Booker hits early bumps on road to Senate nomination in New Jersey

Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) is facing early obstacles on his path to the Democratic nomination for Senate in New Jersey, as critics in his own party question his political tactics and withhold endorsements for his nascent 2014 campaign. 

The early unease with Booker is a signal that, despite his prominence in the Democratic Party and national donor base, the mayor won’t be handed the Democratic nomination in his probable run for Senate.

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Booker’s decision not to challenge Gov. Chris Christie (R) in New Jersey’s 2013 gubernatorial race frustrated many in New Jersey Democratic circles, who feel that Booker’s personal political calculations cost them their best bet at defeating the well-liked GOP governor.

Many Booker critics, and even some friends, believe the Newark mayor was disrespectful toward Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) and presumptuous in revealing his Senate ambitions so soon after ruling out a gubernatorial run. 

But what’s unclear is whether Booker’s decision not to run for governor has rankled enough New Jersey power brokers to jeopardize his ability to make it through a primary race.

State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D), who has powerful sway over the Union County Democratic Party in New Jersey, demurred when asked about endorsing Booker. 

“First of all, I’m not going to support anybody till Sen. Lautenberg makes a decision [if he will seek reelection],” Lesniak, who said he would have backed a Booker gubernatorial bid, told The Hill.

“Secondly, Cory Booker expressed an interest in running for governor, and that was an easy choice for me. Next year there are many other candidates who are very, very good [Senate] candidates, and it’s just very premature for me to be making a decision.”

Lautenberg aides, meanwhile, have hurled anonymous barbs at Booker in a number of national political publications. 

Behind the scenes, other New Jersey Democrats express frustration with what they see as a national party darling jumping ahead of well-established New Jersey Democrats who have, they say, waited their turn.

“Congressman [Frank] Pallone [Jr. (D)] has been making the rounds non-stop for many, many, many years. [State] Senate President Steven Sweeney [D] has been making the rounds for years. They’ve both been building relationships,” said one unaligned Democratic strategist.

Pallone, who has been in Congress for two decades, is preparing for a Senate run if Lautenberg decides to retire. Sweeney, a state legislator for a decade, is considered a possible contender as well. 

State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver has not ruled out a bid. State Sen. Barbara Buono, currently the party’s only candidate to challenge Christie, could make a bid for Senate if she fails to become the governor.

Booker might suffer from the perception, particularly in Newark, that he spends more time pursuing big-name donors in places like Hollywood and New York, and not enough time in his own city.

But Booker has been known to give back to Democrats in the state over the years, often keynoting fundraisers for county parties and state legislative candidates. 

There are early signs Booker has strong support among Democratic voters. 

In a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University poll, 42 percent saying they’d prefer Booker as their nominee, compared to 20 percent who prefer Lautenberg. 

And while Booker has angered some Democrats in the state, many have stood by him. 

Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo told the Newark Star-Ledger that “there’s no question in my mind [Booker] has made the right decision.”

“Whatever Cory’s going to do, there’s no question I will be supporting him,” DiVincenzo added.

In New Jersey primaries, each county party endorses a candidate. Those endorsements give candidates preferable treatment on the ballot — essentially delivering the county to that candidate. Without enough county lines, a candidate can’t make it through a primary.

DiVincenzo’s support will be integral to Booker’s ability to gain the nomination, as he holds sway over the Essex County candidate endorsement. 

But many other New Jersey Democrats feel they were misled by Booker when he showed interest in a gubernatorial run in August of last year. And Lesniak’s comments are an indication that even Booker supporters are frustrated with him.

Those close to Booker say the mayor is working to mend fences with a number of the Democratic Party power brokers whose support he’ll need in a primary. 

“To the greatest extent possible, the mayor would like to defuse any tension between him and the senator,” one Booker source said of the relationship between Booker and Lautenberg.

It’s also unclear whether Booker’s perceived slight of Lautenberg will ultimately outweigh more practical considerations, like his formidable fundraising strength and ability to turn out the Democratic base. 

County parties, in deciding their line, look for top-of-the-ticket candidates who clearly can win, but also those who can aid their own local candidates at fundraisers and the ballot box. 

During a primary race against Lautenberg or other candidates, Booker would have to answer for a number of positions on issues critics say are far from liberal.

The Newark mayor supports charter schools and merit pay, positions that fall on the more conservative side of education reform. 

He also recently argued that the real issue with respect to gun control is not “law-abiding owners,” but “criminals” purchasing guns on the secondary market.

Booker also defended 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s business, Bain Capital, and private equity, prompting some critics to ask whether he might have deep ties to Wall Street.

Booker will face questions, too, about his management of Newark.

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The city laid off about 160 police officers in 2010 in an effort to whittle down the city’s budget deficit, drawing the ire of the city’s police union. 

The city’s unemployment rate hovers around 15 percent despite Booker’s efforts to bring investments to Newark. 

State Sen. Ron Rice (D), whom Booker defeated in a 2006 mayoral run, told Bloomberg News that Booker spent too much time focusing on projects outside of Newark.

“You have a mayor who, to be quite frank about it, all he does is run around the country and tweet folks,” Rice said. “Nobody’s really in charge of City Hall.”

Booker supporters point out that the mayor has brought big investments to New Jersey, both from billionaires supporting school reform and businesses electing to build headquarters in the city. 

They also note Booker took over the mayor’s chair at a difficult time, facing a city riddled with crime, poverty and a broken education system.

Booker has begun laying the groundwork for a tough campaign. 

A source close to the mayor says he is in talks with a strong team of New Jersey political strategists. They include Joel Benenson, President Obama’s pollster in 2012, Steve Demicco and Brad Lawrence, all of whom previously worked for Booker. 

He is also already raising funds, “hitting the phones daily,” according to one source.