The Twitter Candidacy of Cory Booker

The Newark mayor tests the limits of celebrity politics in the New Jersey Senate race.
October 15, 2013

A New Jersey Senate seat is Cory Booker's to lose in Wednesday's special election. Newark's mayor brought the deep pockets, name recognition, famous friends, charisma and new-media smarts. But the Democratic darling won't be feted in Washington as a conquering hero.

The campaign to replace Frank Lautenberg, who died in June, has shown the drawbacks to the celebrity style of politics.

Mr. Booker, a 44-year-old African-American, is one of that style's modern masters. The chief executive of an impoverished city of 280,000 managed to become a talk-show staple of Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart and others. Mr. Booker starred in an Oscar-nominated documentary about his first failed run for mayor in 2002, and he was featured in the Sundance Channel's series about Newark, "Brick City." He has more than 1.4 million followers on Twitter. The media loved the story of a Stanford football standout and Rhodes scholar who took on corrupt and crime-ridden Newark.

Then his inevitable bid for higher office brought closer scrutiny of his seven years at city hall. The vetting turned up holes. He balanced the city's budget but raised taxes 20% and laid off hundreds of cops. Murders fell sharply in 2008, then went up every year since; the overall crime rate hasn't improved. Mr. Booker's high profile helped coax investors to a downtown still scarred by the 1967 race riots. Near the first high-rise office building built in 20 years and the first hotel in 30 years, Whole Foods last Thursday announced plans to open in the long-abandoned Hahne & Co. store after years of lobbying by the mayor. A "building that for so long was a symbol of Newark's decay," Mr. Booker said at the ceremony, is "now a symbol of Newark's future. What Newark can be." Yet unemployment is stuck above 14%.

Steve Lonegan, his Republican challenger, has relentlessly hit at the Democrat's "record of failure" in Newark. Mr. Lonegan also pokes fun at Mr. Booker's fundraising trips to Hollywood (at events hosted by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) and Silicon Valley ( Mark Zuckerberg), calling him an "absentee mayor." A memorable Lonegan one-liner: "New Jersey needs a leader, not a tweeter."

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