Newark Mayor Cory Booker, known nationally for his social media prowess and ability to wield a certain celebrity panache, might find himself in less friendly terrain if he succeeds in landing the New Jersey Senate seat left open by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg as he appears poised to do.
After winning Tuesday’s Democratic primary, Booker is the favorite against Republican Steve Lonegan, who he was 25 points ahead of in the most recent poll.
But compared to the type of power and popularity he enjoyed as mayor of Newark, Booker would face something different in the Senate, a deliberative body that is part of Congress with record low popularity and that has become better known for its gridlock than legislative successes.
Booker has earned a reputation for taking matters into his own hands, whether it’s responding directly to constituent concerns on Twitter or, literally, running into a burning building to save a woman. In Congress he would have to perform a delicate dance in drawing attention to the issues he cares about, using his forceful personality, and yet, knowing when to pull back as a junior senator.
Ben Dworkin, head of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, believes Booker will be able to balance the very public persona he’s honed while also deal-making behind the scenes.
“Because of his ability to generate media attention, Booker has a unique opportunity to play the outside game as well as the inside game. He can generate press attention on whatever issue he is focused on and thereby give himself leverage as he negotiates.” said Dworkin. “Not every senator has the ability to do that as easily as Booker should be able to.”
Others note that one of the mayor’s greatest strengths has been able to relate to and reach out to different groups–whether in his own city, across the river in Manhattan, or in Hollywood.
“I think that Cory has been the consummate outsider insider,” said New York City-based Democratic pollster Jefrey Pollock. “He’s rattling cages from outside and yet working the inside system as well as anybody I know.”
But that doesn’t mean he’ll go breaking down doors and decorum once he gets on Capitol Hill.
“I predict that he goes and knows fully well that he can’t go in with all the bluster in the world, and figure out what cages he can rattle and figure out which ones he has to politely knock on to open up,” Pollock added.
Celebrities drawn to the Garden State over Booker
Booker himself has remained optimistic of the type of impact he can have as one of 99 others also the spotlight in a body that reveres tradition and order.
“I don’t want to just go down there and become a part of the system. I want to change it and create change for real people,” Booker said in an interview with NBC on Monday. ”There’s in some ways a lack of imagination on a lot of people’s parts.”
Other Democrats aren’t so sure. They say that when it comes to adjusting the upper chamber’s hierarchy his bombastic personality will be right at home with a newer class of legislators, even those on the other side of the aisle, such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Many also vividly remember that Booker directly bucked the system when he first announced he was running for Launtenberg’s seat–before the senior senator had even announced his retirement.
“In a Senate that is now filled with big egos, publicity hounds and headline chasers, he’ ll fit right in,” one former Democratic party official told msnbc.com.
Booker, though, says that’s not his intention.
“You should always lead with love, lead with kindness, and just be good and decent to people. I’m not one of those firebrands that throws Molotov cocktails at people and the like,” he told NBC.
The celebrity mayor has drawn Hollywood to the Garden State for the contest that his rivals have had a hard time breaking through the glitz, even as he faced questions about his finances in the race’s final days. Actress Eva Longoria joined him on his bus tour around the Garden State. Oprah Winfrey has hosted a fundraiser for him. Celebrities not even eligible to vote, such as Girls star Lena Dunham, have been weighing in on Twitter, one of Booker’s favorite methods of communication:
Booker will likely be looking for legislative successes to highlight–especially as he’ll have to face the voters yet again in 2014 for a full term, no matter what other longer term political plans he might have.
“He’ll be very focused on New Jersey-centric type issues because he has to go in front of the voters again,” said Dworkin.