Cory Booker spent the final evening before voters decide whether to make him New Jersey’s next U.S. senator running through the streets.
Trailing behind Booker on his jog Tuesday night through Newark, N.J.’s Ironbound District was a group that included supporters, staffers, volunteers, and at least one reporter — from TPM.
The Democratic nominee, who currently serves as Newark’s mayor, cracked jokes, exchanged greetings, and listened to the concerns of his fellow runners as he jogged. One man shared his ideas for improving the school system. Another told Booker about his battles with local officials across the river in Brooklyn, N.Y. A third man said the odd spectacle of the mayor wearing shorts and jogging while holding court reminded him of a classic movie.
“I’ve seen the scene in ‘Forrest Gump’ where it’s like talking to people as you run, and giving advice, and stuff,” he said as he sprinted alongside Booker, causing the mayor to let out a few belly laughs in between breaths.
Tuesday night’s jog was the 14th “Run With Cory” event held in New Jersey during the campaign. Going into Wednesday’s special election, the latest poll showed him with a commanding lead over his Republican rival, Steve Lonegan.
Booker and his admirers set off on their approximately mile-long route from his campaign’s Newark field office, a squat brick building on Polk Street. The crowd that waited outside for Booker to arrive in his campaign bus seemed to be largely young and fresh-faced temporarily giving the street the feel of a college campus. Many of those who showed up for the run sported “Team Booker” sweatbands.
Before Booker showed up, TPM spoke to a 26-year-old campaign volunteer, Jordan Allen, who outlined the obstacles the mayor and his supporters have faced as he attempts to get to Washington.
“I think it’s really ironic that, for someone who has really broad statewide support and really broad national support, he doesn’t necessarily have a lot of support here, or at least depending on what neighborhood you’re in,” Allen said of Booker’s appeal in the city he has called home for two decades.
Allen, a Wisconsin native who said he came to New Jersey “a few years ago” to work with Teach For America, went on to describe some of the negative responses he’d gotten while campaigning for Booker in Newark.
“There’s a lot of skepticism towards any elected official and there’s also this hyper hostility in certain segments of the residents here, this aversion towards anyone who’s not from here. And despite the fact that he’s lived here for 17 years, that’s a sticking point for a lot of people,” said Allen. “Booker’s not from Newark and he’s never going to have been born here. He made that mistake of not being born in Newark.”
For Booker, who was born in Washington, D.C., raised in the New Jersey suburbs, and moved into Newark after attending Stanford University, the University of Oxford, and Yale University Law School, the perception of him as an outsider has proved impossible to shake in the town known as “Brick City.” As Allen put it, several “factually inaccurate” narratives surround Booker in Newark. He rattled off a list of storylines that have haunted Booker in his adopted hometown.
“He’s gay, he’s Jewish, he’s an undercover Republican, he’s white,” said Allen.
Booker has dealt with these accusations in Newark through a series of tough races starting with his first underdog campaign for City Council in 1998. However, while Booker has long had his detractors in Newark, his national brand existed almost in a parallel universe. He has earned praise and celebrity status for his social media driven accessibility and a reputation for hands-on heroics, including hitting the streets to shovel snow after a storm, rescuing a woman from a fire, allowing neighbors to take refuge in his home during Hurricane Sandy, and even saving an abused dog.
This Senate race marked the first time Booker’s worlds collided with his national audience encountering criticisms made by his longtime opponents in Newark. Lonegan has aggressively attempted to fuel this re-assessment of the Booker brand with a series of attacks labeling Booker a carpetbagger who focused on amassing national star power rather than taking care of the city he was elected to lead. In the final days of the campaign, this Booker bashing culminated with one of Lonegan’s top aides questioning Booker’s sexuality in a raunchy conversation with TPM and with Lonegan holding a press conference touting a story that appeared in the Daily Caller accusing Booker of not actually living in Newark. Booker’s campaign responded to that story by releasing “multiple years” of rental payments and property records.
Before embarking on his final jog, Booker, hoarse from days of speeches, referenced the relentless assault as he spoke to the crowd assembled outside his field office.
