Cory Booker is a social activist, and the Newark mayor’s big victory in last week’s special Senate election puts the affable Democratic politico in the history books. He is the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate from the Garden State and the first African-American elected to the senior house of Congress since President Barack Obama in 2004.
Booker garnered about 710,000 votes or 55 percent, defeating Republican rival and tea party cohort Steve Lonegan, who nabbed about 579,000 votes or 44 percent in the race to fill the vacant seat of longtime political maverick Frank Lautenberg, who passed away earlier this year. Booker now joins Sen. Robert Menendez as the junior senator from New Jersey in Washington.
Unlike the 1939 hit movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the story about a naive young man who goes to Washington to fill a vacant Senate seat, Booker is far from being inexperienced or uninformed. Add to the legislative mix that the 44-year-old Yale-trained lawyer and Oxford University graduate was the first man actually born in Newark to be elected as its mayor in more than 50 years, and is now only the second man of color currently serving in the colorless U.S. Senate, and the words change and history becomes synonymous with Booker. The other African-American senator is Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina.
In a brief interview shortly after his victory, Booker downplayed the historical significance of his win and questions about the state, and perhaps the country, having a post-racial electorate.
“I think it’s just about the people and our great state of New Jersey,” Booker said. “We don’t care about what you look like or your background. The voters believed in me and were more concerned about what I had to say and not the color of my skin.” However, he conceded there are racial issues and challenges across the state that must be dealt with—one of a plethora of things he plans to battle when he goes to Washington.
“Blacks make up about 14 percent of the population in New Jersey, yet we are 60 percent of the prison population,” he said. “These are real criminal justice reform issues, inequities in the economy and are all things we need to work on in Washington.” Booker said another challenge on his lengthy agenda is to update the Patriot Act to ensure that National Security Agency data is accurately monitored by Congress and the judicial system.
Additionally, Booker said he will focus on reinstating various aspects of the recently dissected Voting Rights Acts and increasing the national minimum wage to at least $10 an hour. On the issue of the current state of what some see as a growing trend of extremism and tea party politics in Washington, Booker said New Jersey is a state of moderates that dismisses zealot behavior. “First and foremost, I’m a Jersey boy,” he said. “It’s not about left or right, it’s about moving the state forward.”
Another sweet victory Booker can take with him to Washington is the recent legalization of same-sex marriages in the Garden State. Gov. Chris Christie has dropped his request for a temporary injunction that would prohibit gay marriages, and on Monday, New Jersey became the 14th state to legalize gay marriage. Booker presided at several same-sex nuptials in the wee early morning hours on Monday in the rotunda at Newark City Hall.
Lastly, Booker will be sworn in as senator by Vice President Joe Biden and is expected to head to Washington in the next several weeks. Luis Quintana has been named as the interim mayor in Newark by the Newark City Council. He is the first Hispanic mayor of the Brick City.