13 Aug 2013

Meet Cory Booker: America’s latest political superstar?

He is not just a politician. He is a celebrity, a superhero – even a meme. Meet Cory Booker, charismatic mayor of Newark and now the hot tip to become New Jersey’s next senator.

Cory Booker (getty)

Cory Booker: a name you will be hearing more of. Six foot three, teetotal and vegetarian, with 1.4 million Twitter followers and a prodigious talent for saving people from perilous situations, he is heading for almost certain success in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for the Garden State’s senate seat.

In the space of just a few months, the Newark mayor and would-be senator has pulled off an astonishing series of random acts of kindness. Last April, for example, he noticed his neighbour’s building was on fire.

He told reporters he had not stopped to think – but ran straight into the flames: “I just grabbed her and whipped her out of the bed.” The intrepid politician suffered second degree burns to his hand, but did that stop him carrying on with his schedule? Of course not.

He swoops to conquer

Mayor Booker also swooped in to help a pedestrian who had been hit by a car, giving a hand to another citizen who was performing first aid.

And he responded in typical style to someone who tweeted him about a dog called Cha Cha, locked in a car in the cold weather. “I’ll head up myself and investigate,” he promised, before organising the animal’s rescue from the scene.

During Hurricane Sandy he gave up his own house to families made homeless by storm damage, providing pizzas and DVDs to keep the children entertained. He even pulled over to fix a broken traffic light he spotted as he drove past.

Naturally the Booker campaign has welcomed all the publicity surrounding such exploits, the headlines that have turned their candidate into a political shooting star.

Subscribe to the @CoryBooker Twitter stream and you are be treated to what nay-sayers would call a constant barrage of self-promotion, from inspirational quotes to Star Trek jokes and promises to clear snow or mend potholes in response to his constituents’ concerns.

Critics claim he’s all about talk rather than action: not simply ambitious but attention-seeking to the point of narcissism. The only way you get to see him, complained one councillor, is by turning on Meet the Press.

The voters, by all accounts, do not buy into that narrative: one poll suggests a whopping 70 per cent of Newark residents have a positive view of their mayor. He is ahead of his nearest challenger in the primary by 30 points, and way ahead of the Republican front-runner, Steve Lonegan, in a two-party clash.

Supporters say he has transformed Newark during his time in office, overseeing the regeneration of the urban centre, attracting some vibrant new e-commerce businesses to give a new boost to its economic development.

Friends in high places

There have been benefits, too, from his celebrity status: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100m to the city schools, as well as hosting a fundraiser for Booker’s senate campaign at his home in Palo Alto this summer.

Booker’s student days at Stanford have plugged him into a highly influential network of high-tech tycoons, including the founders of PayPal and LinkedIn, who have proved generous benefactors and supporters of his political ambitions.

But it is his own foray into the high-tech business which could tarnish the Democratic high-flyer’s glossy image. It involves a company which Booker helped to start, called Waywire, which helps users locate and promote their favourite videos over the internet.

The firm was helped by $1.75m in start-up funds gathered from various luminaries including Google boss Eric Schmidt, Oprah Winfrey and Lady Gaga’s manager Troy Carter. Like many start-ups, it has been struggling – in June it attracted barely 2,000 hits.

Trouble in paradise?

Although Booker’s shares are worth between $1m and $5m, his campaign says the money is all held in a trust, while he has no salary or day-to-day involvement with the business itself. The other two founders describe him as the “inspiration architect”.

However the New York Times, which has endorsed Booker for the Senate nomination, has registered its concern about his reluctance to disclose any details about his remuneration, urging him to be “more open and careful about his financial arrangements”, whatever that means.

Liberals have also bemoaned his close political friendship with New Jersey’s Republican governor Chris Christie, along with his backing for policies like charter schools and public sector job cuts. Others have accused him of a kind of “benevolent vigilantism”.

But nothing, it seems, will stop the Booker juggernaut. So far he has raised far more cash than any other candidate in the Senate race, and has spent more than all of them combined.

And so it continues: the big ideas, the lofty rhetoric, the far-sighted ambition which may not stop at the hallowed doors of Capitol Hill. Cory Booker, local politician turned national star-in-the-making. Barack Obama had better watch out.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News