When Newark Mayor Cory Booker is sworn in as U.S. senator, filling the seat left vacant by the death of Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey will become the first state to be represented in the upper house of Congress by an African American and a Latino.
“It’s unprecedented,” Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said Thursday.
Other than Hawaii, which has often been represented in the Senate by Asian Americans, New Jersey will be the first state to elect two senators who are members of racial or ethnic minorities.
Booker, a Democrat, will join fellow Democrat Bob Menendez, a Cuban American, in the Senate, whose membership has long been dominated by non-Hispanic white men.
Currently, there is one African-American senator, Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, who was appointed to fill the seat left vacant by Jim DeMint’s resignation. There are four Hispanic-American senators and four Asian-American senators.
“As the first Hispanic-American senator from New Jersey, I join New Jerseyans in celebrating the historic election of Cory Booker, the first African-American senator from our state,” Menendez said Thursday. “I’m proud that we have shown America that our state — and by extension our politics — is, indeed, a melting pot. I look forward to serving together to make New Jersey, and our nation, a better place for all of us — no matter as to race or ethnicity.”
Whether the demographic makeup of New Jersey’s Senate delegation will have an impact is, of course, an open question.
Michael Fauntroy, a political science professor at Howard University, said, “I’m not necessarily sure that it’s significant.”
Fauntroy noted that New Jersey is a state where the changing demographics of the country are readily apparent. Census data show that whites make up 59.3 percent of the population, blacks 12.8 percent and Hispanics 17.7 percent.
“New Jersey better reflects the future of the country than most states,” Fauntroy said.
But real impact comes from the willingness of politicians to speak out on issues of concern to minority communities, he said, and there has been “ethnic avoidance” by some minority politicians “who downplay the unique issues that come out of their communities.”
Of Booker, Fauntroy said, “I don’t expect him to be particularly useful when it comes to black issues.’
Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University who has been following Booker’s career since 2002, sees the senator-elect differently, as “more of a transformational character.”
“I think what Booker brings to the Senate is the willingness to build bridges and work with members across the aisle,” Kelley said. “He certainly has his causes, but I don’t think he will spend his time only working on issues pertinent to minority communities, in large part because I don’t think there are many legislators who work solely on issues of race.
“He will be a go-to person for the press in large part because he is very charismatic and makes good copy. He will be a good team player for the Democrats, though I believe that he is passionate about trying to break the partisan vitriol that is so much a part of our politics.”
Saladin Ambar, a political science professor at Lehigh University, said: “Cory Booker and Robert Menendez may well represent the changing face of American politics, but it is a face pitifully slow to change. The Senate remains largely a graveyard for racial progress and diversity.”
Andra Gillespie, political science professor at Emory University and the author of “The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America,” said: “This development is worth noting, and it reflects the increasing diversity of the United States. It also represents the importance of both black and Latino voters to the New Jersey Democratic Party. In a liberal state like New Jersey, strong black and Latino Democratic party identification yields opportunities for minority candidates to become viable statewide candidates.
“In other, more conservative parts of the country, where a majority of whites are Republicans and the majority of minorities are Democrats, the partisan climate makes it far more difficult for Democratic candidates and candidates of color to win statewide elections. This, in part, explains why Southern states like Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, which have large black populations, have not yet elected black senators.”
She added: “While Cory Booker’s election was indeed a milestone, it also underscores the fact that the U.S. Senate still does not come close to representing our nation’s racial or gender diversity. With Booker’s election, there are now two black senators. There would need to be 10 more black senators for blacks to be proportionately represented in the Senate. Similarly, while there are three Latino senators, 13 more would need to be elected to reach proportionality. And there would need to be four more Asian-American senators to reach proportionality.”
But Baker, the Rutgers professor, sees Booker’s election as both a sign of progress and a sign that race relations have not advanced as much as some would hope.
“In one sense, it’s a great accomplishment,” Baker said, noting the Democratic Party’s ability to mobilize voters in an off-year special election. “But Booker won much more narrowly than he should have.”
Baker cited what has been termed “the Tom Bradley effect,” which is used to explain the discrepancies between opinion polls and election outcomes when a white candidate faces a black candidate. In essence, some white voters tell pollsters that they plan to support a black candidate, but wind up voting for the white candidate.
“In our society it is unacceptable to openly express racism, but it still exists in the heart,” Baker said.
In any case, Baker added, “Numbers matter, and we’re just now beginning to see that with the influence of women in the Senate.”