“We’ve been through some tough days. They threw so much mud at us sometimes we could have started a farm,” said Booker.
Though he and his numbers took some hits, Booker still enjoyed a comfortable, double digit lead over Lonegan in the final polls of the race. In his pre-run speech Tuesday, Booker cast his campaign as an effort to transcend that negativity and the gridlock in Washington.
“The message we send tomorrow will not be about the shutdown, Tea Party politics of my opponent,” said Booker. “The story we send tomorrow will be one about that the State of New Jersey believes in not in partisanship, but progress. The State of New Jersey believes not in divisiveness, but in unity.”
After his brief remarks, Booker laid out the “rules of the run.”
“This is a fun run … and whoever runs too far ahead of everybody else, I will talk about you and I am a good smack talker. You didn’t see it in the debates. Boy, did I want to talk smack, but (my campaign manager) told me I had to be polite and smile,” Booker said. “Tonight, there will be no cameras, so I am going to talk smack about you if you run too far ahead. This is a fun run. Let’s stay together, let’s talk, let’s have fun.”
From the field office, Booker led the group of runners down a quiet residential street. At one point they sang “Lean On Me” as they ran. With police cars clearing the way in front of them, Booker and his fellow runners turned down Ferry Street, one of the main drags in Ironbound.
When the crowd passed a bus that was stopped at a light, Booker ran up to the window waving at the passengers and shouting. None of the riders responded with anything other than bewildered stares, though it was not clear whether they recognized the mayor among the crowd of cheering joggers who surrounded their bus. Booker and his crew got a more enthusiastic reception as they continued down the street. The driver of a pickup truck adorned with the Ecuadoran flag greeted the runners with cheers and several blasts of his horn. Multiple passersby waved and shouted as the group jogged past.
As he ran, Booker bantered with the other runners. One woman who jogged next to him wore a t-shirt from President Barack Obama’s campaign paired with a “Team Booker” sweatband.
“You got to get a little Booker/Obama,” the mayor said. “Obama with a little Booker on top.”
Another woman shouted to Booker, “I want to do this every day!”
“I’m down with that,” Booker said before quoting the chorus of an old-school hip hop track. “You down with O.P.P.?”
The finish line of Booker’s run was Nasto’s, an ice cream shop where the mayor is a regular customer. When Booker reached the end of the jog, one of his staffers handed him a towel that he used to wipe sweat of his bald head. He then draped it over his shoulders.
“Oh, we are here,” Booker said, before breaking out into song. “Looks like we made it.”
Workers at the ice cream shop greeted the runners as they arrived. Booker thanked the shop’s staff for “staying open for us.”
Inside Nasto’s, Booker pointed at a photo of himself on the store’s wall. The mayor has lost a substantial amount of weight in recent months and the shot was clearly a “before” picture.
“What am I going to have to do to get you guys to take the most unflattering picture of me down?” Booker asked.
One of the women who worked at the shop promised they would replace the photo with “a new one.” The crew at Nasto’s certainly would have plenty of pictures to choose from. Booker spent his time in the store posing for countless photos with the runners and shop workers.
“I’m so tired,” he told one of the store workers.
In spite of his concerns about his weight, Booker also sampled several ice cream flavors before ordering several scoops. Without touching his spoon, Booker took a big bite off the ice cream dangling off his cup.
“I have the banana cream pie mixed with the peanut butter twirl, so it’s like peanut butter banana,” Booker told TPM. “A little throwback, a nod to Elvis.”
Booker said he would get back to his fitness regimen after the election Wednesday.
“As soon as this is over, I’m getting back to me. I’m going to rediscover me.”
Before he left the store, Booker passed off his peanut butter and banana ice cream to a staffer. He wound up with a healthier orange sorbet and then boarded his bus.
As he departed, TPM asked Booker about his latest campaign critics. Would he be willing to invite the reporters behind the Daily Caller story accusing him of not living in Newark to a dinner at his home once the race was over?
“God bless,” Booker said with a huge laugh. “God bless everybody.”