Cory Booker, Eying N.J. Senate Run, Banks on Long and Deep Jewish Ties

Newark Mayor Has Emotional Bond With People and Faith

Future Leaders: Cory Booker playfully lifts Rabbi Shmuley Boteach during a year the Rhodes Scholar spent at Oxford University in England.
courtesy of shmuley boteach
Future Leaders: Cory Booker playfully lifts Rabbi Shmuley Boteach during a year the Rhodes Scholar spent at Oxford University in England.

By Seth Berkman

Published June 06, 2013.
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Connecting with Newark’s black community has previously posed challenges to Booker, despite high-profile actions he has taken to dramatize his personal commitment to the city’s problems.

Booker moved to Newark in 1996 during his final year at Yale Law School to work for the Urban Justice Center, an organization dedicated to improving the city; he won a seat on the City Council two years later. From 1998 until its demolition, in 2006, Booker, who is single, made his home in Brick Towers, a low-income housing complex with persistently high crime rates and intractable management problems in the city’s Central Ward. Last year, he lived for one week on a food budget of $33 to demonstrate the plight faced by low-income Newark residents living on food stamps.

Despite such efforts, when Booker first ran for mayor, in 2002, he faced racially loaded attacks questioning his ethnic authenticity from incumbent Sharpe James, a Newark native who grew up in the city as the son of a single mother during the aftermath of the 1960s riots. James called Booker a “Republican who took money from the KKK” and denounced him as a “faggot white boy.” He also accused Booker of “collaborating with the Jews to take over Newark.”

In 2008, James was sentenced to 27 months in prison after being convicted of fraud involving the illegal sale of city property.

The city’s disaffected residents responded to those attacks that time. But in 2006, Booker crushed James’s handpicked candidate to succeed him, Ronald Rice, winning with 72% of the vote after a huge national fundraising push that enabled him to outspend Rice 25–1.

Today, Booker is the clear favorite among Democrats to succeed Lautenberg, who had already announced in February that he did not intend to seek re-election. In a recent poll by Farleigh Dickinson University, 50% of New Jersey Democrats favored Booker, while his projected opponents in a primary, Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, garnered a combined total of 11%.

On issues unrelated to Israel, Booker’s positions align frequently with those held by a large majority of Jews. He is a strong advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, and spoke at Planned Parenthood rallies at last year’s Democratic National Convention. Booker also favored the most recent gun control legislation.

More controversially, Booker supports private school vouchers, though he has said they may not be the perfect solution.

That issue is important for Jews in Lakewood, one of New Jersey’s fastest-growing towns, thanks to its burgeoning Haredi community.

In February, Booker won over a gathering of Orthodox Jews in Lakewood at a fundraiser for a special education school in the town. Without specifically mentioning any policy position, he wooed his audience with Torah lessons and well-timed jokes, even namedropping local machers, to the crowd’s delight. It was a captivating scene, watching the broad-shouldered former Stanford undergrad tight end, a black man who patrols his streets in the middle of the night, looking for drug dealers, lecturing a room full of ultra-Orthodox Jews on the “spirit of Judaism.”

At the end, Booker received a standing ovation.

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


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