Controversy will tarnish Cory Booker’s big victory

Cory Booker is likely to win the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey by more than 30 points, virtually guaranteeing he will become only the fourth-ever black person to be elected to America’s so-called Upper House, on the short list of potential Democratic presidential nominees and one of most well-known politicians in America.

But Booker has bungled what appeared to be a perfect coronation, and one for which he waited almost a decade.

A series of New York Times stories have described Booker’s unorthodox role in a Internet start-up company called Waywire that included a 15-year-old board member, massive losses that resulted in layoffs and a business strategy that seemed to do little but enrich the former mayor. The effort seems at best to show the mayor with questionable judgement and at worst would suggest campaign finance laws should be rewritten in the future to stop other politicians from doing what Booker did.

The controversy over the disclosures left the mayor doing damage control in an interview with NBC News only two days before his likely landslide victory. It raised questions about his judgment and his candor. And it reinforced criticisms by some of Booker’s opponents (most of whom are fellow Democrats) in New Jersey that the mayor is too close to moneyed interests on Wall Street and Silicon Valley and that Booker’s primary concern is his own personal advancement.

It also reignites the question: What kind of senator or president would Booker be? Much of his tenure as Newark mayor has centered around bringing investment to the city, either with private sector partnerships or working with Republicans like Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor.

Much of that experience will be irrelevant in today’s Washington, where there is little chance of working across party lines on major legislation and austerity politics pushed by Republicans won’t allow any new spending on public projects by the government or the private sector.

But Booker has shown a willingness not just to espouse liberal goals but act on them in a way that could benefit the Senate. Imagine if he lived on food stamps for a week, as he did last year in Newark as a show of solidarity for low-income people, when House Republicans recently cut food stamp funding from an appropriations bill. In his Senate campaign, Booker has promised to highlight poverty, an issue often ignored by both parties in Washington.

But the controversy suggests Booker is also eager to ally with moneyed interests and advance his own ambitions. Neither trait is in short supply in today’s Washington or make him a useful addition to the Senate.

perry.bacon@nbcuni.com