All of that has helped make the Democrat one of the most prominent members of a new generation of African American politicians who are positioned to follow President Obama’s legacy. They are young, modern, worldly and celebrated by the same multiracial, progressive coalition that elected and reelected Obama.
But for Booker, this new world is complicated by old problems as he makes an all-but-certain 2014 bid to replace Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D), who announced in February that he will retire.
Booker’s brand, chronicled in film, magazine spreads and 140-character tweets, stands in many ways wholly apart from the reality of Newark, a majority-black city marred by race riots, corruption and neglect.
His likely Senate run, in which he could face tough primary challengers, would be a referendum on his sometimes shaky stewardship of the city.
“This is a race that will be about breaking jaws in typical New Jersey style,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist. “He has to keep the hero story going to keep the attention off of Newark. He can’t say it’s a great place, but he can say it’s better than it was and that he has had the courage to stand up and fight the bad guys.”
Booker’s critics say that a Senate race would expose him as an absentee mayor who is busy tweeting his 1.3 million followers while ignoring the city’s entrenched problems.
“Everything is a ribbon-cutting and a press conference from him and some goodwill stuff he puts on Twitter, and meanwhile he is never here,” said state Sen. Ronald Rice (D), who lives in Newark and lost to Booker in 2006. “We are the biggest city in New Jersey, and we need a mayor that stays home to get things done.”
Rice noted that on a recent weekend, while Booker was in South Florida on a fundraising trip, the manager of an IHOP in Newark was fatally shot while trying to break up a fight between customers. Two other people were wounded.
Booker is aware of his vulnerabilities.
“At the end of the day, when you talk to Newarkers when I’m running for Senate, should I be doing that, you’re going to say to them, ‘Hey, how did he do on crime?’ ” Booker said in an interview. “And they are going to have to say, and they should give me an honest opinion.”
Not all of it will be good.
Since a 30 percent drop in the city’s homicide rate in 2008, when 67 people were killed, the number has risen, averaging 91 homicides in 2011 and 2012. Overall, the homicide rate has fallen 17 percent since Booker became mayor, but Newark was 20th in the FBI’s 2012 ranking of the country’s most dangerous cities.