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Senator Cory Booker: Workhorse Or Show Horse?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we'll speak with a roundtable of educators about school safety. That's a subject that's on our minds a year after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and weeks after two more teachers were killed in their schools. That conversation is coming up.

But first, to politics. Cory Booker is back in the headlines. The mayor of Newark, New Jersey, famous for his social media savvy and his daring do - which includes shoveling constituents out of snow and rescuing a neighbor from a burning building - now heads to Washington, D.C. tomorrow to be sworn in as a United States senator. Now Booker's been in the spotlight for years. He first grabbed national attention in 1999 while he was on a Newark city council. There, he went on a 10-day hunger strike to draw attention to problems in the city. He became mayor of the city in 2006, and he's been famously outspoken. He has a million and a half Twitter followers. That's five times the number of people in Newark. But out of 100 members of the Senate, Booker will be one of only two African-Americans serving. We wanted to talk more about this.

So we've called Andra Gillespie. She's written the book on Cory Booker. It's called "The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America." She's an assistant professor at Emory University, and she's with us now from the studios on that campus. Professor Gillespie, thanks for joining us.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: But for additional perspective, we've also asked Carol Moseley Braun to speak with us. She was the first African-American woman to be elected to the United States Senate. She also served as ambassador to New Zealand during the Clinton administration, and she's with us by phone from her office in Illinois. Ambassador Braun, welcome back to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: It's great to speak with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Andra, let me start with you. When he joins the Senate, he will be joining New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. Together, they'll be the first Latino and black duo from a single state. But as we mentioned earlier, there's only one other African-American serving in the Senate. So how should we look at this? Is this a sign of kind of an increasing trend towards diversity, or should we be disappointed that there isn't yet more diversity?

GILLESPIE: I wouldn't quite say it's a trend toward diversity, but this is certainly a very promising sign. I'll feel a little more hopeful if Tim Scott is actually able to retain his seat in an election next year in South Carolina. But we'll still have a really long way to go in terms of parity in the Senate, and in general, black candidates still have a hard time winning statewide office. So I think there is still a point, yet, in the future where it's normal for blacks to get elected to statewide or national office. Right now, it still feels pretty exceptional.

MARTIN: And why do you think Cory Booker was successful in this election?

GILLESPIE: There were a number of things. I mean, I think Senator Lautenberg's death ended up working to his advantage. So with the truncated election cycle, he was the only person in the state who had that level of name recognition and had that broad of a national donor base, because of his celebrity and because of the million and a half Twitter followers. In general, if, you know, this had been in 2014 where he would've run anyway, he would've still been in a pretty good position in part because he's done a really good job over the course of his career cultivating that donor base. He has an uncanny ability to get campaign volunteers from all over the country - myself included - and so, you know, that typically has worked to his advantage in that regard.

MARTIN: So, ambassador, let's turn to you. Obviously, this is a very different time, but talk about your election. You served from 1993 to 1999, and then you were the only African-American serving in the Senate at that time. Obviously, Corey Booker doesn't have the burden of being first, but does he face any special challenges, do you think, being one of only two?

BRAUN: Well - well, yes and no. I'd say the special challenges come of being a freshman to begin with, because the Senate is still - as far as I'm aware, again, I haven't been there in over a decade - it's still very much an institution that's run by what they call the old bulls. And the old bulls are the people who've been around and have the seniority and who really still call the shots. And so, to begin with, he may be a superstar at this point - and he is a superstar - but he's going to have to quickly come to grips with the system that's in place. The fact that the seniority system still runs things, and he's going to need the help and the mentorship and support of people who've been around the Senate for a long time.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about that, though? For example, there's the Hillary Clinton model, where she was lauded - at least by her peers, at least by the old bulls, as you say - for kind of keeping her head down and not really capitalizing on her status as a national figure when she first went to the Senate after having been first lady. But then, in your case, could you really do that? One of the things I was curious about, could you really afford to do that? I mean, you got tremendous attention because of your status as the first African-American woman elected to the Senate. And I can imagine that you had speaking engagements from all over the country, that there were constant demands on your time that really were not germane strictly to your role as a senator from Illinois and as a freshman. Was that hard to mediate?

BRAUN: What's interesting, Eleanor Clifton once said to me, you can always tell a pioneer by the arrows in their back. The fact is that because I was there, you know, in that singular position, I was looked to to essentially be a voice for African-American concerns nationwide. And, you know, that was not necessarily part of my job description as senator from Illinois. I was focusing in, or trying to focus in on doing my job and representing my state and doing the kind of nuts and bolts nitty-gritty that government requires.

And the public demands, frankly, made that very difficult if not impossible. To add to that, again back to old bulls, some of the senior people thought that anything that I did to respond to those national demands amounted to grandstanding. And, you know, it's a very difficult tightrope to walk.

