NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — In an accelerated election for a new U.S. senator from New Jersey, the Democratic field is Cory Booker vs. everyone else.
The Newark mayor's name recognition and deep-pocketed pals would give him an advantage in any statewide race. But the charismatic Booker — who clearly has national political ambitions and has spent significant time raising his profile on social media and giving speeches around the country — may be more familiar to talk show viewers than to New Jersey voters. His ride to Washington got bumpier when the election was moved up a year because of Sen. Frank Lautenberg's death this month.
Booker, 44, hasn't raised as much money as he hoped. He hasn't finished his second term in Newark, something he promised to do when he decided not to challenge Gov. Chris Christie's re-election bid. And he didn't have time to try to discourage other Democrats from competing against him in a party primary.
Booker is still the odds-on favorite to win the Aug. 13 primary, which is akin to coronation because a Republican hasn't held the seat for more than 40 years. One recent poll had him up by 40 points among other Democrats. It also showed him well ahead of the likely Republican challenger, former Americans for Prosperity state director Steve Lonegan, in the Oct. 16 general election, which will settle the seat for a year.
As few as 200,000 voters could decide the outcome, an anticipated turnout so low it adds to the uncertainty.
It's almost certain that Booker, a Stanford graduate and Rhodes scholar who grew up in the New York suburb of Harington Park, N.J., will be criticized during the primary for his fast-paced ambitions. One opponent, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, offered a glimpse of what is to come by proclaiming, "I don't bring a sense of entitlement" to the race. Oliver, who like Booker is black and from Essex County, could peel away minority and female votes that would otherwise go to Booker.
The two others in the race, Rep. Frank Pallone, a 24-year veteran of Congress with deep ties to organized labor, and Rep. Rush Holt, an astrophysicist and son of a former senator, both have voting records more liberal than Booker's. Additionally, the powerful public teachers union could come out against him because of his push for charter schools, school vouchers and other urban education reforms the union opposes.
Booker's mere entry into this race meant backpedaling on his publicly stated intent to finish his second term as mayor of New Jersey's largest city, which expires next June. Asked about the turnabout during his campaign kickoff at a downtown dot-com, Booker acknowledged that his campaign plans had been upended.
"The reality is we have put so much into the pipeline here in Newark," he said. "The momentum is clear. There is about $1 billion worth of development projects rolling into the city. As much as you might think I am necessary to complete those projects, this momentum will continue, and I will continue to be a part of it."
Though he swears his allegiance to his adopted city, critics say he cares more about building his national brand than fixing the city's systemic problems of crime and joblessness.
"Our infamous name for him is 'Mayor Hollywood,' because he's never here," said Newark community activist Donna Jackson. "Or we call him 'Story Looker,' because every time you look around, he has another story."
Critics see the rescue of a woman from a burning house and subsequent tweets about the experience (he has 1.4 million Twitter followers) as self-promotional, and say his investment in the downtown has come at the expense of neighborhoods where blight and crime persist. Critics say his trip to California the day after announcing his Senate candidacy for a fundraiser hosted by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is more evidence that he has already put Newark, and New Jersey, in his rearview mirror.
Supporters say Booker has reinvigorated the city.
He has attracted hundreds of millions in philanthropic money — including a $100 million grant from Zuckerberg to improve city schools — cleaned up parks and revitalized a once-moribund downtown that now boasts Panasonic's headquarters, a sparkling new hotel, loft apartments with exposed brick walls, and increased commerce, including a trendy restaurant specializing in gourmet mac and cheese.
Don Katz, founder and CEO of Audible.com, an audiobook producer and Amazon subsidiary that relocated its headquarters to Newark six years ago, sees a vibrant city that abounds with cultural, culinary and entertainment options, and says he has never regretted moving the company from suburban Wayne to urban Newark.
He said he found Booker to be "an incredibly articulate visionary" whose ideas for urban transformation through the political system resonated with Katz. Both are also like-minded on school reform; among Katz's 600 employees in Newark are interns and graduates of Newark charter schools.
Booker is aware of his detractors but is undeterred by them, beginning with former Mayor Sharpe James, who won re-election against the up-and-coming-councilman in 2002 after a bruising battle documented in the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Street Fight."
"I've heard it," he said, "too much Twitter from the mayor, too much exposure. There's not a criticism I haven't heard over the years. I've heard it all. But there's one thing everyone has to admit about my life as a professional, from my days working in housing high-rises here in Newark as a tenants' rights attorney to my time as mayor, is that I do not run from challenges. I run toward them."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Katie Zezima and Samantha Henry in Newark and Geoff Mulvihill in Haddonfield.