Newark, April 10–New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (D) may be headed for a more difficult reelection campaign this fall than many political professionals seem to think. The reason: the mainstream press, which has been his biggest booster, is now beginning to question not only his veracity but his competence as Newark mayor, which recently took a hit from a report issued by the state comptroller.
When he announced his intention to seek a Senate seat, Booker was considered a shoo-in. But the Senate campaign turned out to be no coronation. Although polls in early August had Booker with a 35-point lead, he struggled to an 11-point win over former mayor and American’s for Prosperity state director Steve Lonegan, a noted conservative gadfly. Lonegan ran a pugnacious campaign, attacking Booker’s stewardship of Newark directly while Booker put forth a lackluster effort noted more for the time he spent out of state fundraising than the time he spent in state campaigning.
Lonegan was aided by a story in National Review Online that revived questions about Booker’s background. In the story, Rutgers University professor and Booker supporter Clement Price told NRO that a drug dealer Booker called T-Bone, was a creation of Booker’s, not an actual person with whom the mayor shared a life-changing encounter. According to Booker, he shared a cab ride with T-Bone after an altercation in which the drug dealer allegedly threatened his life. The story ends with Booker befriending T-Bone and counseling him to turn himself in to the authorities. It was part of the personal narrative that he rode to Democratic Party stardom.
The questions about T-Bone helped take some of the luster off Booker. More importantly, the T-Bone story exposed Booker’s tendency toward exaggeration, bringing all aspects of his record into question, and not just from Republicans.
Last month, a New York Times
reporter visited Newark to report on the aftermath of Booker’s mayoralty, and concluded that Booker’s tenure did not live up to his billing. Titled, “Leader’s Words Don’t Tell the Real Story,” the article
excoriates Booker for cronyism, absenteeism, no-bid contracts, increasing homicides, and straight up corruption on his watch.
In late February, the New Jersey State Comptroller issued a report detailing allegations of official misconduct and embezzlement of public funds at the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation, a non-profit contracted by the city to manage its drinking water system, by people with close ties to Booker.
The report alleges former executive director Linda Watkins-Brashear – a Booker campaign volunteer and donor – padded her official salary, made more than $50,000 in unauthorized payments for no-show or menial jobs, awarded no-bid contracts to political fellow-travelers, and took a severance package of more than $200,000 in 2009 when she “resigned” her office even though she continued working at the corporation until 2013. Brashear then took another severance payout of more than $450,000.
The board counsel, Elnardo Webster – Booker’s former law partner and campaign treasurer – helped make it all possible. The report alleges Webster approved the no-bid contracts in violation of the corporation’s by-laws, and routinely allowed the board to make decisions without a quorum of members present. For his services, Webster received more than a million dollars in legal fees over a four-year period.
Booker, as mayor, was chairman of the corporation’s board, which received over $10 million a year from the city. The comptroller’s report says that the corporation’s board acted, “free from any meaningful oversight,” on Booker’s watch. Booker defends his stewardship, claiming that he authorized the city’s business administrator to attend board meetings in his place. But the report notes that Booker’s business administrator resigned in 2010, and that Booker never appointed a replacement.
As far back as December 2012, the New York Times chronicled
Booker’s image-over-substance record as Newark’s celebrity mayor. The article poked holes in famous Booker exploits, such as roving the streets with a snow shovel to clear residents’ driveways, rescuing a woman from a burning building and receiving burns to his hand, and living on food stamps for a week to better connect with many in his poverty-stricken city. In each case, the Times
exposed the reality behind the legend: Newark had no snow removal contract and streets were not maintained; Booker had eliminated three fire companies to save money after failing to close a budget hole; and six years after taking office Newark was as poor as ever despite Booker’s repeated promises to lift the city and its residents out of the grinding poverty that characterized it.
Taken together – the exaggerations and the less-than-meets-the-eye record as mayor – Booker’s flaws add up to a serious weakness that could cost him a bigger political future. New Jersey Republicans will certainly look to capitalize on them in this year’s campaign. New Jersey is a deep-blue state. But Booker’s underwhelming performance in the special election demonstrated that he could be vulnerable to a candidate who is willing to attack his record head on.
Four Republicans are vying for the chance to do just that. West Orange businessman Brian Goldberg, Freehold businessmen Rich Pezzullo, Ramapo College professor Murray Sabrin, and former Senate candidate Jeff Bell are seeking the nomination in the June primary. Human Events will have more on each of Booker’s challengers in a forthcoming profile.
Still, it will be a difficult race for the eventual Republican nominee. Booker remains a media darling even if it is asking more questions about the man behind the persona. Booker’s biggest hurdle may ultimately be his own carefully crafted image.
Mark Impomeni is a freelance conservative opinion writer and blogger living in New Jersey.