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Cory Booker’s Coming Culture Shock In Congress

U.S. Senate candidate addresses supporters during his campaign’s election night event in Newark after winning the special senate race against Steve Lonegan Wednesday. Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

NEWARK — Cory Booker, the 44-year-old mayor who found a spot on the national stage from the unlikely foothold of Newark City Hall, saw victory Wednesday night in the New Jersey, but will face a whole new set of challenges when he arrives in Washington as the state’s new United States senator.

In his seven years as mayor of Newark, Booker developed an outsize profile for his position. With a background as a Rhodes Scholar, and with his efforts to promote Newark through speeches and by courting businesses to the city, the young mayor has been dubbed a “rising star” in the Democratic Party for well over a decade. But as he moves from Newark to a divided, partisan Washington, where he will arrive as a lowest-ranking freshman senator, he is up against a tough test — translating his unique brand of politics to the world’s greatest deliberative body.

“He’s going to be a freshman senator who’s used to being the king,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist who has worked in New Jersey extensively. “He will have an awe-struck moment of frustration at some point, and then he’ll have to figure out his own path — he always has.”

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who supported Booker’s election bid, acknowledged that Booker’s spot in the upper chamber “will certainly be different from the chief executive role he’s used to.”

In Newark, Booker practiced an on-the-ground approach to governing the city, and managed to play out the hard work of constituent services in front of a large, often adoring audience on Twitter. He’d shovel out driveways in a snowstorm, invite residents into his home during a hurricane, or, most famously, run into a burning building to rescue a neighbor — and he’d be sure to let his 1.4 million Twitter followers know all about it.

“If he cannot do the tangible, he’ll find the symbolic,” said Sheinkopf, citing Booker’s decision in 1998, upon being elected to the city council, to move into Brick Towers, an affordable housing apartment complex. “He couldn’t change public housing in Newark, so he went to live in one,” he said.

Booker has promised to continue his mayoral-style politics from his new seat in Washington, even as he takes on a statewide constituency and a new portfolio that includes the nation’s most pressing federal issues. Whether Booker will be able to find success in the next year, before he faces reelection in 2014, as he navigates the bureaucracy of Congress remains an open question.

Supporters, though, say Booker won’t have trouble making his mark, even as he comes to the Senate with no seniority.

“The systems of the past in Congress really are no longer applicable,” said Steve Phillips, a longtime Booker supporter and donor.

“CNN is cutting from people like Mitch McConnell to see what Ted Cruz has to say,” Phillips said of the Senate Minority Leader and freshman senator, who helped stage the 16-day partial government shutdown this month. “People who have media platforms and alternative ways to communicate are going to be increasingly important. No one else approaches Cory’s ability to communicate on the Democratic side.”

Martha McKenna, a former political director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, likened Booker to another mayor turned senator, Democrat Mark Begich, who served for six years as mayor of Anchorage, Alaska.

“We need more mayors in the Senate,” McKenna said. “He’s certainly going to be a problem solver and someone who is very practical.”

“Even if he’s last in seniority, he will still have an ability to pick up the phone and solve problems for people,” McKenna added. “I don’t think Cory Booker’s the kind of guy who is going to put up with bureaucracy. He’s going to be impatient and cut through the red tape to get things done.”

Booker, Sweeney pointed out, has already worked with a legislative body before — the Newark Municipal Council. “He’s had his ups and downs with the council. He’s fought with them and worked with them,” he said. “He’s been a chief executive of a very large city, but he’s also demonstrated an ability to work with others.”

What Booker will accomplish with that large megaphone remains to be seen. He may follow the path of other high-profile freshman, like Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren, who has largely focused on committee work and stayed off the Sunday talk show circuit in her first year in office.

But Booker’s supporters dismissed that track as unlikely.

“Cory is the type of person who will always be one of the guys in the center,” said Sweeney.

“I don’t think that’s how things work anymore,” Phillips added. “This notion that no one hears from you for a certain amount of years while you work the back halls — that’s not how government functions anymore.”

“This is an area when we need visibility,” said Phillips. “It’s not in the Democrats’ interest to muzzle him.”

At his election night party Wednesday night, Booker promised supporters he would not “play shallow politics,” but would engage in what he called the “hard, humble service that reaches out to others.”

Booker addressed the crowd at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark shortly after the Associated Press called the race against Republican Steve Lonegan. He came away with 54.6% of the vote, beating his opponent by an 11-point margin, in the off-year special election to replace the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

“I had a lot of people ask me during the campaign, ‘What can one senator do?’ I have no illusions about what one senator can do,” Booker said. “I’m going down to make the Senate more accessible to all of us. I will bring more voice to the voices to often ignored in our state. I will be dogged and determined, relentless and unfaltering, in my sense of service for all of New Jersey.”

Booker also comes to Washington with his image dulled quite a bit from a tough battle against Lonegan and a new level of scrutiny from the press.

The former mayor of Bogota, who ran with tea party support from figures like Sarah Palin, staked his campaign on sharply drawn attacks against Booker’s record in Newark. Booker also took heat for a series of large payments he received from his old law firm, Trenk DiPasquale, as part of a buyout arrangement, and for stories he regularly told in speeches about two local figures, T-Bone and Wzan Miller, which were questioned as fictional.

Booker’s favorability ratings, according surveys by Monmouth University, dropped steadily over the course of the campaign. In June, 61% of New Jersey respondents said they viewed the mayor favorably, and by October, that figure had dropped 10 points to 51%.

“For all the prominence he’s had, he’s never had this level of scrutiny before,” said Phillips. “That requires him to have a higher level of discipline, because that challenge is going to continue for the rest of his political life.”

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