MARTIN: Professor Gillespie, could you go back to something that Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun just said about the fact that sometimes there's a tension between the fact that, because of your status on the national scene, people want you to be a national figure and sometimes that isn't necessarily appreciated by your colleagues. Do you think it's still that way in the Senate? Do you think that Cory Booker is going to have to mediate his national profile against the desire, I think, or the custom that, you know, freshman like him will be a little bit more low profile?

GILLESPIE: I think he's going to have to mediate that and a couple of other issues as well. So one, Booker is naturally bipartisan and wants to reach across the aisle and the political climate in this Senate is not necessarily leaning towards bipartisanship. And so he's going to have to learn to navigate that as well.

But in regards to the celebrity question, this has been an attack that's been levied against him in Newark. It was an attack that his opponent, Steve Lonegan in particular, tried to levy against him in this special Senate race. And so it's more of the idea that Booker's potentially a show horse and not a workhorse. So this is his opportunity to show his constituents what kind of workhorse he is. And so I think people will be paying attention to his output and paying attention to his deference to his more senior colleagues to move ahead going forward.

MARTIN: Do you think it's different thought that, as we mentioned, he will be only one of two African-American senators, but there are four Hispanic-American senators now and four Asian-American senators now. And, as we mentioned, there are 20 women serving in the Senate now. So it's a lot more diverse than it was then. Professor Gillespie, this is probably a question for you, is there still that same attitude about, you know, lay low and prove to me, as one of the, you know, the older guards, that you're serious - that you're a workhorse as opposed to show horse now or do you think that maybe they're just more accustomed to it, or perhaps not?

GILLESPIE: Well, I mean, sort of in the era of Ted Cruz I think there are people who would appreciate people kind of standing back and deferring to sort of the older establishment. But I think - in Booker's case in particular - because this has actually been a weakness of him and it's been a critique of his, it's something that he has to be more mindful of than perhaps other people need to be. In terms of the diversity question, he's going to have more demands on his time. I think there will be greater expectations of him because of the fact that he is the one African-American Democrat in the Senate. So when there are racial issues people are going to look to him, probably sooner than they would to Tim Scott of South Carolina.

And he's got to balance that with, one, meeting the demands of his constituency who elected him, and then also just doing it in a much more racially fluid type of era where Booker does not want to be seen as the African-American senator but he's the - you know, first, the senator of New Jersey and he's somebody who cares about issues of race and ethnicity and inequality, but he wants to do so in a more racially transcendent way.

MARTIN: Before we let you go professor Gillespie, your book is titled "The New Black Politician." What does his career say about the path for African-American politicians right now?

GILLESPIE: He's up - I mean, there are many ways in which he's unique, but I think, in many ways, people look up to him and seek to emulate his path politics, which, you know, there are good points to that and there are bad points that. Younger politicians like Booker who don't have the same type of ties to the civil rights community, in that his parents were foot soldiers in the civil rights movement but they weren't the visible leaders - so this isn't Martin Luther King III, it isn't Jesse Jackson Jr. - that type of thing.

Their path to power usually involves challenging the old guard black leadership. And there are good sides to that and there are bad sides to that. And sometimes you end up sort of dealing with the consequences of those decisions later on. And so he's new in that he is de-racialized - or in popular parlance, post-racial - and he was actually willing to challenge the older black establishment in ways that people who had been schooled in black politics wouldn't have necessarily done. And so that's why we called him the new black politician.

MARTIN: Ambassador, before we let you go - and thank you, again, for joining us as well, I understand that you're on to other ventures now and you're out of politics, but do you have any other advice for soon-to-be Senator Booker based on your experience as a first?

BRAUN: Well, just simply, again, to be mindful that the demands will be greater and he's going to - you know, his first job is to represent New Jersey. I mean, that's the bottom line on it, it seems to me. I mean, you have a job. You're not chosen to be king of the world or pope or - well, maybe pope's the wrong example - but, you know, you haven't been elected to save the world. You've been elected to represent the interests of your state. And that, of course, does require a global perspective.

So I think in the first sense, it's to understand there is a global perspective to be involved. The second point I would make is I hope that he will continue to focus in on the future, but to be mindful of the past. To be mindful that there is a lot of history and there are a lot of stories and there are a lot of experiences from which he can take valuable insights, in terms of meeting the challenges that he'll face. And then, finally, again, just to do the best job you can where you are. He's going to have challenges. For all intents and purposes, he will have to represent African-Americans across this country. You can't get away from that. And if you do try to get away from that, it will prove your undoing.

MARTIN: That was former ambassador, former United States Senator Carol Moseley Braun. She was kind enough to join us from her office in Illinois. Also with us, Andra Gillespie, author and associate professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Her book is "The New Black Politician: Corey Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America." She joined us from the studios on that campus. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

GILLESPIE: Thank you.

BRAUN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.