On Saturday morning, Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker was feeling, in his words, “emotionally raw.”
Booker’s 76-year-old father, Cary, had died on Thursday, leading the mayor to temporarily suspend his campaign as the Democratic nominee in New Jersey’s special Senate election. After taking a day off, Booker was returning to the campaign trail Saturday, four days before the election, with a bus tour and an impassioned defense against the litany of attacks that have been leveled against him during a race he described as filled with “nastiness.”
In a conversation with TPM on board his campaign bus, his first interview since his father’s death, Booker pushed back against recent critiques of his campaign, including a profanity-filled tirade fired at him by a top strategist for Steve Lonegan, the Republican running for the Garden State Senate seat.
“It was just numbing,” Booker said of the strategist’s remarks.
That strategist, Rick Shaftan, had launched into the raunchy rant during a conversation with TPM earlier in the week. He blasted Booker for, among other things, exchanging Twitter messages with a stripper in a manner that Shaftan described as “like what a gay guy would say.” The Lonegan campaign announced Shaftan would be fired shortly after his comments were published Friday.
For his part, Booker said Saturday he intended to “pray for” Shaftan.
“You pray for those who seek you harm and ill and I sincerely do. And I sincerely pray that both he and I grow in our capacity to empathize and love. We all need to do that and he and I are no exception to that,” Booker said.
Along with mocking Booker’s tweets, Shaftan repeatedly referenced the stripper’s appearance and in particular her “hot breasts.” Booker characterized those comments as “hurtful and demeaning” to young people.
“Just imagine being an 18-year-old woman reading that, an 18-year-old high school senior reading that. … When he talked about what it means to be a man. Imagine being a kid being bullied in high school by people who are beating him up saying the same thing. And so, I learned a lot that words have a very powerful effect, especially (from) people who are in positions of authority,” explained Booker. “So, I think those words were hurtful, and demeaning, and deeply unfortunate, but a reflection of a narrow group of thoughts about our society that I hope we as a chorus of conviction and consciousness in our community can condemn. But I condemn them in a way where — I honestly and sincerely say this on a day that I’m more emotionally raw — I just pray for him and I pray for all of us. May we all elevate in our love.”
Booker’s first stop on the bus tour was a breakfast for district leaders and other local officials inside a ballroom of the downtown Newark hotel that houses his campaign headquarters. Following the breakfast, Booker boarded a bus emblazoned with his portrait. He was accompanied by his brother, an aunt, an uncle, and two cousins. In addition to Booker’s family, the bus was packed with young campaign staffers tapping away on laptops. With that entourage in tow, Booker opened the gold buttons on his navy blazer and spread out on a couch in back of the bus as it traveled to another breakfast hosted by a state senator in Paterson, N.J. On the stage at that event, Booker suggested Shaftan and Lonegan might deserve something a little rougher than prayers.
“I couldn’t believe the comments that came out of the chief person from my opponent’s campaign. My staff wrote a whole bunch of them on here,” Booker said, pointing to a binder that sat on a lectern in front of him. “I don’t want to even read them. … I cannot tolerate people who will demean others because of their gender, their orientation, or the geography in which they live. And so, I’m calling on you all right now. We’ve got work to do in this country. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We need to unleash some loving on some folks. Lord knows my opponent needs some love, needs a lot of love. My parents loved me so much my backside hurt.”
Shaftan’s ribald diatribe was the latest in a series of intense attacks on Booker from the Lonegan campaign, which has accused him of having owned a “crackhouse” in Newark, mocked him for being effeminate, and criticized him from focusing more on becoming a celebrity than on his constituents. Speaking to TPM on the campaign bus, Booker accused Lonegan of running a race consistently filled with “nastiness.”
“I didn’t know Steve Lonegan at all. My staff had to remind me, my first knowledge of him was when he, on Martin Luther King Day, did a protest. Chose that day to do a protest on the front steps of City Hall against affirmative action,” said Booker. “But it didn’t take long for the campaign to start. It was first with that tweet and calling sections of my city, I can’t remember the nations he picked. … Next thing you know, I have him saying that you’re not a real man. … This has been a constant theme for him of this kind of stuff.”
Along with statements seemingly designed to raise questions about Booker’s sexuality, on several occasions, the Lonegan campaign has painted Newark as a crime-ridden urban nightmare. These jabs included the aforementioned tweet, which showed a map labeling some of Newark’s poorer neighborhoods as third world countries. They also included a comment Lonegan made during a debate last week referring to Newark as a “big black hole,” and a press conference where Lonegan promised to “address the interests of suburban New Jerseyans” that he said Booker “ignores.” At his first speech Saturday in Newark, Booker accused Lonegan of exploiting “tired tropes.”
“When I stood up there in the last debate and he referred to Newark as, I think it was a black hole or a big black hole … where he talked about dead bodies in the river, floating in the river. … With all the things that are going on in our city for the positive, to have somebody there disrespect our city. … It was painful for me as one of the city fathers to have somebody talk about the community that they love,” Booker said. “But worse than that, they were playing into these tired tropes that there are many different New Jerseys. You know, there are some people that say there’s an urban New Jersey and a suburban New Jersey. Some people say there’s a minority New Jersey and a non-minority. Some people would say that there’s a South Jersey and a North Jersey. Some people even say there’s a Republican New Jersey and a Democrat New Jersey. Well, anybody who’s fought in this battle like we all have knows one truth fundamentally; we are one state, with one destiny, and we all need each other, and that’s how we get strong.”
