Hero No More?

How Did Cory Booker Get Himself Into Such a Dumb Money Mess?

Stuart Stevens on how the mayor got into such a predicament with his equity payouts and Web startup.

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There is much to admire about Cory Booker: college athlete, Rhodes scholar, Yale Law, his obvious commitment to public service. When he first ran for Newark mayor, the loathsome incumbent Sharpe James called him “a Republican who took money from the KKK [and] Taliban ... [who’s] collaborating with the Jews to take over Newark.” So you pretty much know the guy has to be doing something right.

But there is something decidedly odd about the whole Cory Booker phenomenon. Someone who managed to become a national political figure as mayor of the nation’s 67th-largest city, he is dangerously close to falling into the celebrity trap of being famous for being famous. The New Republic describes him as a “charismatic tweeter,” which seems to be the contemporary equivalent of “best dressed” or “great conversationalist” at dinner parties. So what? Does anyone doubt that if Tracy Flick of Election were running today, she’d be a “charismatic tweeter”?

Like few public officials, Booker has gone out of his way to establish that he is in sync with the problems of his constituents. He has lived in public housing, spent a week living on a $30 SNAP allowance, and famously shoveled a constituent’s driveway. All these things were done very publicly, with a seemingly shrewd eye toward their definitional impact on his public image. That doesn’t mean they are any less genuine, but let’s just say most people don’t hold press conferences to announce their acts of good citizenship or tweet their latest Good Samaritan deeds.

But any way you cut it, Booker seems to be unusually aware of his public persona, which he goes to great lengths to cultivate and protect. So you have to ask, how in the world did he allow himself to get into such a money mess?

As The New York Times reported, while ostensibly a full-time mayor, Booker has found time to launch an Internet startup that has increased his net worth by more than $1 million. That is, at best, strange. As mayor, Booker is paid about the same as a member of Congress, and one can imagine the outcry if a sitting congressman used his connections to lure investors into a corporate venture that made him an instant millionaire. Indeed, it would be illegal for a congressman to do so, and while it may not be illegal for a Newark mayor, the whole thing still stinks.

On closer examination, it only gets worse. The Internet startup, called Waywire, is basically a joke, with fewer than 3,000 visits in June. Starting a company that doesn’t really do anything so that “investors,” most of whom are donors, can make a New Jersey politician rich seems more like the story line of a Sopranos episode than the next chapter in the promising career of a national politician. Throw in the comical notion that the 15-year-old son of one of the nation’s most influential media executives is a board member with stock options of this do-nothing company, and it starts to look like a ready-made vehicle for Joe Pesci. “He’s 15? So what? The kid’s a genius, I’m telling ya!”

Oy vey. Then we learn through the New York Post that Booker has been receiving equity payments from his former law firms that he has failed to disclose. His spokesman explains there was no need to reveal the payments on financial disclosure forms because “it was not compensation for services rendered. It was a return on equity.” Got it?

As someone who has spent a lot of time around politicians, I tend to believe that many things that look bad usually have a reasonable explanation. Just because a campaign hasn’t done a great job explaining a situation doesn’t make a candidate guilty, and most situations turn out to be far more innocent than opponents or conspiracy freaks would like to believe.

But for heaven’s sake, at best Booker has gotten himself into one dumb mess. There is an irreconcilable dissonance between the guy who cares so much that he lives in public housing and the guy who uses his connections to become a millionaire while working a full-time, highly paid government job. The tweeting and constant speech giving around the country can be chalked up to a need for attention and sheer political ambition. But using donors to enrich oneself is as an old and tawdry practice that is about getting rich, not famous.

I imagine on some level, Booker is aware that someone with his skills and background could easily have made a fortune if he had stayed in the private sector. He may have a voice in his head that says, “I’ve done good things and helped people. What’s wrong with me helping myself?” That’s all understandable, and I’m all for people being successful and rewarded for their efforts.

Still, one basic truth is inescapable. Be it in real estate or on the Internet, public officials should not trade on connections to get rich. It’s a basic violation of the public trust. Booker should simply know better. And if he doesn’t, he doesn’t deserve to be promoted to the U.S. Senate.