Will He or Won’t He

Will Cory Booker Parlay Heroics and High Profile Into a Run for Governor?

The Newark mayor known for his rescue efforts was expected to run, but Chris Christie’s popularity may scotch that, says David Freedlander.

Julio Cortez / AP Photo

Starting Tuesday, Newark Mayor Cory Booker will try to survive for a week on food stamps in an effort to raise awareness about the meager rations the federal program provides. It is exactly the kind of publicity-generating move that an ambitious pol looking to boost his name recognition would try, and precisely the kind of move that Booker, who has rescued constituents from fires, dug them out of snowbanks, and opened his home to them during hurricanes, has perfected.

But it is not the move of someone looking to run for governor, who instead of scraping by on ramen noodles and budget peanut butter should be courting donors over rubber-chicken dinners and pricy bottles of wine. And a month ago, it appeared that Booker was ready to do just that, with the top Obama-campaign surrogate planning to head out to California to attend fundraisers hosted by Lady Gaga’s manager, among others, to gauge support from the West Coast donor class about a possible run against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose poll numbers in the wake of Sandy shattered previous records for Garden State governors.

But in recent days talk of a Booker-for-governor run has faded, and there are few people in Newark or Trenton who think the mayor, despite his national star wattage, is seriously gunning for the job of one of the most visible governors in the country, even as his office has privately signaled he will not run for reelection as mayor in 2014.

“I would be shocked if he did it,” said one top Democratic operative who has already run a successful Democratic gubernatorial campaign in the state. “They are not on the phone with anybody—either he or his people. I realize he does things his own way, but if you are going to be governor you have to be working the phones, calling county chairmen, other elected officials, fundraisers. Even if you don’t care what they say—you can put the phone on mute if you want to—but you have to make the calls.”

Mayor Booker’s office said he was unavailable for comment.

The most recent Booker boomlet began at the end of the summer, during the Democratic convention. Prior to that, people believed the young mayor when he said he was focusing on his current job. But speculation began to increase that Christie would not seek reelection, and would instead go for some kind of cushy Fox News gig to lay the groundwork for his own presidential run in 2016. And so, Jersey Democrats say, Booker’s allies began to float his name as a potential candidate, the better to cut off anyone who wanted to jump in line. Plus, “Booker for governor” chatter had the neat trick of getting the mayor’s name associated with something else at the convention other than his Obama apostasies.

The case for Booker making a go at Trenton now is a strong one, given New Jersey’s peculiar politics and limited options: Until a few years ago, the state lacked any statewide office other than governor and senator. (After Jim McGreevey resigned as governor in the wake of confessing to an affair with a male aide, the office of lieutenant governor was created.) With no comptroller, no attorney general, and no agriculture commissioner or insurance commissioner, candidates often have to run statewide once and lose—boosting their name recognition in the process—in order to move into the governor’s mansion. This was McGreevey’s path to the job, as it was Christine Todd Whitman’s before him, James Florio’s before her, and Thomas Kean’s before him. New Jersey is a state without a major media market of its own, but does have the huge markets of Philadelphia and New York bookending its northern and southern borders. Getting on the air in either is often prohibitively expensive for any but the most well-heeled candidates, and since there is little overlap between the two markets, serious contenders for the job must go on the air, heavily, in both.

The thinking for why Booker would take the plunge now is that even if he were to lose against Christie, he would boost his name ID in order to run four years from now, or to run for the U.S. Senate. But people close to Booker say the normal rules probably don’t apply to him—that for a politician of a medium-sized city, he achieved a national star power (recall his fake feud with Conan O’Brien) that would allow him to put together a decent statewide campaign on the first try.

“Yes, it is hard for guys to break through, but he may be one of the only guys who can do it,” said one adviser to the mayor. “He comes to this with a kind of national celebrity.”

But Christie is something of a national celebrity too, and even in a state as deeply Democratic as New Jersey, knocking him off won’t be easy. Putting aside his post-Sandy bump, Christie has consistently been above a 50 percent approval rating. And although Booker is a national hero, he has been in charge of a city that has become synonymous with urban ills, a place plagued with budget woes, and where anti-Booker forces recently staged a revolt on the City Council—something Christie’s aides have indicated they would not be shy about bringing up in a potential general-election bout.

Plus, there is a pretty decent consolation prize if Booker takes a pass—the Senate seat currently occupied by Democrat Frank Lautenberg.

Lautenberg was first elected to the Senate in 1982. He has given no indication that he plans to retire, but will be 90 by 2014. New Jersey Democrats say Lautenberg looks at the young upstart from Newark with more than a little bit of scorn, but that it wouldn’t matter much if Booker takes a pass on Christie in order to vie for that seat. They say Booker could crush Lautenberg in a primary if he wanted to, and that the incumbent senator would face serious pressure from D.C. Democrats to retire, for fear that he would not be able to serve out his term, and that Christie would appoint a fellow Republican to replace him, upsetting the delicate balance of the Senate.

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“He can walk into that U.S. Senate. Literally walk into it,” said a Democratic operative. “I don’t know why you would risk getting black and blue in hand-to-hand combat, which is what it would be with Chris Christie.”

If Booker holds out for 2014, no Democrat will have the stature or the fundraising perch to challenge him, and the state consistently votes against sending Republicans to Washington.

People close to Booker say that if he could, he would rather be governor than senator. For one, it is a better perch from which to run for president one day; and it is more in his makeup to be an executive than “one of a hundred” lawmakers in the Senate.

“Both of these guys have national ambitions, so if you are Booker and you think you might want to run for president, what better way than knocking off a presidential contender,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University. “He is a politician, and politicians like a good dogfight.”

And, if it seems that Booker is delaying making up his mind, it is perhaps because he is likely feeling pressure from party bosses both at home and in Washington. For national partisans, Booker is their best shot to take out Christie and derail a frontrunner for the 2016 nomination. Plus, New Jersey is one of two states that host statewide elections next year, and so whoever wins there tends to affect the national conversation. (In 2009, for example, Christie’s win over incumbent Jon Corzine was heralded as the earlier crest of the Tea Party wave.) And for local Democrats, Booker may be the only candidate who can keep them from losing legislative seats in Trenton.

“Democrats can’t roll over on this one,” said one operative working to unseat Christie. “The Democratic Party brand could suffer if Christie is seen as cruising to reelection.”

An adviser to Booker said the mayor would make up his mind “well in advance of the New Year,” in order to let other Democrats prepare to run against Christie if he chooses not to. Other potential candidates don’t seem to be waiting around, though, for the official word. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney has already indicated he will run if Booker doesn’t, and former governor Richard Codey may do the same. The Democratic Governors Association held its annual meeting in California this week, and New Jersey State Sen. Barbara Buono was there, working the crowd.

Mayor Booker was not.