US Senate candidate Cory Booker has made himself into a political brand

Hollywood star Eva Longoria and Oprah Winfrey endorse Newark Mayor
  • @dusborne

It was set to be standard campaign fare – a final rally in a hotel ballroom in a downtown Newark hotel with confetti, balloons and a Hollywood star to make sure enough folks showed up. The candidate is Cory Booker, and the celebrity Eva Longoria, former cast member of ‘Desperate Housewives’.

Nothing else about New Jersey’s special election for a US Senate seat is standard however. Certainly there is nothing desperate about it for Mr Booker, mayor of Newark since 2006. Few doubt he will emerge the winner in primary elections on Tuesday or that he will also prevail on 16 October when voters will pick between him and a Republican opponent. (The state hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate since 1972.)

Mayor Booker can “start looking for a Washington apartment,” right now concedes Maurice Carroll, who directed a Quinnipiac University survey that last week showed him steamrolling his rivals for the Democratic nomination. The polls showed 54 per cent supporting Mr Booker. His nearest rival was US Congressman Frank Pallone with the backing of only 17 per cent of voters. In the race as well is Rush Holt, also a member of Congress, and Sheila Oliver, the speaker of the state legislature who had hopes of becoming the first woman and African American elected to the US Senate from New Jersey.

For all three the primary campaign of the last several weeks has been an exercise in frustration (and possibly futility). Even new revelations of Mr Booker’s involvement in a video-sharing internet start-up called Waywire that has earned him around $1 million (£646,000) have done nothing to slow his momentum. When they gathered for a first TV debate last month, the mayor didn’t show up; he preferred to attend a fancy fund-raising event on his behalf on the Hudson River across from Manhattan hosted by Oprah Winfrey.

That Mr Booker had a bigger future has been clear to national Democrats for a long while. Some in the party had hoped he would challenge Chris Christie, the Republican Governor of New Jersey and Republican heavyweight, who is seeking re-election in November. Mr Booker had already telegraphed his interest in seeking a US Senate seat instead when one of the state’s sitting senators, Frank Lautenberg, died. That meant Mr Booker could pursue his ambition sooner than he had thought.

It is not that his stewardship of Newark has been beyond criticism. While Mr Booker has done much to shine attention on its multiple problems and attract some small amounts of private investment – including a $100 million persona gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to help city schools – the scars of its past problems, many dating back to race riots that ravaged its urban-scape in 1967, very much remain. Today 26 per cent of Newark’s residents are living in poverty, nearly three times the level nationally.

Where he has succeeded is in making himself into a political brand. A tall and imposing 44-year-old African-American bachelor with a shaved head and ready smile, Mr Booker commanded a prime-time spot at the Democratic convention last year. He attained almost hero status last year after dashing into flames to save a neighbour from a house fire. He is famously prolific on Twitter with words of compassion. “Be kind to one another because we are all a bit more fragile than we let on,” he posted today.

When David Cameron, the Prime Minister, visited New York last year, he chose to spend several hours across the river with Mr Booker in New Jersey. Mr Cameron said he wanted to “exchange some information on schooling, on crime, on police accountability, on regeneration”. The mayor, we also were reminded, studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. Bill Clinton did the same.

When Mr Booker did turn up for a final debate last week, his rivals did what they could to puncture him. “The mayor talks about how he’s hands-on, but he’s not even in Newark at least 20 per cent of the time and now he’s got this new Internet start up,” Mr Pallone attempted.