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Junior Senator Cory Booker Faces Off With The Most Polarized Congress In American History

It was within a week of being sworn into the U.S. Senate that former Newark Mayor Cory Booker was called upon to vote for a bill in Congress that has been heatedly debated since 1994, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act . The legislation, ENDA, would make it illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It is illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, nationality, religion, age, or disability. It was the first big issue for the Democratic senator representing the state of New Jersey after winning a special election in October. Just before the vote, he took to Twitter @CoryBooker . “Absolutely, unequivocally, proudly, with gusto & enthusiasm. I hope to make it my first “co-sponsor” RT @frendazoned Are u supporting ENDA?” After the Senate vote on Nov. 7, he sent a celebratory tweet from the Senate floor. “ENDA passes!!!” Booker’s Twitter habits have contributed to his high profile and popularity. He once responded to a tweet that resulted in him rescuing a dog from the cold. The 44-year-old mayor went to Washington with the backing of 1.4 million Twitter followers. In 2010, research engine Samepoint ranked him the second most social mayor next to San Francisco’s Gavin Newsom. Booker has gained 30 times as many constituents as a senator as he had as mayor, and about 36% more Twitter replies, according to analysis from TIME using Twitter API. He now has to measure up against social media influencers such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has more than 500,000 Facebook likes, and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who boasts 1.8 million Twitter followers. RELATED: Cory Booker Talks About Being the Social Mayor As a public servant, “social media is a powerful tool. I can stay connected to my constituents. We can organize ourselves around real issues and get things done,” says Booker, a tech investor who co-founded the Internet startup Waywire in 2012 with financing from Silicon Valley moguls and whose involvement generated controversy (he stepped down from the board of Waywire in September). New Jersey’s first African American senator is only the ninth African American to head to the upper House of the United States Congress in 224 years. Booker’s hands-on approach to helping local citizens and working with grassroots organizations earned him a reputation as “the People’s Mayor.” Now he wants that same recognition as senator. Sen. Booker wants to leverage private–public partnerships for New Jersey as he did in Newark, which includes the infamous $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to the city’s public schools. He also seeks to strengthen small and minority businesses similar to his economic development efforts in Newark. But Congress will pose different challenges for the junior senator. As mayor of Newark, he was CEO of the city. Now he is one of 535 members of the 113th Congress which has been locked in partisan warfare and political gridlock, making it the least productive and most polarized legislative branch in American history. Booker, who successfully worked across party lines in Newark including a solid relationship with New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie , is up for it. An All-American football player, Booker points to how the sport breaks down illusions of difference. “You have to learn to get along with people whom you may not like off the field to win the game,” he says. It’s that cooperative spirit he intends to bring to the Caucus. Political Rise Booker was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Harrington Park, New Jersey. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University, where he received a football scholarship, ran a crisis hotline, and organized a youth program in East Palo Alto. He attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and earned a juris doctorate from Yale Law School, where he opened free legal clinics for low-income residents in New Haven, Connecticut, and was a founding member of the Jewish organization, ‘Eliezer.’ Booker’s passion for politics is an outgrowth of a desire to use his “God-given talents” to make a difference in the world. “The essence of life for me is about purpose and not position,” he says. Booker won a seat on the Newark City Council in 1998 and in 2002 lost the mayoral election to incumbent Sharpe James. In 2003, he started Newark Now, a nonprofit neighborhood improvement group. He won Newark’s mayoral election in 2006 and re-election in 2010. As mayor he helped revitalize Newark, including new commercial and multifamily development. He convinced companies such as Audible.com, Panasonic North America, and Manischewitz to relocate their headquarters to the city. He lobbied for the construction and funding of the Prudential Center sports arena. He developed more than 13 family success centers to strengthen at-risk families. He got communities to partner with the police to drive down crime. Booker worked with residents, philanthropists, and civic organizations to help turn the city around, says Modia Butler, formerly the mayor’s chief of staff and presently State Director to Sen. Booker. “Because of his national brand, Cory was able to raise private money.” Butler, who first worked with Booker when he ran Newark Now, helped launch the Brick City Development Corporation aimed at growing local businesses and spurring real estate development. The BCDC Newark Fund has granted some 30 small business loans up to $400,000. Adds Butler, “Cory has made a concerted effort to put Newark on the map and change its image, letting people know Newark was open for business and a safe place to come to.” Booker is a senator with national celebrity status. He was called America’s superhero for dashing into a neighbor’s burning home in 2012, emerging with a woman who had been trapped in a back bedroom. He breaks bread with wealthy friends such as Oprah Winfrey, who dubbed him a “rock star,” and Ivanka Trump, daughter of Republican real estate mogul Donald Trump, who both hosted fundraisers for his Senate campaign. He reportedly hauled in $11.2 million for the race, beating his Republican opponent, businessman Steve Lonegan’s $1.35 million, by 8-to-1. But he has faced criticism for being “too much” in the spotlight. Salon political writer Alex Pareene described him as an “avatar of the wealthy elite, a camera hog, and a political cipher who has never once proposed anything to address the structural causes of the problems he claims to care so deeply about. He represents the interests of both Wall Street and Silicon Valley.” Pareene wrote that Booker would be the worst kind of senator—one that has no power. Congressional Gridlock “Booker is a unique case among other statewide candidates who have been less [victorious]. There is something that can be learned from him,” says Daniella Gibbs Léger, senior vice president for American Values and New Communities at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., public policy research group. While every state race has its own set of dynamics depending on whether you are in the South, East, or Midwest region, Gibbs Léger says what Booker did that worked was to build a broad base coalition, garnering support and cultivating strong relationships within and outside of the state of  New Jersey. Booker, whose Senate run occurred after the late Frank Lautenberg’s seat became vacant, will serve out his term until 2014. He must run again in the primaries and November election to secure a full six-year term in Congress where Democrats now hold the Senate majority while the GOP controls the House. “We are in this hyper partisan environment where it is not about policy issues. It is about a zero sum game type of politics where if your side wins my side loses,” says Booker. He cites a USA Today article that took an education issue and associated it with Republicans, 80% of Democrats were against it while 80% of Republicans were for it. When they switched that same education issue, associating it with Democrats, it had the opposite effect. “We have to find a way to work together to be a productive force to help grow this country.” Booker is progressive on social issues that have divided Congress. He supports women’s rights, same-sex marriage, immigration reform, and gun control. He favors a higher minimum wage, corporate tax reform, and greater college financial assistance. He also wants to spur job creation through infrastructure spending and increased manufacturing in the USA. RELATED: Cory Booker Announces Run for Senate A major concern for 2014 is criminal justice reform. “There has been this emphasis on punishment and not rehabilitation. I am a big believer in if you do something wrong there must be a consequence. But America has become an incarceration nation,” he explains. “We need to make the justice system fairer. So, that a black male marijuana user is not 3.7 times more likely to be arrested than a white male user.” He adds, “the pillars of a lot of my recommendations are around crime prevention, alternative courts for veterans and youth, drug treatment, and education.” As far as aspirations for the Oval Office, Booker says he won’t run for the presidency. “I may not continue with politics beyond this seat.” His quip is quite similar to that of another freshman U.S. senator eight years ago. That legislator now resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a second term.

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Junior Senator Cory Booker Faces Off With The Most Polarized Congress In American History

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