But in his conversation with TPM, Booker insisted he didn’t want to focus on whether Lonegan has tried to inject identity politics into the campaign. Instead, he said he wanted to spend his time “explaining policy differences and talking about my vision.”
That vision includes a robust social media presence and an emphasis on networking in influential circles, including the technology and entertainment industries. Lonegan has consistently accused Booker of focusing on these more glamorous activities rather than the city of Newark.
Booker was once a media darling with an almost heroic reputation for personally performing good deeds around his city. But the increased attention on Booker in the Senate race, coupled with the barbs thrown his way by Lonegan and his rivals in the Democratic primary, have put some dents in Booker’s formerly ironclad personal brand.
Factual questions have been raised about some of the stories of Booker’s heroics that filled his speeches over the years. Booker has admitted “T-Bone,” a drug dealer he repeatedly referenced in speeches was an “archetype” who may have used another name. In addition, evidence has indicated that a young shooting victim Booker described as having died in his arms actually passed away after being taken to the hospital.
However, Booker argued Lonegan has made attacks based on his social media prowess and anecdotes from his life story because those are actually his greatest strengths.
“The fact that the ability for me to communicate with tens of thousands of New Jersey voters over Twitter, he was able to try to twist and make it into something that was a negative. My ability to be incredibly hands-on and be there in the streets of my city when people need me,” said Booker. “I couldn’t believe I was answering in a debate whether cardiac arrest was dead or not.”
Along with the insults from Lonegan, Booker’s Silicon Valley networking led to a slew of negative headlines this summer regarding a small tech startup he co-founded, called Waywire. One revelation involving the company was that it had continued to solicit investors even after Booker launched his Senate bid. After the reports surfaced, Booker’s campaign announced he would be stepping down from the company’s board and donating his shares to charity. Though he did not address Waywire specifically in his conversation with TPM, Booker suggested his “entrepreneurial” streak would be an asset to New Jerseyans if wins the Senate seat.
“What I’m excited about being a United States senator is that I can continue to be as entrepreneurial for the citizens of our state as I was as mayor,” he said.
Booker also argued his extensive networking beyond Newark’s borders paid dividends back home, claiming he had brought “almost $400 million in philanthropy” to the city “much of it from the West Coast.” As an example of this, Booker cited an appearance on the “Tonight Show” that he said resulted in charitable gifts of more than $100,000 from the show’s former host Conan O’Brien “and his people.”
Though he admitted some of his aggressive social media presence and networking involves “doing stunts,” Booker said that it is part of a “real concerted strategy.” And, in addition to money, Booker said his efforts have helped Newark transform its image. He again turned to the “Tonight Show” to prove his point, describing a joking, multiplatform feud he staged with O’Brien in 2009 as having had generated substantial publicity for Newark.
“The brand change for our city … people don’t think that I could have just sat behind my desk and somehow made that happen without using new technology, new ways of communication, traveling around the world, putting myself in peoples’ face,” Booker said. “Literally going to developers and going up to them at conventions and stuff like that and, by force of will, getting them to pay attention to the city of Newark and making that business case over and over again. And then doing stunts. I mean, the Conan O’Brien thing was a stunt, and we gambled, and it went incredibly well. We got more earned media in that moment in 2009 than I think our city had gotten in years just by being creative in the way we were using social media.”
However, along with criticizing his methods, Lonegan has argued Booker’s claims of revitalizing Newark are greatly exaggerated. Lonegan regularly references Newark’s unemployment and the fact that the murder rate has climbed after an initial decline under Booker’s administration. In defending his record, Booker points out the financial crisis began shortly after he entered City Hall in 2006.
“I became mayor right before the crash of our economy as we knew it. I mean, you know, before I even got there we had a $118 million budget deficit,” said Booker. “We sat around my desk, my conference table in Newark, and we just knew we were in deep trouble.”
With his social media star power, Booker has generated speculation he might have his eye on national office. One longtime confidante of Booker’s, Bari Mattes, seemed to be preparing for this possibility when she registered the website CoryBookerForPresident.com in March of last year. Mattes renewed that site this past January. However, Booker said he would “absolutely” rule out any future White House run.
“Absolutely yes, because I really do believe that if you start your — if your political career becomes about trying to ascend a ladder, it makes you very conservative, it makes you think more about ascension than about service, more about future plotting than present working,” Booker explained. “So, to me, that’s a toxic consideration, because I think it would undermine my ability to be effective and of service to people today.”
At the Saturday breakfast for Newark district leaders, surrounded by allies who have worked with him since his early days, Booker addressed the “rumors” his focus would drift from the city if he wins the Senate seat.
“I just want you all to know that the greatest privilege of my life has been to be mayor of this city. And I just want to dispel some rumors right now, because people come up to me like I’m about to pass away or something, ‘When you get elected, well you, know it’ll be shame to see you go,'” Booker said. “I’m like, ‘See me go? Where am I going?’ I’m still going to be living on — I just moved to Longworth Street, just bought a house there, spent all this time trying to rehab that house. And I said, ‘I put all that energy. I ain’t going nowhere!'”