Why Do Liberals Hate Cory Booker?

The mayor of Newark is a rising Democratic star with progressive positions on most issues. So why are so many on the left so critical?

Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Cory Booker is not yet a senator, but many on the left have already made up their minds that the onetime Democratic wunderkind is a sellout.

The 44-year-old two-term mayor of Newark won the New Jersey Democratic primary by 39 points last week, all but guaranteeing he will take his place in Washington in a couple of months. (One recent poll had him up 16 points on his little-known Republican opponent.) Yet Booker's triumph was greeted not by cheers but by scathing takedowns in two prominent liberal publications. Salon called him "an avatar of the wealthy elite, a camera hog, and a political cipher"; The New Republic declared Booker only interested in "agitating for the cause of himself" and doing the bidding of "the moneyed classes." Booker has faced a steady drumbeat of criticism from sites like Daily Kos, where a contributor asserted last year that he "would actually be much more at home in the Republican Party."* Booker's team has grown all too familiar with the rap that he is "some sort of Manchurian candidate for the right," as his campaign spokesman, Kevin Griffis, put it to me with a sigh.

What's curious about the criticism is there's very little substance to it. It's not based on Booker's record as mayor or the policies he espouses. Most of his policy stances are conventional liberal ones: pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, in favor of raising taxes on the rich and increasing government spending on welfare and infrastructure programs. As he told Salon's Matt Taylor last month, "There's nothing in that realm of progressive politics where you won't find me."

What Booker's critics mainly take issue with are his associations, his persona, and unprovable allegations about his "worldview." Exhibit A is always Booker's notorious appearance on Meet the Press in May 2012, in which he called the Obama campaign's attacks on private equity "nauseating" and pleaded for more civility in the campaign. Booker subsequently attempted to clarify that he supported the specific critiques of Mitt Romney's record that had been leveled, but for some liberals, the betrayal was complete and irreversible. "When the predatory nature of America's business elites threatened to become an actual political issue, Cory Booker leaped to salve the wounded fee-fees of the crooks," Esquire's Charlie Pierce wrote this month. "Which is why I would not vote for Cory Booker."

Booker has, it is true, raised plenty of money from Wall Street over the years. Of the $8.6 million he's raised for his Senate campaign, $531,000 came from the financial industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This is hardly unique, even for a Democrat, and especially for a Democrat from New Jersey, a solidly blue state where many financial firms are headquartered. The two sitting members of Congress against whom Booker ran in the primary have both taken hundreds of thousands in financial-industry donations over the years. Frank Lautenberg, the late Democratic senator Booker is aiming to replace, raised $2 million of his $9 million campaign war chest in 2008 from the industry. Booker's campaign has also drawn $700,000 in donations from Silicon Valley, according to the New York Times. The ties go beyond campaign support: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has donated $100 million to improve Newark's schools, while various tech bigwigs have invested in Booker's dubious tech startup.

The startup helped make Booker a millionaire; he has also made over $1 million for speaking appearances. Critics charge he's used his connections to enrich himself. Without those endeavors, Salon noted, his circumstances would be relatively modest for a political star with degrees from Stanford and Yale. (His salary as mayor, which he has cut twice while in office, was $174,000 last year.) Booker spent eight years living in one of Newark's worst housing projects; when he had to move out because it was being demolished, he purposefully chose a new home in one of the city's most crime-plagued neighborhoods instead. He has also gone on a 10-day hunger strike to draw attention to drug dealing and spent a week subsisting on the budget of a food-stamp recipient. But to his critics, these are all empty stunts, proof that he's more about getting good press than getting things done. "He has done lots of stunts designed to make people aware of poverty, or at least to make people aware of Cory Booker's awareness of poverty," Salon snarked.

Booker's major substantive difference with many progressives is on education policy. He is -- like President Obama -- an advocate of the "education reform" movement; he has backed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's expansion of charter schools and merit pay for teachers, as well as a form of vouchers for some impoverished areas. He sits on the board of Democrats for Education Reform. During last summer's Democratic convention, Booker spoke at an event hosted by lightning-rod former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who teachers unions see as working to privatize public education and undermine collective bargaining. The school-reform issue is the subject of a major schism in today's Democratic Party; Obama's "Race to the Top" education initiative, which has encouraged state-level reforms, has infuriated traditional Democratic allies but also drawn support from many party officeholders.

Booker has also been deemed suspicious when it comes to entitlement reform. The sole concrete criticism in The New Republic's recent takedown was an allusion to Booker "hinting that he'd be open to raising the Social Security retirement age for young people -- before backtracking furiously when progressives called him on it." Booker had been paraphrased in the Bergen Record as saying that he "opposes raising the retirement age for most people in the country -- except, perhaps, for people in their 20s or younger." When the vagueness of that position prompted furious criticism, Booker tweeted that he opposes all cuts to Social Security and Medicare; would, if anything, expand the programs; and also opposes raising the retirement age and curbing benefits through the "chained CPI" inflation index.

But the case against Booker seems to rest chiefly on tone and approach. Like Obama, he has positioned himself as a conciliator willing to work across the aisle; like Obama, he is a black politician who has attempted to transcend racial divisions and has challenged inner-city black machine politics. Progressives disdain the spectacle of Booker's friendship with Christie -- another pol who, despite mostly doctrinaire policy stances, has found himself at odds with his party's base for palling around with the other side (in Christie's case, with President Obama). Obama, for his part, is said to see his younger self in Booker. Endorsing his Senate bid in a statement this week, the president said, "Cory Booker has dedicated his life to the work of building hope and opportunity in communities where too little of either existed."

Booker's allies find it perplexing that normal politician activities, like raising money and being ambitious, are seen as uniquely damning in his case. They insist that he is sincerely motivated by issues of inequality and social justice; the first policy paper he released during the current campaign was about child poverty, hardly a political winner. The hobnobbing with billionaires, the Twitter stunts, the television talk-show appearances, are all aimed at attracting attention for his causes and investment in his city, they say -- from a program to help ex-offenders set up by the right-wing Manhattan Institute to some $400 million in philanthropic investment in the city and $1 billion in new development. "The mayor is someone who hasn't just talked about fighting for the underprivileged," his spokesman, Griffis, said. "Working to help people has been the the focus of his life."

Nonetheless, it seems clear Booker will not be riding to Washington on a wave of esteem from national progressives. Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and a former communications director for the New Jersey Democratic Party, said there's still time for Booker to earn liberals' esteem. "There's a healthy skepticism, given his record of cozying up to Wall Street donors, defending corporations like Bain Capital, and supporting Michelle Rhee's extreme school-privatization agenda," Green said. "That said, there's a real willingness to take a second look, given his airtight commitment to oppose any Grand Bargain that cuts Social Security benefits and his openness to actually increasing those benefits." Booker, he said, would "earn a lot of goodwill" if he committed to the PCCC-backed proposal to expand those programs. For now, though, the skepticism remains.

* Clarification: This sentence has been edited to clarify that a Daily Kos contributor is the author of the cited article.