Booker has spent seven years now as the super-tweeting superhero of Newark—living for years in a housing project that has since been torn down, camping out in a drug marketplace, inviting Sandy refugees over to his house to watch his sci-fi DVDs, and, recently, living for a week on a food-stamp budget of $4 a day. Many Jersey Democrats wanted Booker to run for governor against Chris Christie, that other ascendant Jersey politico, even though they thought he probably couldn’t win. (Booker insists he could have beaten Christie, but thought senator was a better fit.)
And next week, in an all-but-certified primary that precedes what promises to be a similarly speed-bump-less special election in October to fill the seat vacated after Senator Frank Lautenberg died earlier this year, Booker will be effectively anointed one of the most famous junior senators in the country, a pop star of purposeful post-partisan humanism.
Booker’s opponents in the primary—journeymen congressmen Frank Pallone and Rush Holt—are well qualified, with solid records and accomplishments for the state. But nobody has ever heard much from them outside of their districts, and since the special election is happening so quickly, the thinking is that they don’t stand a chance against the mayor’s name in lights. Newark has only a quarter-million residents, but Booker’s got over 1.4 million Twitter followers; part ownership in a social-media platform called #waywire (where Jeff Zucker’s teenage son is on the board); regular TV-news-chat-show appearances and a role on a Sundance-channel reality show called Brick City; and high-altitude friendships with Gayle King, Rachel Maddow, and Zuckerberg, as well as hedge-fund bigs like Bill Ackman, Leon G. Cooperman, and Boykin Curry (whose brother, Marshall, made Street Fight). This is not the profile of a regional politician on the rise but an already-national figure seeking to take his show to a more prominent venue. Buzzworthy Booker has pretty much his own dedicated beat writer on BuzzFeed and both writes for and is covered extensively by his friend Arianna Huffington’s little news blog. If last year the Star-Ledger figured out that he was away from Newark almost a quarter of the time—his critics say the day-to-day mechanics of municipal government increasingly bore him—that doesn’t seem to threaten his way to the Senate, where he’ll represent one of the country’s wealthiest states from one of its poorest corners.
The story of Booker’s career has always been a story of ascent, about moving from one place to another with adaptive ease. Booker’s a private-equity-friendly, venture-capital-conversant Bloombergian pragmatist who can talk “solutionism,” and can do it in the urgent poetics of the black church, in which he grew up. (He calls poverty our “American apartheid.”) He knows more about Judaism than most suburban Jews he meets—which isn’t a bad fund-raising shtick—but also spent time with Deepak Chopra in an ashram in India, and he tweets out so many uplifting quotes that Huffington joked to me that if you follow his feed for a day, you can build a commencement speech. A management consultant in community-organizer clothing, and an underclass fix-it man with a locally tested policy pitch he can retail nationally, Booker’s running to be the social-media senator from the Twitterocratic nation of tomorrow.
“My constituency is technically only 280,000 people,” he said earlier this year at SXSW in Austin (at an event named, auspiciously: “Cory Booker: New Media Politician”), “but it’s also the United States. It’s time to wake people up again, and we can do that.”
Newark is only about ten miles from Manhattan, but it seems further, and if you make the mistake of taking the pokey path train, the trip can take as long as an hour.
The city is the largest in New Jersey, but it’s a pretty small place, too—it’s an easy walk from Newark Penn Station and its surrounding unfriendly fortress of modern office buildings to the Robert Treat Center, where Booker has his campaign offices in a well-worn, circa-1916 building. And it’s not much of a hike from there to the impressive old City Hall. Walk just a few minutes farther, up past All Brothers Liquors #1 and a grand former synagogue turned Church of God in Christ, and you reach Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. On one side of the street is an Islamic center broadcasting a loudspeaker message about absentee fathers and hellfire; look east, and there’s downtown Manhattan in the distance. This is the street of the Brick Towers projects, where the legend of Booker in Newark found its footing. More than a decade later, with Booker poised to leave for Washington, the towers have been torn down, with the as-yet-unfulfilled promise of a more comfortable, smaller-scale development to replace them, and the block renamed for Virginia Jones, the local activist who encouraged Booker, then a tenants-rights lawyer, to run for office.