Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Booker prize: Mr. Newark goes to Washington


ON ANY other day but Wednesday, Government Deliverance Day, it would have made the news as a top story — maybe the top story — in its own right. As it is, though, it’s still a milestone in American government. Cory Booker, for seven years the Democratic mayor of Newark, has parlayed a broad populist appeal, a magnetic telegenic presence and a grassroots campaign run on couch-cushion money into a winning bid to be the next United States senator from New Jersey.

Late Wednesday, Booker defeated his Republican challenger, Steve Lonegan, by double digits (11 points). His win comes with big historical dividends: Booker becomes the first black senator from New Jersey in the state’s history, as well as the ninth black senator in American history and only the fourth to win a Senate seat by popular vote. Edward Brooke, Carole Moseley-Braun, and some guy named Obama came before he did.

“It would have been easy to listen to this frustrating negativity and stay home today. But here in New Jersey, more than a million people rejected cynicism and came out on a Wednesday, in the middle of October, three weeks before we have another election, to fight the cynicism,” he said. “You didn't just vote, you believed that your vote and choice mattered.”

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The news was icing on the cake for Democrats, flush with good feelings about the resolution of the government shutdown and the debt-ceiling crisis. Booker’s election will punch up Democrats’ numbers in the Senate, taking the Dem advantage in that chamber back to the +10 bulge they enjoyed before Frank Lautenberg, revered in New Jersey, died in June at the age of 89.

But to maintain the 55-45 Democratic majority, Booker has to stand for election again next year (in order to win a full six-year term).

A year’s not a lot of time to make an impression in a gig like that, but Booker can do it if anyone can. A Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate, Booker gave a big assist to the Obama 2012 campaign, and has been viewed as a rising star in the Democratic party since well before then.

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BOOKER ATTAINED a quasi-superhero status for a variety of populist actions as mayor. In a principled attempt to stay close to the constituents who elected him, Booker for a time kept living in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. During the Christmas Blizzard of 2010, which buried much of the Eastern Seaboard, Booker grabbed a shovel and paved sidewalks alongside everyday people.

In April 2012, the Newark mayor ran into a burning home to help rescue a woman who was trapped inside. He suffered some minor burns on his superskin, but they healed almost immediately.

Later that year, after the impact of Superstorm Sandy again wrought devastation on the Jersey shore and elsewhere, Booker let some Garden State residents crash at his home.

And he got in the face of an angry tweeter who opposed subsidized school lunches for children, and challenged the tweeter to live on food stamps for a week. Booker wasn’t blowing smoke: he followed through on arrangements to live on $33 a week for food, subsisting on beans, cauliflower, olive oil, broccoli, salad and sweet potatoes. This was putting populism where his mouth was.

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We can expect the Legend of Cory Booker to grow even more. In the wake of his win on Wednesday, Booker has announced he’ll conduct same-sex marriages in New Jersey at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, the first day that gay marriages will be officially recognized in the Garden State.

The state Supreme Court ruled on Friday that same-sex marriages could go forward. This after a Mercer County Superior Court judge that gay couples can marry. That judge rebuffed a request from Gov. Chris Christie to delay the start of gay marriage until after an appeal runs its course.

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IN SOME meaningful ways, he’s already made a lot happen. Booker’s election to the Senate by popular vote highlights both the expansion of African Americans in Congress, and the relative absence of their number in the Senate. There were five black members of Congress in 1963, Fast forward 50 years: 41 African Americans are in Congress now.

Booker’s ascendancy to the Senate is the latest proof of the tireless advance of minorities in the full Congress; the 2012 election results saw a record number of women were elected to the United States Senate – part of the demographic mosaic (43 African Americans, 31 Latinos, 12 Asians, seven LGBT Americans, 16 veterans from the Iraq or Afghan wars, and the first Hindu) that makes the 113th Congress the most diverse in American history.

For African Americans, the Senate has been that mountain successfully climbed less often. Right now, Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican appointed to replace Jim DeMint, is currently the only black senator. Massachusetts Democrat Mo Cowan was there long enough to have a cup of coffee, appointed as he was to temporarily fill the vacant seat of Secretary of State John Kerry.

Like Booker, Scott has to run for a full term in office. It’s a fairly safe bet, at this point, that Republicans won’t walk away from a black Republican senator in a deep Southern state. In that department, they need all the help they can get.

Scott’s likely to win next year. And if Booker wins in November 2014, we’re looking at a breakthrough of truly historic dimensions: the first time two African-American senators were elected through the popular vote.

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We’ll see if Booker can drive up the turnout a year from November; off-year elections are notorious for low numbers compared to turnouts in presidential years.

But Booker starts his short-term tenure in the Senate with name recognition any freshman senator would kill for. And from the perspective of New Jerseyans, he starts his senatorial career with a generous, hands-on, fix-the-potholes approach to problem-solving that, writ large from the Senate chambers, should reflect well on his state, and his own prospects for being its Senator on a long-term basis.

The voting in New Jersey in November 2014 should pretty well take care of itself. People like being a part of history. There’s been a lot of that from the American voting booth lately.

Image credits: 113th Congress: Mark Wilson/Getty Images. All other images: Cory Booker for Senate Web site.

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