By Matt Friedman
Cory Booker, who captured national attention as Newark's charismatic mayor, now joins the world's most exclusive political club after a U.S. Senate campaign built on big ideas and the vow to be a healer in politically polarized Washington.
Booker defeated Republican Steve Lonegan in the U.S. Senate special election Wednesday following a bruising campaign, and will head to D.C. at a time when Congress has been torn apart by the very partisan politics he railed against on the campaign trail.
"He's going to be the kind of senator who's going to gravitate toward the getting-things-done caucus," said Booker spokesman Kevin Griffis. "He's going to be someone who's going to look to forge partnerships wherever he can to make progress for New Jersey families."
But it won't be easy. While the center-left Booker outlined ideas on the campaign trail such as government-funded college funds for poor kids, renewal of the assault weapons ban and instituting comprehensive climate-change legislation, he'll likely find progress slow-going in the Senate, which puts more value on seniority and procedure than personal magnetism.
Not to mention that Booker, who will now serve the remaining 15 months of the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg's term, will have to start running for his 2014 re-election virtually the day he's sworn in.
"The Senate is an institution that rewards time," said Menendez. "And so it's a little challenging, but not impossible. When I got here my freshman year, I drove the issue of getting relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax. ... It was one of my major accomplishments when I ran for re-election."
But unlike most freshman members, Booker comes in with a national profile and a relationship with the most powerful person in the world: President Obama.
Booker will join South Carolina's Tim Scott, a Republican, as the only African-Americans in the U.S. Senate.
"The fact that there are so few blacks in the U.S. Senate and the fact that he's the only black Democrat in the U.S. Senate means that he's going to be thrust into this major national role," said Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta and author of "The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America."
But one expert who has studied the Senate for 40 years has some advice for Booker: Ignore the cameras and get to work.
"If they ask him to go on Meet the Press, I think he should say no," said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. "That would be looked upon by his colleagues, I think, as a very wise move."
Baker said the most effective senators win their achievements by quietly building trust with their colleagues and taking the time to learn arcane rules and procedures.
According to Baker, former first lady Hillary Clinton provides a model for how a high-profile freshman senator should conduct himself or herself.
"She did it just right. She was very scrupulous in her choice of committees. She realized she had a lot to learn and while her credentials as a first lady gave her an enormous amount of ability, in some ways it needed to be restrained," said Baker. "She just set her mind to how the Senate worked."
Baker said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), an outspoken freshman senator who spurned tradition and alienated his colleagues -- may also be able to teach Booker about what not to do.
"There are many lessons to be learned from what Cruz has done," Baker said. "He became an irritant right away."
But Griffis, the Booker spokesman, said the Democrat really doesn't have to choose between staying low-profile and using the position of senator as national platform.
"People want to put senators in two types of categories: The head-down, attract-no-attention senator, or the always-on-television senator," he said. "I think that's a false choice. The mayor will forge his own path. But I think it's a path that will be focused on New Jersey."