Cory Booker Wins Senate Race in New Jersey

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Mayor Cory A. Booker of Newark easily won New Jersey’s special Senate election on Wednesday, finally rising to an office that measures up to his national profile.  He will arrive in Washington already one of the country’s most prominent Democrats, and its best-known black politician other than President Obama, who backed him aggressively. Mr. Booker’s fund-raising prowess puts him on course to lead his party’s campaign efforts in the Senate, and he has been mentioned as a possible vice-presidential pick for 2016.

With 55 percent of the precincts reporting, Mr. Booker had 55 percent of the vote to 44 percent for Steve Lonegan, a Republican former mayor of Bogota, N.J., and state director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, according to The Associated Press. Still, the campaign gave a wider audience to certain facets of Mr. Booker that long ago began to prompt eye-rolling among his constituents.

With a Twitter following six times as large as the city he has led, Mr. Booker was known outside Newark largely for his appearances on late-night television and his heroics: rescuing a neighbor from a burning building, shoveling out snowbound cars, living on a food stamp diet.

The campaign gave him less flattering national attention for his Twitter exchanges with a dancer in a vegan strip club, and renewed old questions about whether he embellished an oft-told story about a moving encounter with a drug dealer, who may or may not have existed (Mr. Booker called him “an archetype”). He had to resign from a media company that Silicon Valley investors had paid him millions to start — but not before the resignation of the 15-year-old son of a television executive, whom Mr. Booker had put on the company’s board.

Having started his political career by moving into a Newark housing project, Mr. Booker spent the final days before his Senate election beating back stories in the conservative news media that he did not actually live in the city; the fact that this story could catch hold at all suggested the level of suspicion aimed at the mayor in the city where he began his rise. And he had to call off campaign events during a nearly two-week spree of murders in Newark this summer, underscoring the layoffs of police officers during his tenure, and a complaint that has long made him bristle: that he is a better orator than manager.

Polls suggested this took a toll. In a Rutgers-Eagleton Institute survey a week before the election, Mr. Booker had a positive rating among 54 percent of likely voters, but that had dropped nine points from early September. His unfavorable ratings had nearly doubled, to 32 percent. A third of likely voters said his career had been more about self-promotion than improving Newark, which is the state’s largest city.

Mr. Booker grew up in the wealthy North Jersey suburb of Harrington Park, where his parents, some of the first black executives at I.B.M., helped integrate the town.

A graduate of Stanford and Yale Law School, and a former Rhodes scholar, he was a celebrity even before he became mayor — with an Oscar-nominated documentary about his first, failed race in 2002. He was elected in 2006 to replace Sharpe James, the longtime mayor who later served time in prison for fraud.

Mr. Booker brought excitement to a city that has long struggled to shake off the cloud of the riots that nearly destroyed it 46 years ago. And with his national profile, he also attracted more business development, including Newark’s first new hotel and supermarket in decades, and millions of dollars in philanthropy, including a $100 million pledge to the city’s long-failing schools from the Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The very timing of the special election this year to fill the seat of Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, a fellow Democrat who died in June, showed how powerful a force he had become. Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, called it for a Wednesday in October at a cost of $24 million to a state with a budget stretched thin, rather than holding it three weeks later, when he would have appeared on the ballot for re-election with Mr. Booker, the one Democrat he had feared running against him.

As a placeholder in the Senate seat after Mr. Lautenberg died, Mr. Christie appointed his attorney general, Jeffrey S. Chiesa, a Republican loyalist who expressed no interest in holding the seat permanently. Mr. Booker will now fill out the rest of Mr. Lautenberg’s term, facing re-election in November 2014.

New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the Senate in 40 years.  But the race was messier than Mr. Booker, famous for his inspirational Twitter musings, would have liked. He started the campaign talking hopefully, and safely, about his belief in the need to reach across the aisle to get things done in partisan Washington.

He held relatively few public events early on, favoring canned Instagram interviews and videos where he answered predictable (for New Jersey) questions like “Springsteen or Bon Jovi?” (“Bon Jovi is a friend,” Mr. Booker said, but chose Springsteen, “Thunder Road” over “Born to Run.”)

Mr. Lonegan, his Republican opponent, worked Mr. Booker’s celebrity against him. While Mr. Booker spent more than a week raising money in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, Mr. Lonegan held a red carpet event with “regular New Jersey people” and invited reporters to news conferences at his modest suburban home.

Only after Mr. Lonegan appeared to gain traction in some polls did Mr. Booker come out punching, trying to make the election a referendum on the government shutdown.

Voters apparently found Mr. Lonegan too conservative; 60 percent told the Rutgers poll he was further to the right than most of the state.

Still, the campaign “made Booker more human, less Superman,” said David Redlawsk, the director of the Rutgers poll, pointing to the drops in his favorability.

The question now for Mr. Booker is how he plays his celebrity in the Senate, a chamber where show horses tend to stumble.

He has promised that he will continue to live in Newark. He has also said he intends to keep up his presence on Twitter.

article by Kate Zernike via nytimes.com

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