The popular Newark mayor may soon become the junior senator for New Jersey, a state that embraces larger-than-life politicians regardless of party.
Under a tent on a vacant block in one of Newark's poorest neighborhoods, Cory Booker is riffing on the carbon footprint of vegetables.
Booker, the heavy favorite to become New Jersey's next senator, is here to dedicate a community garden. But the mayor of this long-suffering city can see a lot more than peppers sprouting from the patch of reclaimed urban ground.
"From this plot of land, we are growing hope. We are growing change," he says in a voice that booms. "Listen to me now!"
Grocers should be required to list the energy cost of their produce, he suggests, "because we're killing our globe by trying to import food that we could be growing right here."
A teetotaling vegetarian with a shaved head, Booker has earned an almost cartoonish reputation for thinking globally and acting locally. Last year, he hauled a neighbor from a burning house; he'll finish this day by helping rescue a pit bull from a cage on a vacant lot. He'll then tweet word of the dog's rescue to his 1.4 million Twitter followers.
Through a combination of high-profile actions and relentless self-promotion (he's on pace to compose his 30,000th tweet this year), Booker has become one of the Democratic Party's most celebrated politicians. He's also an upbeat and often eloquent reformer who has brightened the image of a city plagued by decades of official corruption and economic decline.
Add one other big item to his list of advantages — a politically convenient friendship with the state's other high-profile, attention-grabbing politician, Republican Gov. Chris Christie. The governor is running for reelection this fall just as Booker seeks the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg.
"I think New Jersey has two politicians who are very authentic," Booker says, when asked about the odd political pairing.
"The governor and I have very different styles. He's pugilistic and in your face, and I'm much more, 'Let's all get together and figure this out.' I talk about spiritual issues, maybe to my detriment," Booker says. "You have two unique political stories."
Christie has praised Booker publicly; he did not comment for this article.
The state's electorate has a fondness for politicians with outsized personalities. Less dramatic politicians have trouble attracting attention, in part because most voters get their news from New York or Philadelphia television stations. And New Jersey voters also seem willing to put personal charisma ahead of partisanship.
A commanding presence at 6-foot-3 and well over 200 pounds, Booker shares more than a large-scale physique with the governor. Their alliance dates from Christie's days as the crime-fighting U.S. attorney for New Jersey, when Booker, taking on Newark's powerful mayoral machine, asked him to monitor the 2002 election for fraud. They have worked together since, often appearing in public with playful displays of dueling egos.
"In private, it's g-o-o-o-d, I have to say," Booker says. "I could give you a dissertation on our disagreements, things that have infuriated me," such as Christie's opposition to marriage equality. But the mayor adds, "I have an appreciation for him as a friend, and I have an appreciation for him as a partner on the things we actually do agree on."
He's pugilistic and in your face, and I'm much more, 'Let's all get together and figure this out.'"
— Newark Mayor Cory Booker on Gov. Chris Christie
One of the things the two agreed on this year was an election schedule that has angered some partisans on both sides.
After Lautenberg's death, Christie chose an October date for the election to fill the seat and Tuesday as the primary. The timing helped the governor by avoiding a Democratic surge in the November election, increasing the odds that he'll win the landslide reelection he wants. The date also virtually guaranteed that no candidate in either party would catch up with Booker, who had made known his plans to run for the job months before the senator's death.
Some of Booker's opponents in the Democratic primary have tried to make his relationship with Christie an issue, using it as an example of what they call opportunism and a lack of principle. So far, the attack, which opponents pushed in a debate Monday night, has gone nowhere. Two recent polls have shown Booker maintaining a 40-percentage-point lead over his nearest rival in the four-person field.
"A lot of people in the suburbs perceive him as having done a pretty good job, and I think people like him. They think he's a good spokesperson for the city and the state," said a Republican strategist who requested anonymity to offer a candid appraisal of the other party's champion.
A frequently heard criticism holds that Booker offers more talk than action.
"It's difficult to promise people Camelot, because it's hard to deliver that," said Newark Councilman Ras Baraka. "He's probably been a better mayor for the rest of the country."
Accusations of attention seeking have followed Booker throughout his career, but have done little to slow his rapid advance. His story begins as the son of two of IBM's earliest black executives, growing up in an affluent, largely white northern New Jersey suburb. He went west for college, graduating from Stanford University, where he played tight end on the varsity football team and earned a Rhodes scholarship, then got a Yale University law degree.
He started his rise in politics by moving into a Newark housing project and winning a seat on the City Council at age 29. On his second try for mayor in 2006, he forced out Sharpe James, a longtime incumbent who later went to prison on fraud charges.
Booker, like Christie, has at times been willing to play counter to partisan type. He has blurred his liberal image by endorsing a range of center-right policies much as the governor has alienated some conservative Republicans by maintaining friendly relations with President Obama.
Booker angered organized labor and others on the left by supporting Christie's 2% limit on local property tax increases. He also backed the governor's plans to reform teacher tenure, expand charter schools and provide vouchers for some students to attend private or parochial schools.
As mayor, he gained critics at home who deplored his budget cutting and his layoffs of hundreds of government workers, including police. But even many of those critics, including Baraka, concede that Booker has attracted economic development, some of which has come from his cultivation of tech and venture capital moguls, including those in the Silicon Valley.
This summer, Mark Zuckerberg played host to a fundraiser for Booker at his Palo Alto home; in 2010, the Facebook founder announced a $100-million pledge to help Newark's schools, disclosing the news during an "Oprah Winfrey Show" appearance with Booker and Christie.
On a recent campaign swing through Princeton, N.J., Booker put his tech savvy and industry connections on display with an unannounced tour of a Nassau Street loft, Tigerlabs, home to a collection of startups.
In impromptu remarks to the techies, Booker said he was "in the middle of an early-stage startup myself," which some took to mean the Senate candidacy he announced in early June. He actually was referring to his role as a principal in a video-sharing site, Waywire, which went public last summer.
The next step in his career seems almost certain. New Jersey has not elected a Republican senator in more than 40 years, and the party lacks a strong candidate.
His opponents in the primary, two veteran liberal congressmen and the state Assembly speaker, are less well-known statewide and likely to divide the anti-Booker vote. Many of the state's labor unions, including the teachers, who could have made the primary more competitive by backing one of the other candidates, are staying out of the race.
Already, however, Booker can't stop himself from looking ahead. He says he is "pretty excited about being a senator," but doesn't know if that's as high as his ambition will take him. If the 44-year-old bachelor does become Washington's newest celebrity, though, he's unlikely to restrict himself to ideas like carbon footprint labels for vegetables.
"I hope to get myself in trouble in the United States Senate by saying things that need to be heard but might not be the kind of thing you hear out of presidential leaders," he said. "So, who knows about my trajectory?"