Last night, former Newark mayor Cory Booker became New Jersey’s first African-American senator when he defeated Republican Steve Lonegan in the special election to replace the late Frank Lautenberg. In many ways Booker also defeated much of the criticism and questions he’s faced—over his looks, his race, his sexuality and his finances. But those criticisms will surely reemerge and quickly, especially since he has to run again next year to keep his Senate seat.
It seems liberals are the most upset about Booker’s rising. Alex Pareene over at Salon.com begged people not to vote for him during August’s special election primary, calling him an “avatar of the wealthy elite” who “represents the interests of both Wall Street and Silicon Valley.” Over at The Grio, Perry Bacon Jr. concluded that Booker was “eager to ally with moneyed interests and advance his own ambitions.” Even Newark rapper Rah Digga jumped in, writing at The Grio that Booker “has not demonstrated a strong interest in carrying out the kind of work it takes to transform an entire city.”
What these jabs overlook is that courting wealth is the name of the game, especially to win a statewide or nationwide election, something few people of color have been able to accomplish throughout our nation’s history.
As for yesterday’s race, Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota, N.J., defeated himself. He’s a tea party extremist during a really bad time to be a tea party anything, given the government shutdown.
So we can partially credit Booker’s win to the massive unpopularity of tea party-nomics. Had he run against a more traditional Republican—someone like New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Booker would not have had such an easy route. That would be owed to the contentions that follow him—some legitimate, but a lot just the effluvia that comes whenever an African-American gets a little too uppity, particularly when seeking office.
Booker has been able survive the light-skinned, bald-headed mayor purge —Ray Nagin of New Orleans and Adrian Fenty of D.C.—even though he’s been castigated for many of the sins that befell those two mayors. Like them, Booker’s been accused of exploiting black civil rights political machines when convenient and then shunning them when it’s time to hit the main stage. We saw this recently when Booker skipped a Senate primary debate sponsored by the local NAACP to attend a fundraiser hosted by Oprah Winfrey.
Also, like Fenty and Nagin, Booker helped usher in “education reform” regimes led by charter school and Teach for America czars notorious for shutting out parents and communities. But perhaps the biggest sin that did Fenty and Nagin in were their relationships with corporate executives—in Fenty’s case doing the bidding of elites driving the ed reform agenda, and in Nagin’s case serving the interests of New Orleans white, wealthy “Uptown” interests at the expense of impoverished, black communities.
Booker doubled down on this, especially during his run for Senate. And like it or not, he may have done it out of necessity. While grassroots organizing, door-knocking and small donors are essential to political success and legitimacy, it’s also critical when running for statewide or nationwide office, to court wealth.
Lautenberg, whom Booker is replacing, was the eighth wealthiest member of Congress with a net value of $56.9 million according to The Hill. This did not seem to conflict with the fact he was considered one of the most progressive senators. The wealthiest member of Congress is Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, who’s worth $290.5 million. The 50th wealthiest is Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson who is worth $6.1 million. When Booker disclosed his finances earlier this year, it showed that he’d made more than $1.3 million since 2008, mainly in speaking fees, and he had $100,000 in his checking account. His salary as Newark mayor was $130,000. Booker has been mocked for living on food stamps and staying in a housing project for political points, but compared to some of his colleagues in Congress he might as well be living that way for real.
Booker raised over $8.6 million for this campaign, the second highest amount of any Senate candidate currently running, based on available data. Lonegan raised $3.6 million from conservative Super PACs and nonprofit “shadow money” groups. Booker benefitted from special interests, particularly from tech companies in California that helped him finally reach the millions. And as nauseating and ill-advised as his defense of private equity firms was last year during the Obama-Romney race, he must have been looking ahead. It’s no coincidence that the top industry contributor to his Senate race was financial securities and investments.
Booker out-raised Lonegan because that’s what you’re supposed to do in a U.S. Senate race. If anyone thinks differently, they should read about the McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, which could lead to the elimination of current campaign contribution caps. This would make fundraising all the more important, especially among candidates of color.
The other criticisms of Booker—he Tweets too much, he fell in love with a stripper, he’s never home—probably deserve only half-a-bar response from the new senator. But those upset over his financial scheming, wheeling and dealing should probably take heed to Gloria Steinem’s recent comments about Miley Cyrus, who defended the singer’s recent stripping antics by stating, “That’s the way the culture is. We need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists.”
The same goes for Booker: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.