The Ugly Truth About Cory Booker, New Jersey’s Golden Boy

Corruption scandals. Skyrocketing crime. Abandoned allies. There are reasons why New Jersey is lukewarm about its own Sen. Cory Booker—even while the rest of the country swoons.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It’s eight o’clock on a Sunday night in Jersey City, and for the first time this October it’s cold enough to see your breath in front of you with a deep exhale of the Hudson River air. It’s curious, given that, to see a group of a few dozen residents and visitors from neighboring towns assembled in a parking lot next to the train station—while the New York Giants are playing, no less. The workout-gear-clad mayor, Steven Fulop, is hopping up and down with his arms crossed over his chest for warmth, asking me when I think “he” will arrive.

He would be Cory Booker, who has promised to lead a campaign jog to a local ice cream parlor.

Ah, that explains the crowd.

Formerly the mayor of nearby Newark—the state’s largest urban enclave—and the only United States senator most New Jerseyans under 30 could pick out of a lineup, Booker is, it would seem, a little bit behind schedule. Not that these people care.

Booker is friends with Oprah and Spike Lee. He saves the helpless from burning buildings and puppies from untimely deaths. He shovels residents out of their driveways when it snows and tackles muggers with the graceful force of a former All-American tight end (which he is, of course). And for the past year, Booker has been in Washington, posting selfies with his fellow federal lawmakers and vowing to reform the criminal-justice system. For all anyone knows, Booker is out on the turnpike right now stopping two semi-trucks from colliding with each other through the sheer power of his charisma.

What’s more, Booker has once again found himself challenged by a Republican candidate who seems like he does not even want to win—a gold standard-obsessed former Reagan speechwriter named Jeff Bell, who has not lived in the Garden State for thirty years, is rumored to be running his campaign operation out of a hotel lobby, and whose idea of an attractive platform is to attack unmarried women for skewing left-wing because they are dependent on food stamps.

Yet Booker is actually having to put up a fight to be more than just a congressional seat-warmer.

The alleged FBI and U.S. Attorney investigations into the Newark Watershed may have something to do with that. Months after he first entered the Senate, the New Jersey comptroller alleged that under Booker’s watch—or, more likely, because he was not watching—corruption ran rampant at a publicly funded water-treatment and reservoir-management agency, where Booker’s former law partner served as counsel. And speaking of his former law career: Despite having resigned from his law firm once entering the mayor’s office, Booker received annual payments until 2011, during which time the firm was profiting handsomely off of Brick City. That would be the Brick City that Booker professed to love with the fire of a thousand suns, but did little to fundamentally change. Murder, violent crime, unemployment, and taxes all rose dramatically under his stewardship.

So even though it seems plausible that Bell is a Democratic plant sent to further weaken the Republican Party in New Jersey, Booker—celebrity, super hero, motivational tweeter—is barely polling above 50 percent.

Booker finally materializes—the tall, shadowy figure that appears amid the red and blue lights of the police vehicles lining the perimeter of the parking lot. He wears a black Under Armour T-shirt, red basketball shorts, sneakers, and white socks hiked up to his calves. He approaches the crowd which is—by virtue of his magnetic charm, or the light reflected off his toothy grin—already being pulled in his direction, where it forms a circle around him and Fulop.

“Steve is trying to make this into a political campaign speech about policy. I just want to run for a while and find some ice cream at the end to balance out the calorie intake and ex-take,” Booker jokes. Everyone laughs just a little too hard. “In Washington, it’s really exciting to be about the 21st—I think The Wall Street Journal said I was the 21st mayor in American history to go straight from being mayor to being a United States senator. There’s not that many folks with a perspective that you get from having to govern an urban area. When you’re a mayor, the great thing about it is, you’re very, very pragmatic. It’s not about right or left, it really is about, ‘How can I pull people together to get things done?’”

Booker began trying to answer that question in 2002, when he challenged the incumbent mayor of Newark: Sharpe James, a gap-toothed, gold-chain-wearing caricature of a corrupt, urban New Jersey politician. James defended his decades-long rule of Brick City by using Booker’s made-for-campaign-literature biography against him.

