vision for progressivism that centers on financial capitalism and charity instead of social rights. Or as one Democratic operative who has worked in New Jersey put it, "He’s a good politician for the Obama Democratic Party."
Is the Senate frontrunner concerned his more measured approach may be at odds with the nation's current populist mood? Booker is blunt. “I’m not focused on the zeitgeist of the country.”