Booker follows in Obama’s footsteps

Cory Booker's huge victory in New Jersey’s Senate Democratic primary underlines expectations that the Newark mayor will follow President Obama as his party's next big star.

Comparisons between the two African-American politicians aren’t new, but ignore the fact that Booker is a different kind of politician than Obama — even though he is following a similar trail blazed by the nation’s first black president.

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“I think the reality is that probably beyond the facade there are probably many more differences between President Obama and Mayor Booker than many people realize,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University.

The timelines of their lives lend themselves to comparisons. But the two have diverged considerably over the years.

Both went to Ivy League schools, but they emerged from distinctly different backgrounds — Obama was raised by his grandparents in a middle-class household, while Booker grew up in the affluent New Jersey suburbs, the son of IBM executives.

While Obama was steeped in academia at the age of 29, finishing up his law degree at Harvard, Booker, at 29, was first elected to Newark’s city council.

They both sought higher office around their mid-30s, Obama gaining a spot in the Illinois state Senate at 36, while Booker came into power as mayor of Newark at 37.

Now, Booker is likely to win election to the Senate at 44, roughly the same age Obama was when he came to Washington to represent Illinois.

Both have considerable star power, and, like Obama, Booker counts celebrities ranging from Mark Zuckerberg to Oprah Winfrey to Eva Longoria among his friends and backers.

Booker also enters the Senate with more executive experience than Obama — and subsequently with more baggage.

He has already received flak for his close relationship with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R )and his support for school choice initiatives, and he angered union groups when he laid off a number of police officers as part of his efforts to improve the city’s finances.

By serving in city politics — first as a councilman, then mayor — Booker cultivated a different skill set than Obama, who went from being an Illinois state Senator to the U.S. Senate.

“I think Cory probably has a more hands-on perspective on dealing with issues,” said John Wisniewski, a former New Jersey Democratic Party Chairman.

But Booker’s time as mayor has become somewhat of a liability.

Though the city is measurably better off in terms of crime statistics and business investments since Booker took over, he has faced criticism for not doing more.

“I don’t want to say that Newark is baggage, but having served as an executive of a very large city during a recession brings with it a certain amount of baggage,” Harrison said. “The inability, for example to fully tackle issues like crime and education reform, those kinds of things, he's been in kind of a stranglehold in tackling them because of the tough economic climate.”

State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D), a Booker ally, said he expects Booker’s executive experience will come in handy in the Senate.

“I think he’s going to bring a very good approach to governing that’s missing in Washington right now, and can be very helpful to President Obama because they agree on the issues — but Cory's more practical approach to problem-solving, I figure, can enhance Obama’s policies in the Senate,” he said.

Like Obama, Booker faces high expectations.

Obama’s star rose after a sparkling speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, and talk of a presidential run in 2008 began almost immediately following his swearing-in.

Booker is also seen as a possible White House candidate, though most see his time as coming down the road and not in 2016.

If he decides to run in 2020 or 2024, it will come after at least one term in the Senate – assuming he wins in the fall.

New Jersey state Sen. Richard Codey doesn’t expect Booker to run for the White House in 2016, and says a big question is how the mayor will maintain his national profile.

“If a Democrat does get elected [in 2016], what does he do for those eight years?,” Codey said. “Can he still keep going at the same rate of speed, keep up the same profile?”

Booker has said he expects to raise funds and campaign for Democrats when he joins the Senate, a skill Codey said is only enhanced by his prominent profile.

“He’s got all these connections, he’s a known brand nationally,” said Codey.

Lesniak said he expects Booker will try to portray himself as above Washington’s bickering.

Obama, too, was once characterized as a post-partisan politician — though now he is one of the most polarizing politicians in history.

Booker spokesman Kevin Griffis said Booker's main priority will be serving the people of New Jersey — a goal that reflects the scrutiny he'll face from his constituents.

One New Jersey Democratic operative said New Jersey voters would be watching to see if Booker returned to the liberal Democratic mold set by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who died earlier this year.

“New Jersey voters would see him being successful and meeting their expectations if he pivots away from some of the stuff he needed to do in Newark that maybe wasn’t as in line with progressive ideals,” the operative said.