Joe Gandelman: Watch Cory Booker
Have we just witnessed a political slam-dunk reflecting 21st century political realities? Did Newark Mayor Cory Booker just manage to ingratiate himself with one group of voters while provoking his opponent into negatively defining himself and his political party in the campaign to fill New Jersey's Senate seat?
It began when Booker was asked in a Washington Post profile about rumors about his private life. Booker didn't strongly squelch them or confirm them: "I love seeing on Twitter when someone says I'm gay, and I say, 'So what does it matter if I am? So be it. I hope you are not voting for me because you are making the presumption that I'm straight."
His opponent, former Bogata, N.J. Mayor Steve Lonegan, bit the seemingly baited hook in an interview with Newsmax.com where he noted stories about how Booker "likes to go out at three o'clock in the morning for a manicure and a pedicure. It was described as his peculiar fetish... I have a more peculiar fetish. I like a good Scotch and a cigar. That's my fetish but we'll just compare the two."
Lonegan's comments then became the issue and he seemingly confirmed a stereotype about the issues Republicans running for office like to raise -- or exploit. Booker then branded Longean's comments as showing a "callous, bigoted, disrespect to gays and lesbians."
Booker has been bigger than life since the 2007 movie "Street Fight" documented his losing populist 2002 first campaign for mayor. He won in 2006 with 72% of the vote. He later rescued two dogs and saved a woman from a house on fire.
During the 2012 Presidential campaign he had to "clarify" his criticism of Democratic attacks on GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney's Bain Capital history. He has had political problems due to his involvement in the video aggregation website Waywire. Meanwhile, he has been a strong champion of gay rights and gay marriage. Last year he headed the Democratic Party's platform committee which for the first time came out in support of same-sex marriage.
Polls portend a whopping victory for Booker in the Oct. 16 special election. Lonegan strategist Rick Shaftta told The Politico that Booker's lead will vanish by election day, Lonegan insists Barack Obama's declining popularity in New Jersey will be the reason. But there isn't one shred of evidence to suggest that Booker has ever needed Obama to advance his career due to his own charisma and political smarts.
What kind of Senator would Booker be?
Democratic Party leftists dislike Booker since he seems too moderate. They don't always like his style and the fact that Wall Street donors love him. Conservatives worry that he'll be a formidable liberal figure. Liberals are unhappy with his friendly relationship with Gov. Chris Christie, much as Republicans are unhappy with Christie's relationship to Obama. Liberals fear he'd cave. Conservative fear he'd be too doctrinaire.
The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza's prediction will probably prove correct: "Our bet has been that Booker becomes the highest-profile Democratic senator. He's not shy ..... already has a big online following and appears eager and ambitious. And by living in Anacostia (which seems a likely bet), Booker will attract attention off the bat for his life outside the Senate chamber. These are all the ingredients of someone looking to make an immediate impact. What's unclear is where Booker will come down in certain policy debates, how much he will be willing to compromise, and which issues he will focus on."
In the meantime, Booker's campaign suggests a new political era where a candidate making comments about gays that seem to be out of the 1960 period -show "Mad Men" can create backlash, alienate moderates and centrists, and reinforce a stereotype about his own party. If Booker's comments, the media coverage it got and the media coverage of Lonegan's comments were all part of a plan, then watch Cory Booker very closely -- because he'll soon be eying more than a Senate seat.