Why you should care

Because sometimes a politician’s tone can overshadow his policies.

Part of OZY’s occasional Know This Name series, on prominent leaders in business, sports, politics and other fields.

“Nauseating.” That’s what Cory Booker called the Obama campaign’s assaults on Mitt Romney’s career at Bain Capital while urging his fellow Democrats to “stop attacking private equity” during a May 2012 appearance on Meet the Press. The Newark mayor’s remarks turned stomachs in his own party, leaving the impression that he was, as his own campaign manager put it in The Atlantic, “some sort of Manchurian candidate for the right.”

Since becoming the junior U.S. senator from New Jersey in 2013, Booker has fortified his liberal credentials somewhat — see his work on criminal justice reform and a federal minimum wage hike — but the ambitious politico still has his own Mitt Romney problem that could derail his rapid rise.

All politicians are fueled by a combination of public duty and personal ambition. The best ones succeed by convincing us cynics that it’s more the former than the latter. Some, like 2012 presidential also-ran Mitt Romney, just can’t outrun the perception that they are some sort of alien android whose every move has been lab-tested to maximize political utility. Cory Booker, as Jason Horowitz of The Washington Post once put it, “seems to have been engineered in a political lab to walk the halls of Congress.” To be sure, the charismatic politician has a lot going for him, but if Booker, just 46, is going to reach his potential on the national stage, then he may have to convince us that doing so was never his intent. (The senator’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)

Booker has long enjoyed the limelight. A brawny, 6-foot-3 football player from Harrington, New Jersey, the shaven-headed All-American and honors student attended Stanford, Oxford (as a Rhodes scholar) and Yale Law School. Just one year out of law school, he won a seat on Newark’s city council in 1998. Four years later, he waged his first mayoral campaign, challenging, at age 33, incumbent Sharpe James, a machine politician who was later indicted on 33 counts of fraud. Booker lost, but the race ended up becoming the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary film.

He eventually won the office in 2006, after spending the eight years prior living in one of Newark’s most crime-ridden housing projects. It was the kind of act that would endear him to some, and strike others as a calculated political stunt. There would be many more such acts: rescuing a neighbor from a fire, hunger strikes to raise awareness of drug dealing, living on the budget of a food stamp recipient. During a 2010 blizzard, he responded to distressed residents’ tweets for help, even showing up with his own shovel to help dig them out. “Residents knew if they tweeted me about a pothole it would be addressed,” Sen. Booker recently told Wired.

Booker’s social media prowess has not helped his reputation for grandstanding.

Today, politicos must be gifted orators and tweeters alike; Booker is blessed to be both. See his 1.56 million Twitter followers and counting. And, as an early adopter and evangelist, Booker believes the medium can be used to reach out to constituents in more efficient and cost-effective ways than, say, a typewritten letter from your congressman. He’s even trying to make the Senate itself more tech savvy, pressing the chamber’s Rules Committee to allow senators to track their social media statistics, use cloud-based storage and develop a website that allows citizens to track ongoing legislative action on the Senate floor.

Booker’s social media prowess, including trumpeting his own accomplishments, has not helped his reputation for grandstanding. But the resistance his political rise has engendered has other sources as well. Part of it stems from his outsider status. “He really upset the apple cart when he burst into the political scene in Newark,” Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University, says of Booker’s assault on the city’s status quo. Booker’s middle-class background and narrative were also different from most other residents of Newark, a city with a history of persistent poverty and racial inequality, leaving him — like another black politician and outsider now in the White House — with a lot to prove.

Cory Booker

N.J. Sen. Cory Booker fist-bumps a supporter of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act outside the Senate chamber in Washington, D.C.

Source Gabriella Demczuk/Redux

But, as a big-city mayor rather than a community organizer, Booker has had, as Sarah Palin once quipped at the 2008 Republican National Convention, plenty of “actual responsibility” — not to mention an actual record. And it’s a mixed one. He balanced the city’s budget and, thanks partly to those Wall Street connections, he brought in more than $1 billion in new development, and more than $400 million in philanthropic investment, including a $100 million pledge from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, to Newark. But early crime reduction has proven ephemeral and Booker’s signature overhaul of the city’s school system, including replacing neighborhood schools with a citywide lottery, has been problematic. As a senator, Booker has taken on a lower profile, focusing largely on criminal justice reforms, including a recent bill that would require police departments to report officer shootings to the Justice Department. He has also reached out to colleagues across the aisle, teaming up with South Carolina Republican Tim Scott to co-sponsor a bill (the LEAP Act) that would provide tax credits to employers that offer apprenticeships to young employees.

Personally, Booker is an unmarried vegan, not something you come across everyday with a politician, and something that belies the view that he is merely a strategic one. “He’s engrossed in his professional life. He puts all of his energy into it,” says Jonathan Wharton, a political scientist at Southern Connecticut State University. If Booker’s path is to end at the White House, then he will need to sustain that energy: No mayor of a major American city, including his pal (and seven-figure donor) Michael Bloomberg, has every made the jump to the Oval Office. And to even have a chance, the young senator will need to re-take the narrative of his own life, something he will undoubtedly start in his upcoming memoirs (to be released in January). There, like Obama before him, Cory “Story” Booker, as his Newark critics once labeled him, is sure to luxuriate in crafting his own narrative — in more than 140 characters.

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