Cory Booker has a dream. An impossible dream — “that somewhere between now and 10:30 I will be able to close my eyes,” he says. The time is 9 p.m. on Election Day.
Twenty minutes of sleep at a time is all the mayor of Newark usually needs. He’ll take that shuteye anywhere, even right here, in his black SUV with tinted windows parked next to Democracy Plaza in Rockefeller Center, where he’s just made a last-minute appearance as an Obama surrogate on Brian Williams at the behest of the campaign. Booker doesn’t mind the hundreds of people screaming outside 30 Rock every time a state goes blue. That’s a beautiful sound, he says, and besides, sometime during his six years in this office, he lost the ability to fall asleep in silence: “I have to have some noise that stops my mind from thinking.”
Tense as it is, tonight is actually a welcome breather from the past ten days. Some 40,000 Newark residents are still without power after Hurricane Sandy. Booker is wearing faded blue jeans, a sweater, and waterproof all-terrain sneakers. “Putting on a suit this week would have felt like you were dressed wrong,” he says. Behind him in the car is a pile of Pampers, Similac baby formula, blankets, flashlights, carbon monoxide detectors (two Newark residents died recently because there were generators too close to their homes*), and Halloween candy and games for kids in shelters. He’s been handing these out while making his rounds as the most accessible politician in America: If you Tweet him, he will come.
Or he’ll have you come to him. When a woman sent him a Twitter message on Thursday that her electricity still wasn’t on, he invited her, and anyone in the city who needed shelter, over to his house. Booker brought his mobile WiFi connection and his DVD collection (sci-fi, Pixar cartoons) down to the apartment on his first floor that he keeps for guests. There were a couple beds so people could sleep. Booker wasn’t even there: “We were delivering food around the clock; three meals a day for folks, more or less.” But he’d pop in and say hi whenever he arrived back home. Up to 30 people came by per day. “That wasn’t silliness, opening my house,” says Booker. “There were hundreds and hundreds of people in Newark doing the exact same thing.” He describes workers at the nonemergency hotline who worked 24-hour shifts during the storm, and a woman in an electric wheelchair who wanted a case of water so she could deliver it to her neighbors. “It’s almost like me just trying to just keep up to the standard that people are setting in my city.”
Election Day morning, Jezebel.com had run an article entitled “Cory Booker Is a Great Imaginary Boyfriend but Probably Sucks In Real Life,” detailing how annoyingly his hands-on, do-gooding public persona might play out if you were actually in a relationship with him. Would it be possible to converse with him over dinner, given his constant replying to everyone on Twitter? (He’s been teased endlessly for having responded to a Newark resident with the handle @Big_Boobs_Carly who complained of being without power.) Could you get through a Sunday jog without “Cory racing to and from burning buildings, carrying people, animals, and precious belongs to safety”?
Booker, 43, won’t directly comment on his romantic status, but says: “Let’s just put it this way, my mom, who has gone through phases in my life about what she bugs me about, now her quest is to see her son in blissful matrimony. And I’m nowhere near that, but it would be a wonderful thing to experience. And this job does make it very hard to get to that end. I definitely have frustrated exes out there.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising when Newark’s heroic mayor tells me he relaxes by binge-watching sci-fi and superhero shows: “It’s really embarrassing to tell you this, but you’ve got me really tired and I have no filters — I’m actually on Season 6 of Smallville,” he says of the series about a teenage Superman. When I tell him Smallville’s Kristin Kruek is now starring in the CW’s Beauty and the Beast, he is overjoyed. “Lana’s in Beauty and the Beast?! Oh my gosh! I want to check that out. Oh my gosh. I’m so happy she landed somewhere. Oh, wow!”
Booker began Election Day by checking in with his command staff about preparedness for the incoming snowstorm. They’ve gotten some much-needed but hilarious corporate donations, including a shipment of Hot Pockets (thanks to a Newark resident who’d begged Booker to solve the Hot Pocket shortage in his apartment), and cases of water from Budweiser that curiously came in cans. “I’ve never drank alcohol in my life, but a Budweiser water I’d be willing to crack open right now,” says Booker.
Then came a 7 a.m. interview on Hot 97 about the state of the city, the election, and Big Boobs Carly. He got in a half-hour on his stationary bike — his first workout in ten days, when preparation for Sandy had begun — before heading out at 8 a.m. to check on the polls. Machines were malfunctioning everywhere, including Booker’s polling station, so when he went to vote, he says, “I actually did have a line, and the polling people immediately screamed at me.” He ordered them pizza while he waited.
There’s another roar from Rockefeller Plaza. Booker opens his window to listen, and peep at how much Obama’s tally has risen. Booker got some nasty fire from David Axelrod in May when he went off-message and criticized the President for being too hard on private equity, but he’s back in formation now: “When you get a request from the president to show up on TV, you say, ‘Yes. Where? When?’” Booker blows his nose; he caught a cold when his heat and power went out, plus he hasn’t slept more than a few hours a night in seven days. “I should be more clear,” he says. “It’s a request of the campaign. The president of the United States does not care what Cory Booker is doing tonight. He doesn’t give a damn about me. I sound like Bob Dole now! ‘Cory Booker will not … ’ No, I’m sure he has no idea that I’m answering the request of the campaign to be on BET tonight.”
Booker started his political career before President Obama was even a state senator, and it was Booker whom people were predicting might be the first black president, before he lost his first race to be mayor of Newark in 2002. Now there’s talk of him challenging Chris Christie for governor of New Jersey. Is he really thinking seriously about it? “Yeah. I’m going to think seriously about my future,” he says. “I mean, as soon as this thing is over, I told my staff, ‘Everybody, it’s time to stop, take stock, and really stay focused on purpose, not position.’” He laughs. “I need to rest! Seriously. It’s like, I’m done. I was going at an intense pace before the hurricane. And so now that I’ve been nonstop … it’ll be probably like around maybe Thanksgiving, I’m just going to shut down. I’m going to go into a state of cryogenic sleep, then try to wake up, take a deep breath, and begin to evaluate reelection, which is still a real possibility. The joke I always make is I’m either running for reelection, running for Senate, running for governor, or running for my life. The latter is also a viable possibility.”
Now the African-American-focused cable station TV One has asked for an interview before he heads over to his 10:30 p.m. interview at BET, then Rachel Maddow. “There’s no disco nap for you,” his press secretary declares. Booker seems too tired to protest, or kick me out, and instead gabs about things that make him cry: A Romney victory would’ve just made him “bummed,” but watching Steel Magnolias or Beaches would be a whole other story. “I come from a mother who can cry at a G.E. commercial,” he says. “So, you know, my family, it wasn’t a bad thing.” After the TV is over, he’ll be heading back to Jersey to give his friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the underdog Republican candidate for a congressional race in Tenafly, a consolation hug. But first he needs to retouch his makeup. “With all the bags under my eyes, I probably need more than makeup,” he sighs. “Do they do plastic surgery before these things?”
* This article has been corrected to show that two Newark residents died from having generators too close to their homes, not from using ovens for heat.