Bari Mattes, Cory Booker’s senior adviser and longtime friend, called me one last time in November 2005. Booker, the African American Rhodes scholar who had been a member of the Newark City Council and lost his 2002 bid to unseat Mayor Sharpe James, was going to make another run for City Hall in 2006. The question for me was, would I be interested in joining Team Booker.
As someone born in Newark and who lived there until he was 10 years old, I was immensely flattered. The pitch was perfect. A son of Newark who left and made a name for himself in New York City could return home to help Booker break Newark from an entrenched leadership that was stifling dreams and progress.
The only problem was, I had no desire to leave the Big Apple. But I did make one exception. “If Cory wants me so badly, he’ll take the Senate seat,” I told Mattes. “If he does that, I’ll move to Washington tomorrow.”
The Senate seat was being vacated by Jon Corzine (D), who had been elected governor of the Garden State. At the time, it was widely known that Corzine wanted to appoint Booker as his successor. But the would-be mayor wasn’t interested. Booker made a promise to the people of Newark that he was going to run again for mayor, and he was determined to keep his word. Corzine would appoint then-Rep. Bob Menendez (D), and Booker would keep his promise.
He won election in 2006 and reelection in 2010. And during that time, the city that has had only three mayors my entire lifetime has boomed. If you’re a dedicated rider of Amtrak, you can’t help but notice the changes in Newark. There are all the signs of an economic turnaround: construction cranes, new buildings and the jobs that go with them. And then there are the investments Booker has made in the people of Brick City: Parks, recreation centers, athletic fields and public-private partnerships to reclaim abandoned homes and blighted neighborhoods have been vital to Newark’s renaissance. I won’t even get into Booker’s brand of direct constituent services that include snow removal and rescue from burning buildings.
Another commitment Booker made was to not run for a third term. His political trajectory was supposed to take him to the New Jersey governor’s mansion. But running against a wildly popular Gov. Chris Christie proved to be a roadblock best avoided. So Booker has set his sights on Washington.
Over the weekend, it was reported that he has filed papers with the Federal Election Commission to run for the Senate seat held by fellow Democrat Frank Lautenberg. While there has been no official announcement, the incumbent, who turns 89 next week, has reportedly decided not to run for reelection.
Lautenberg had been in the Senate before. He first won in 1982 against Republican Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R). In that contest, he made an issue of her age. Fenwick was 72 years old at the time. In 2001, Lautenberg retired from the Senate and was succeeded by Corzine. But he came back in 2002, replacing Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) on the ballot after Torricelli dropped his bid for reelection amid corruption allegations. Lautenberg won that election at age 78; in 2014, he would be 90.
If Booker wins the Senate seat next year, he will take a seat once held by Corzine, the man who wanted to put him there eight years ago. But this time, with an actual record that has given heft to his rising star in national politics, Booker will have earned the trust of the voters.
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