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Having been born in the late ’60s, Booker was young—maybe too young. He was raised in the white, leafy upper-class New Jersey suburb of Harrington Park—about an hour’s drive from Newark. Star football player, star student. Sailed off to Stanford, then Oxford—as a Rhodes Scholar—then Yale Law. And while attending the latter, in 1995, he moved into a housing project in Newark because, he said, he wanted to help the community. To James, and to his disciples—of which there were many—Booker was not like them. He was an outsider. A phony. James went as far as to call him an insufficiently black (his grandmother was white) Jewish (Baptist, actually, but served as copresident of a Jewish students group at Oxford) “Republican who took money from the KKK” (source unknown).

Booker lost, but in doing so, won: He starred in Street Fight, a documentary about the campaign, which received high praise from critics and an Oscar nomination. When he returned to challenge James in 2006, he was a celebrity with a chip on his shoulder. James dropped out of the race, and Booker strutted into office at 920 Broad Street with 72 percent of the vote. James would go onto be indicted on 33 counts of fraud—including charging the city credit cards with $58,000 in personal expenses—just like every other Newark mayor had been in the previous 45 years. Booker—who got elected by promising to improve safety through investing in the police department and bring accountability back to the city which for so long was plagued by mismanagement—would be different. Booker would nurse Newark’s wheezing, decaying body back to health. On Election Night, he beamed: “This is the beginning of a new chapter in the life of our city.”

Booker was no stranger to heroics. At Stanford, so the story goes, he talked a suicidal student down from a roof. While on the Newark City Council, beginning in 1998, he started engaging in the sort of stunts that would ultimately lead to his self-mythologization: living in a motorhome on a drug-ravaged street corner, and embarking on a 10-day hunger strike to bring attention to the projects.

But a new chapter in the life of Newark? Because of this one dude who quotes Gandhi?

Newark had never fully recovered from the 1967 riots, precipitated by brutality handed down from white police officers to black residents, which left over two dozen dead, hundreds injured, and caused millions of dollars in damages. In the subsequent four decades, the place had been headed by just three separate mayors. When Booker assumed office, his half-a-million constituents were grappling with high unemployment and rampant poverty. Violent crime was such that keeping the number of annual murders below 100 was a goal. Brick City was a sick place and it was creating the sort of sick people who would rape a pitbull puppy, like a man at a local housing project had, and brag about it around town.

It would have been unrealistic and unfair to expect Booker to improve everything—but he seemed to be asking to be held to such standards. “I’d gladly take a grenade,” he’d say, “if it meant saving this city.” Booker was on a “mission” and he wanted everyone to know that not only did he think it was possible to fix Newark, but with him leading the charge, such turnaround was inevitable.

Booker made himself available to his constituents—through social media, by phone, on the street late at night—and when they sounded the Booker-signal, he would personally address their problems. Cat in the tree? He would get it down. Car stuck in the snow? He would shovel you out. Dog freezing to death outside somewhere? He would warm it up. Natural disaster ruined Halloween for your kids? He would give them candy. Dying in a fire? He would carry you to safety.

But much like how giving change to panhandlers will not solve poverty, Booker’s good deeds were not fundamentally changing Newark. Despite ushering in hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropic donations to the city, and commissioning cosmetic surgery on public parks, Newark seemed no better off under Booker than it had been under James. Having vowed to strengthen the police department, he instead cut it by 13 percent to help balance the city’s budget. Homicides and violent crime spiked dramatically. Unemployment rose and child poverty increased 32 percent. And all of this came at a price of a 20 percent tax hike for the city’s residents.

Few outside of Newark noticed. Booker’s star was rising: Over a million Twitter followers, and half a million fans on Facebook. After saving his neighbor from a blaze (having shut down three of Newark’s fire companies, perhaps no one else was around to do it) Ellen Degeneres invited him on her show to gift him with a Superman costume. He frequently traveled outside of the state (in one year, he was gone about a quarter of the time) to give speeches—nearly 100 in total, including 10 commencement speeches, at Stanford, Brandeis, Williams College, Bard College, Pitzer College, Columbia University’s Teachers College, Suffolk University Law School, New York Law School, Washington University, and Ramapo College. For his oratory work he was paid over $1.3 million (a significant amount of which he donated to charity).

All the while, from 2006 to 2011, Booker was still receiving annual payments, which totaled close to $700,000, from his former law firm—Trenk, DiPasquale, Webster—from which he had resigned once elected mayor to avoid “the appearance of impropriety.” Booker’s campaign spokeswoman, Silvia Alvarez, told me: “He was paid out by the firm as part of his separation agreement for work he performed before he became mayor.” OK, sure, but while Booker was profiting from the firm, they were profiting from Newark: over $2 million in work for Newark’s Housing Authority, the Watershed Conservation Development Corporation, and a wastewater agency. “That’s almost like Sharpe James-type shit,” one New Jersey Democratic operative offered.

