Senator-elect Cory Booker arrives on Capitol Hill today with celebrity status, but he's likely to put his head down and play by the rules -- at least for a while.
The Garden State Democrat is a rising star in his party, known for his throngs of Twitter followers, big personality and an outsized national profile for a mayor. It's widely believed that the ambitions of the former Newark mayor stretch beyond the upper chamber of the U.S. Congress -- perhaps even to the White House -- and his political rise is often compared to that of President Obama. He's even scheduled to meet with the president at the Oval Office this afternoon.
But as he looks to win over his Senate colleagues, ramp up for another election just a year away and quash concerns that he's a political opportunist, Booker is expected to keep a low profile and get in line with his party.
"The Senate is pretty good at evening everyone out," said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "You've got to prove yourself. The smart ones know that to get along you've got to go along, but if you don't play nice, you're going to find yourself isolated."
Booker has already made moves suggesting he'll try to fit into the establishment and work on winning loyalty from his home state. He appointed Louisa Terrell, a longtime Senate staffer and former Obama administration employee, as his chief of staff. Booker also named Modia "Mo" Butler, his chief of staff in Newark, as his state director, according to campaign spokeswoman Silvia Alvarez.
After his official swearing-in today, the high-profile Democrat is expected to take a page from the playbooks of rookie senators with star power who have come before him, like Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
The former first lady, the "Saturday Night Live" star and the Wall Street watchdog came in with their own big brands and surrounded by a lot of hype. But they quickly fell into line, hunkering down to work on their committees, drafting bills and shying away from the masses of reporters hounding them in the Senate hallways.
"I think he's going to -- at least for a while -- be part of the party," Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, said of Booker.
Joining the ranks of the Senate can be a tough transition, especially for veterans of executive offices like Booker.
Former Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) served as governor before joining the Senate, and had to adjust when he arrived on Capitol Hill. "When you get to the Senate, you realize you're not in charge of anything, not even your own schedule," he said.
Now, instead of calling the shots in Newark, Booker will follow a schedule largely dictated by Senate leadership. That means regular votes in the Capitol, weekly caucus lunches, committee meetings and taking turns -- as all rookie senators in the majority party do -- presiding over the chamber.
It'll be a big change for Booker, who has gained fame for his sometimes unorthodox behavior. He's known for populist feats like a 10-day hunger strike to protest drug dealing, rescuing a freezing dog and hosting victims of Superstorm Sandy at his house last year.
He's also known for his nearly 1.5 million Twitter followers with whom he often engages. It's gotten him into some hot water in the media, including an incident where he exchanged messages with an employee at a vegan strip club in Portland, Ore. His popularity on the social media site is big by anyone's standards. By contrast, New Jersey's other senator, Bob Menendez (D), has about 32,000 Twitter followers; GOP up-and-comer Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has about 455,000.
Of course, there's little chance Booker will disappear into the shadows at his new job.
"He's someone whose personality has always been a vice and a virtue," Zelizer said. "I think he has even bigger national aspirations. He doesn't want to lose his skill in the national media."
Menendez said Booker will likely "carve out his own particular style," as he gets to understand the Senate and build relationships.
"He has obviously a national following, and I think he's going to be someone who's going to stand up for the state but also make his mark on a whole host of different issues," he said.
Menendez said he expects Booker to be interested in things like education, crime and urban economic development.
Further controlling his scope is the fact that he will almost immediately need to seek re-election to a full six-year term. He only fills the final year of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg's term and will face a primary in June. Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said that will likely push Booker to focus on issues near and dear to his voters' hearts.
"People are still hurting and struggling to overcome Sandy, and transportation is always an issue. I imagine we'll also hear from him on funds for education and technology, issues we're talking about in the state," Dworkin said.
"That's not to say we won't hear from him on a national level, but it will be very focused on how New Jersey is impacted," he added. "His immediate priority is becoming an advocate for New Jersey citizens as they interact with the federal government."
'Big shoes to fill'
Booker could take the seat of his predecessor, Lautenberg, on the Environment and Public Works Committee. It's a high-profile post that could help him win support in his home state. With 113 designated Superfund areas, New Jersey has more of the toxic cleanup sites than any other state. The EPW Committee's jurisdiction also includes transportation and the impact of Superstorm Sandy -- both issues that would play well in New Jersey.
Senate leadership has yet to confirm Booker's committee assignments, but freshman Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) could vacate a temporary seat on the EPW panel that was supposed to expire this month, clearing the way for Booker. In a statement praising Booker's election earlier this month, Reid touted the mayor's engagement on climate change and Sandy recovery -- a possible signal of where he'll be put to work.
When asked whether she was excited for Booker to come to the Senate, EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) enthusiastically said, "Oh, God, yes!"
"He's such a star, he's a real star," Boxer said. "He's a hands-on person, and he knows the issues well."
And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an outspoken environmental advocate, said he was looking forward to working with Booker on climate change. "We can use all the allies we can find," he said.
But even with his support from greens, his environmental record isn't Lautenberg's. Some environmentalists fear they've lost a champion in the Senate.
Bill Wolfe, director of the New Jersey office of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said not having Lautenberg in the Senate is a "huge loss." He would "step on toes to get things done," whereas Wolfe said Booker is "the antitheses of that." He called the former mayor a "calibrated corporate Democrat who worries about alienating Wall Street and corporate America."
Greens have also criticized Booker for not being as outspoken as some of his Democratic primary opponents in this year's special election when it came to national issues like climate change or a carbon tax.
Other New Jersey environmentalists were more supportive. Under Booker, Newark hired its first sustainability officer, set up an environmental commission, and created a sustainability office within the economic and housing development department. He also worked to bring more parks to Newark and was credited with a push to install pollution controls on a Newark-based trash incinerator plant owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
"I didn't agree with everything, but I appreciate the things that he did," said Kim Gaddy, an environmental organizer with Clean Water Action in New Jersey and chairwoman of the Newark Environmental Commission. By taking Lautenberg's seat, "he has some big shoes to fill" on environmental issues, she added.
Lautenberg was revered by environmental groups and liberal activists for his work on public health and commerce issues. Over five nonconsecutive terms, he passed legislation banning smoking on airplanes; creating U.S. EPA's Toxic Release Inventory database; and creating an EPW subcommittee to deal with Superfund, toxics and environmental health. He was also working on a massive effort to reform the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.
Lautenberg's family swiped at Booker's celebrity during the special election, implying that he couldn't measure up to Lautenberg's legacy. In an endorsement of primary opponent Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the family said he would "be a workhorse, not a showhorse."
But Dworkin of Rider University said Booker shouldn't be hurt by comparisons to Lautenberg, a politician with a different sort of star power.
"People will see Booker as his own person," Dworkin said. "These types of transitions happen in politics."
Like what you see?
We thought you might.
Start a free trial now.