The politics of cynicism, money and celebrity won out Tuesday in New Jersey with Cory Booker's triumph in the Democratic primary to fill the U.S. Senate seat held for years by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a beloved Democrat who died at the age of 89 in June.
The Newark mayor, a rising Democratic star who had the biggest campaign chest and highest name recognition of all the primary candidates, won the Tuesday special election primary in a result that was no surprise to people who follow Garden State politics.
Booker's win makes him the overwhelming favorite to become New Jersey's next U.S. senator over right-wing Republican Steve Lonegan, considering that the state has not elected a GOP senator since 1972.
“This is Booker’s nomination to lose,” Jennifer Duffy, a senior analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, wrote, according to the Los Angeles Times. “In fact, it is safe to say that winning the Democratic primary on Aug. 13 is the entire game.”
It's a great day for the PR-savvy Booker team, but the people of New Jersey should not expect him to repay his supporters by backing policies that help the state's middle-class, Democratic base. Instead, Booker will likely continue in the mold he has carved for himself during his tenure in Newark's City Hall, which is one of political opportunism, catering to the whims of moneyed elites, and narcissistic fervor.
Booker's masterfully crafted public face suggests that he is a man of the people, and the wild support of many of his followers has led to him being touted as a possible 2016 presidential candidate and earned him the moniker "Supermayor." He famously helped a Newark neighbor escape from her burning home, intentionally lived in a public housing project and on government benefits for a time, held a slumber party for victims of Hurricane Sandy, and even took to the streets of his city during a snowstorm to help residents shovel snow.
But that polished "man of the people" persona obscures the real Booker, a shrewd politician and businessman who has harnessed the power of his celebrity and social media success to rake in millions in campaign contributions from big-money donors and the finance industry. And some say he has also even banked on that prestige to increase his personal wealth through his involvement in Waywire, a tech startup for which he raised $1.7 million from tech magnates including Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt in what is becoming a potential ethical scandal for the ascendant politician.
His lucrative involvement in Waywire, chronicled in a major New York Times investigation published earlier this month, has earned Booker between $1 million and $5 million -- eclipsing his other assets, which total less than $750,000 -- according to financial disclosure forms reviewed by ABC News, and government watchdogs are calling into question how these realities will influence his conduct as a senator.
"Essentially, they've turned him into a millionaire," Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at ethics watchdog Public Citizen, told ABC. "What kind of influence is that going to have over Cory Booker's decisions when it affects those particular clients?"
Booker's close ties to Silicon Valley don't end there. He also famously secured $100 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs's widow recently held a fundraiser for his campaign, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
And the magnitude of Booker's backing by the finance and tech sectors has already caused significant questions to be asked about his intentions. In May 2012, Booker came under intense fire from fellow Democrats who were outraged that in the leadup to that year's presidential election he called the Obama campaign's attacks on Mitt Romney's career at Bain Capital "nauseating."
His remarks, which were coupled with praise for the president, drew added derision from Democrats after a ThinkProgress investigation found that Bain Capital was one of Booker's earliest and most generous donors during his failed first run for mayor in 2002, during which he received more than $115,000 in contributions from venture capitalists, Wall Street bankers and wealthy investors.
Bain employees John Cannaughton, Steve Pagliuca and Jonathan Lavine reportedly donated a total of $5,200 to that campaign, and ThinkProgress reported that Booker received another $450,000 from the financial sector through his Booker Team for Newark committee, $15,400 of which came from Bain Capital managing directors Joshua Bekenstein and Mark Nunnelly. In total, during his first run for the Newark mayorship, he received $565,000 from the finance sector, at least $36,000 of which came from Bain, a fact that raised substantial questions about the reasons behind his slamming Democratic attacks on Romney.
His support of Bain is not the only sign Booker has shown of being on the side of the moneyed elites despite his liberal image, as he has endorsed the corporate-backed education "reform" effort by supporting controversial policies like charter schools and voucher programs, and has even been "active in Democrats for Education Reform, the Wall Street hedge fund managers’ advocacy group for privatization," according to the Network for Public Education.
So as Booker follows his seemingly inexorable path to the halls of the U.S. Senate, voters should be reminded that what they'd be getting in a Sen. Cory Booker is not just the Twitter-happy Newark star, but also a man whose entire political career has largely been bankrolled by the Masters of the Universe. It remains to be seen just what that means for the people of New Jersey.