But even if it were Sharpe James-type shit, it could never overshadow the Cory Booker-type shit that made him so beloved: his sincere delivery of corny tropes about Believing In Yourself and Finding The Good In Others, his knack for remembering names, and his Clintonian ability to connect with any and every individual who makes contact with his big, hazel eyes—be they a drug addict, a hedge-fund manager, or a small child staring up at his 6’3” frame like he is some holy cross between LeBron James and Zeus. It was always assumed that Booker would be moving on to something bigger than Newark—to the governor’s mansion, it seemed obvious, but then that didn’t look like such a great idea: The fall before Chris Christie’s reelection campaign brought Hurricane Sandy, and with it, approval ratings so high for him that Jesus Christ himself could have sailed down from the heavens and won the Democratic nomination, only to be stomped out by Christie come Election Day.

Booker was not going to be the Democrats’ sacrificial lamb—but he could be their senator.

Having been there for five terms, the prickly Frank Lautenberg was not expected—at 88 years old—to run another campaign for the Senate. Out of decency, or the political need to at least appear decent, all would-be candidates waited until the ailing lawmaker announced he would not seek reelection to mount their own campaigns—well, all but Booker, who allegedly refused to let Lautenberg fade nobly into the sunset and instead stared him down in his weakened state to let him know who the boss was.

With Lautenberg somewhere in the ether, Christie scheduled a special election (at a cost of $24 million to taxpayers) for October 16th. This left Booker’s primary opponents—Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver and two old, white congressmen: the noodle-limbed, sleepy-eyed Frank Pallone and the odd, quiet nuclear physicist Rush Holt—just four months to make their own cases to voters, never mind one against Booker. Besides, there was the fear that any criticism of Booker's record in Newark would be misinterpreted as a criticism of Newark itself—his identity and his progress as a politician being inextricably linked with that of the city and its residents.

To complicate matters further, the only people who seemed to have any desire to go after Booker were of the conspiracy-theory ilk. Charles C. Johnson, then a writer for The Daily Caller but more recently known for questioning beheaded journalist James Foley’s patriotism and fear-mongering over Ebola, published a thinly sourced story that claimed Booker had never even lived in Newark—which some had long suspected, but—like many things assumed to be true in New Jersey politics—none had been able to prove. Others sunk as low as to question Booker’s sexuality.

“You almost sound like you’re a birther if you say anything about him,” said one New Jersey Democratic operative. “Who could have possibly made the argument, ‘You know something, Cory? You’ve been a lousy mayor. You know something, Cory? You took a kickback.’ How could you have possibly done that without causing a pop-culture calamity?”

“It would have been a hit against popular culture. The guy has been lionized as this mythological figure who saves old people from burning buildings and shovels snow—how could that have not reverberated throughout more than just political culture if you did an all-out assault on him? It would be like kicking the puppy that he rescued.”

Things only got easier for Booker after he won the Democratic nomination. His Republican opponent, Steve Lonegan, was a legally blind yet racially insensitive anti-immigration zealot whose flack ranted to a reporter that Booker interacted with a stripper on Twitter in a manner fitting of “a gay guy.” Somehow, this did not endear Lonegan to voters, and Booker officially entered the Senate on Oct. 31st.

Back in Jersey City, Booker is still talking in the parking lot. He scans the crowd as he speaks, making eye contact with each person individually. He even looks down to address a toddler who is noisily playing in a red wagon. “I’m really excited about the opportunity to be New Jersey’s United States senator—not just for eleven months, like I’ve been now, but have a full term of six years.”

Since his election, Booker has been taking a page from the playbook of superstar senators before him, like Al Franken and Hillary Clinton, by keeping his head down. He has submitted to few interviews, but remains ever-visible on social media. His central senatorial “achievement,” if you want to call it that, is the introduction of the REDEEM Act—an overhaul of the criminal-justice system that would encourage states to address the cycle of incarceration and recidivism by reforming how juveniles are dealt with, and to make it easier for people with criminal records to get jobs.

