How Cory Booker could reshape the Senate

Despite his popularity among Democrats nationally, Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s liberal bonafides have long been in question among some party activists.

Democrats in New Jersey criticize him for supporting school vouchers. A New Republic story last year excoriated the mayor for his once-close alliance with Gov. Chris Christie. His defense of the private equity industry, in the midst of Democrats attacking last year Mitt Romney’s leadership of Bain Capital, drew sharp criticism from top party officials, including Obama adviser David Axelrod.

But in his U.S. Senate campaign, Booker is giving hints he may lead in Washington on an issue that will delight progressives: poverty.

‘A national epidemic’

On Monday, in the first formal policy announcement of his campaign, the Newark mayor delivered an anti-poverty speech at a New Jersey high school, arguing “child poverty is a national epidemic.” The next day, Booker blasted the media for not covering poverty enough, asking “when are we going to start caring about poor people? Honestly, the only time the press shows up to my city, en masse, is when there’s blood on the sidewalk,” according to the Bergen Record‘s Michael Linhorst.

Steve Phillips, who leads a California-based group called Pac Plus that emphasizes the turnout of minority voters, told Buzzfeed that Booker was the “the most unapologetic and eloquent spokesperson about poverty in this country right now.”

“One of the reasons why I want to go to the U.S. Senate is that nobody wants to talk about poverty in the United States,” Booker, said at a recent event in New York, when he asked why he would want to go to the largely-ineffectual Senate, according to Yahoo News.  “The challenge is that we’re not unified as a country to deal with issues like the crushing impact of poverty.”

Booker’s ideas on poverty are hardly novel; many of them have been proposed by President Obama and congressional Democrats. He calls for raising the minimum wage to $10.10 a per hour, increasing the value of the earned income tax credit, making pre-kindergarten universal (a big theme of Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this year that has went nowhere in Congress) and having the Federal Housing Finance Agency approval principal reductions for underwater mortgages. Most of the ideas are unlikely to become law in today’s Washington as long as Republicans control more than 40 seats in the Senate and run the House of Representatives.

A void on the left

But Booker could fill a rhetorical void on the left. From implementing universal health care to the great expansion of the number of Americans on food stamps under his leadership, President Obama has tried to help the more than 45 million Americans living in poverty, including 16 million children, through his policies.

But Obama, as Bill Clinton did before him, usually frames economic issues around the middle class. The New York Times criticized Mitt Romney and Obama for not mentioning poverty during a single time during one of last year’s presidential debates. Bob Herbert, a former Times columnist and now a fellow at the liberal think tank Demos, wrote last year, “Barack Obama can barely bring himself to say the word ‘poor.” It was one of the sharpest critiques by Obama from a prominent black voice in 2012.

A more frank discussion of poverty, particularly among children, by Booker could help galvanize action in Washington.

And while other Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus, do speak regularly about poverty, they don’t have much ability to draw the rest of Washington’s attention to their causes. Booker will.  If he wins this race in October, as expected, he will arrive in Washington with a set of very important credentials that will give him a much bigger megaphone that most members of Congress: more than 1 million Twitter followers, long, deep connections with the national press, and the notoriety of being both the only black Democrat in the Senate and a likely future presidential candidate.

Putting poverty on the forefront

To be sure, it’s hard for any member of the Senate to break through if they are not talking whatever legislation is on the floor or being proposed by the sitting president. Hillary Clinton and Obama entered the Senate with great fanfare, but were not the authors of any major legislation. Elizabeth Warren, a liberal hero during her 2012 campaign, has barely made an imprint in the chamber in her few months there, as her anti-Wall Street politics can’t have much influence on a Congress that has spent weeks debating immigration reform and gun control.

And Booker’s record suggests he is an ambitious politician who could seek to move toward issues that better align with what has momentum in Washington or might help him in a future White House run.

But in his decade of service in electoral politics, Booker has demonstrated a deeper commitment to highlighting the plight of the disadvantaged than the average senator.

He lived for eight years in a public housing complex in Newark. He drew national attention last year by spending only $30 in a week for food to demonstrate the challenge of living on food stamps.

If he chooses, Booker could put poverty at the forefront of his Senate career, and potentially the Senate itself.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr