The writer says that there has been for months a trend on Blue Jersey to paint Cory Booker as less progressive, to injure him with the left. Is that correct, Blue Jersey? What do you think? – promoted by Rosi
The race for the democratic nomination for Governor may not dominate headlines yet, but it has been playing out quietly, and sometimes less quietly, for almost a year now.
The players are well-known, the battle lines are being drawn, and the debate is being framed. For my part I wrote a blog post last week (perhaps prematurely) calling on Mayor Cory Booker to live up to his rhetoric and challenge Governor Christie in 2013.
Of the couple comments it received, one from Bill W tried to paint the Mayor as anti-teacher due to his support of school reform and seemed to indirectly insinuate that he is a “regressive voice.” Another comment from sayitaintso asked, and I promised to respond, “what is Cory’s brand of politics and why is it progressive?”
While I aim to address both comments here, the comments cannot be divorced from the context of an ongoing attempt by one or more potential candidates for Governor, notably Senator Buono, to paint themselves as the most staunchly progressive and to deride any working relationship with Governor Christie as treacherous.
I do not want this post to devolve into the beginnings of a side-by-side comparison of different candidates. If you go back to my original post, I was very careful not to say that Booker would be a better candidate than anyone else, I merely posited that if he is truly on a mission to do good, then a run for Governor is the natural next step.
In all honesty I would prefer not to mention Senator Buono directly, but shortly after posting my diary “Why Cory Booker must run for Governor” a new community member posted a similarly titled diary, “Why Democrats Must Support Barbara Buono for Governor.”
The tit-for-tat games have begun. But let us drop the facade finally and admit that for months now there has been a trend on Blue Jersey to paint Booker as less progressive, to injure him with the left by painting his pragmatism as a departure from progressivism. And let us be honest, much of it derives from Buono supporters who are eager to frame the debate among Democrats in her favor.
Having been unceremoniously dropped as Majority Leader due to “boss politics,” there is a certain amount of political necessity to Buono’s approach. Her only path to the nomination is to poison the standing of potential primary opponents with the primary base.
But the argument against Cory Booker ignores the larger reality that he is the Mayor of a city which relies heavily on State resources for its survival: State aid covers about 20 percent of the city budget and more than 70 percent of the school budget. Also, Newark desperately needs an extra $24 million to get through this fiscal year.
I am not using these numbers to respond to accusations that distort his progressive record, but it is important to note that being a Mayor necessitates a working relationship with a Governor in the way that being a member of the majority in the legislative body does not. This is an important difference, because while Booker has a successful working relationship with the Governor, there is still a rigid and wide difference between their principles and politics that has endured for the past three years. To jeopardize the well-being of your city by playing partisan political games solely for political posturing would be unacceptable.
The rest of this rather long post will be dedicated to addressing some of these accusations and to answering sayitaintso’s question about Booker’s brand of politics and how it is progressive. (Note: I write as an outside observer, I do not have any intimate insight into the Booker camp.)
The politics of questioning Booker’s loyalty to Party and fealty to ideology is not new. Back in 2002, in his “street fight” against incumbent Mayor Sharpe James, Booker was accused of being a “white Republican.” While James’ accusation were excessive, his statements acquired credibility from the same questionable Booker characteristic: his ability to work with and attract support from individuals across the political spectrum.
Indeed, in a hyper-partisan political environment, the ability to attract support from all sides can be worrisome. How can a Democrat have a working relationship with a bombastic Republican Governor? How does he get Republican donors and legislators to buy into his mission for Newark?
There is no simple answer to these questions, but his success to date derives less from political stances, and more from the Booker “brand.” You see, since his entry into politics as a Newark councilman Booker has based his politics on what he likes to call a “politics of self-fulfillment,” where it is not about the next office, but rather about the next challenge.
Now I am not going to insult Booker’s or his advisors’ intelligence by claiming they are not constantly aware of the political ramifications of their actions, but Newark has, until now, provided a political shield for the Booker team.
With one-quarter of Newarkers (nearly twice the national average) living below the poverty line, an unemployment rate that is also twice the national average, and the ongoing malignancy of violence, the city has its fair share of struggles.
By wrapping his political struggles within the struggle of improving the city, Booker has managed to insulate himself from accusations of partisanship or political posturing – in essence he has used the plight of Newark to stay above the fray.
After all, with so many crises to manage, Booker would argue that he doesn’t have time to focus energy elsewhere. Thus his brand of politics has become one of pragmatism in the name of doing good, not for him, but for his city. This has allowed him to work across partisan lines, without ramifications, and has served as a justification for the breaking with his Party or with wings of his Party on a couple issues.
But as Booker begins to look beyond Newark, he will have to expand his political brand. His political ambitions will no longer fall in synch with his personal crusade to save Newark. He will have to take more cynical evaluations of the issues and he will, like Buono and others, have to posture and decide which direction to go in.
The good news is that Booker is an exceedingly progressive voice on the majority of issues important to Democrats. I use the word progressive purposefully, because although his critics like to endlessly reference his support of the school reform policies or his “misspeak” on Meet the Press (which he has made countless mea culpas) Booker has actually been a leading voice on a series of progressive issues, and his political values are progressive to the core.
While some would like to frame progressivism as an orthodoxy, a laundry list of issues on which you are either on the right or the wrong side, this is the wrong track if we want to beat Christie in 2013. Progressivism has always been the idea that government could better society and achieve social and economic justice if it became more democratic, efficient, and more concerned with the plight of ordinary individuals.
Disowning Cory Booker or condemning him for having the courage to be honest, taking centrist stances on specific issues, or for rising above partisan politics is a really poor political strategy. It is also counter to the progressive tenet of middle ground. Democrats aren’t going to accomplish our goals and win the next election by looking for orthodoxy, but rather by finding a progressive voice with the experience and appeal to grow our party.
Whether on gay marriage, calling the GOP out on their hypocrisy over the earned income tax credit, supporting planned parenthood, addressing urban poverty, introducing meritocracy into a city establishment where hires were usual based on political cronyism, and also having the courage to call out the false drug war, Booker is the leading voice in New Jersey’s Democratic Party.
Above all this, a rigid focus on orthodoxy also misses the simple point that Booker has been a very effective Mayor of Newark. I will not go through the numbers or the investment he has brought to the City, but as someone who had opportunities to move up the political ladder many times before now, he was true to his word. Through thick and thin, and a lot of struggle, he stuck in Newark and he made important contributions to the life of New Jersey’s largest city. He also proved, once again, that forward looking Democrats make the best executives.
None of this is new information to Blue Jersey, but whenever Cory Booker’s name is mentioned on Blue Jersey there seem to be a group of people who pounce, calling heretic! And if you want to condemn him due to the fact that he is not an orthodox then that is your democratic right. As I have tried to touch on (although I fear I have only scratched the surface) Cory Booker’s career and his progressive character cannot be summed up in one or two issues.
We need to have a broader discussion, maybe after November, about what we are really looking for in the candidate to take on Governor Christie. Also, what we want our Party to become. As numerous sources reported from the convention last week, there are fissures within our Party. There are legitimate debates that need to be had about what the future should be and how we better communicate a unified message. We can’t close our minds to any candidate or vision without first understanding the complexities of leadership and challenges we will all face moving forward.
For my part, I welcome a broader debate not a more narrow one. I also hope Booker runs for Governor, the debate about our State’s future needs him in it.