Booker introduced the bill, along with Republican Sen. Rand Paul, in July. But strangely, Booker didn’t seem to get behind his own legislation. When it came time to publicize the proposal, one senior Republican operative with knowledge of the situation told me, Booker wasn’t “overly comfortable jumping out and having the spotlight put on him.” Miscommunication between Booker and Paul’s camps led to the nixing of the original PR plan, which was to do a full-on media blitz to promote their ideas. Instead, Booker took softballs during a cocktail event, sponsored by Bank of America. “I don’t know why you’d give up a whole slew of interviews, including dominating the Sunday talk show circuit, in favor of doing a Mike Allen Politico briefing,” the operative said. “I don’t know why you’d do that unless you’re worried about the person asking you the questions.”

Meanwhile, it looked as though Booker’s record in Newark might be catching up with him. As mayor, he presided over and strengthened the Newark Watershed Conservation Development Corporation—a publicly funded entity that managed the city’s reservoirs and treated water for its residents. Pretty boring stuff. But a state audit by the comptroller’s office found that the agency’s director, Linda Watkins-Brashear, was a donor and close ally of Booker’s, was using the Watershed like her own personal bank account—paying herself $1.98 million over seven years, when her salary came to just $1.16 million. The also doled out millions in no-bid contracts to her friends and husband. Further, Booker’s former law partner, Elnardo Webster, had been acting as the Watershed’s counsel—and his firm had profited $212,318. “He had nothing to do with the business the firm conducted with the Watershed,” Booker’s spokeswoman, Silvia Alvarez, told me.

Not quite Chinatown, but in a city where police were being fired by the dozens, millions of taxpayer dollars lost due to a lack of oversight is no small mistake. Which is not to say that blame for the corruption should be placed solely at Booker’s feet—but the the comptroller’s office noted in their report that the mayor did not attend a single meeting regarding the agency. He instead sent a business administrator in his place, and then when the administrator resigned, in 2010, Booker never replaced them. He had no time to go to the meetings, he said. Never mind that a dearth of free time never seemed to get in the way of a commencement address, or a talk-show appearance, or a social-media stunt.

According to reports by The Star-Ledger and New York Post, the Watershed is being investigated by both the U.S. Attorney and the FBI. “The senator has not been contacted by the authorities,” Alvarez said, adding that he is only aware of the investigations “now, because it has been reported in the press.” In a recent interview with NJTV, Booker called the Watershed, “one of the big policy losses that I had in Newark.”

The police vehicles take off from the parking lot with Booker and Fulop in tow. Some supporters keep pace, and others trail behind walking, there to observe Booker in the flesh more than for the cardio. “He’s the hardest working senator there,” Donna Streeter, a middle-aged woman from New Brunswick tells me. She has brought her two teenaged children with her to see the man she says inspired her to care about politics. Streeter thinks Booker should challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016. “I think he’s ready. He’s qualified,” she says, slightly out of breath.

First, Booker will have to get past Bell, who arrived back in the Garden State in February following 30 years spent in Fairfax, Virginia. Bell worked in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations. His platform mostly consists of his desire to return to the gold standard—something polls show New Jersey residents do not care about—but he sometimes pivots to foreign policy (he’s a neocon) and his disdain for the welfare state.

On a sunny afternoon in late September, I traveled to Bell’s brother’s home in Fort Lee (of Bridgegate fame) to interview the candidate. He answered the door—bespectacled and tall, with shoulders so large and exacerbated by his out-of-date blazer that it looks as though he is being carried around by a clothes hanger—and stepped outside with palms facing forward, as if he thought he was about to be shot. Everything that occurred beyond the door, he said—the entire interview—would have to be off the record.

All of that, and the fact that hardly anyone within the state knows who the hell Bell is, and Booker is only polling modestly. After hovering around 42 percent all summer, with a Senate approval rating of 47 percent, Booker only just cracked 50 percent in a Monmouth University poll.

Inside Torico Ice Cream on Erie Street, Booker is standing among his supporters, a white towel draped over his neck absorbing the sweat dripping down from his shiny, bald head. He gracefully lifts a little boy in the air and poses for a picture. He answers every selfie request, as it’s an art he has perfected. He grasps the phone in his capable hand, outstretches his long arm toward the ceiling, and angles it down just so.

Booker jumps behind the counter and begins scooping the ice cream himself, serving it to anyone who wants it, or just happens to be there—children, voters, his former intern. He shouts across the room to ask if he can make me some. Looking around, it’s difficult to not notice that everybody else who had to be there to put in their hours of retail politics—Mayor Fulop among them—had left long ago.

A man in the crowd asks Booker about the Senate. “There’s a little more job security right here,” he laughs.