What Cory Booker will do in the Senate

New Jersey’s Cory Booker, the man who Wednesday became the fourth-ever African-American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate, is likely to approach his Senate career much as Barack Obama did eight years ago, except for the running-for-president-in-two-years part.

Aware of the lack of influence and power that first-term senators generally have on major issues, Booker is looking for a low-profile cause to bore in and lead on. In an interview with theGrio last month, Booker cited the example of Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who has emerged as a key voice in the chamber on Africa policy.

Booker will also pursue, as he promised during his campaign, legislation to reduce prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders, an issue where the mayor is passionate but also one on which he can burnish his reputation as a bipartisan bridge-builder, as prominent Republicans like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Utah’s Mike Lee have also urged a rethinking of U.S. drug policy.

Before he was elected, Booker spoke both at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the annual convention of the Congressional Black Caucus, illustrating that he will acknowledge and occasionally highlight his status as one of only nine blacks ever to serve in the Senate and already one of the leading black political figures in the country.

Congressional Democratic officials say Booker has told them he will make campaign appearances for the party’s candidates in key races next year, although he will have to tend to his own reelection as well. (Booker must run again in 2014 for a full six-year term; he was elected Wednesday to serve out the remainder of the term of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg).

And while Booker has said he will not run for president in 2016, he sounds open to that in the future, so he will do what is necessary to illustrate his liberal bonafides.

When I asked him last month about the merits of President Obama picking Janet Yellen to run the Federal Reserve (this was before she was chosen), Booker demurred on the question, but noted that “senators I like a lot, like Elizabeth Warren,” were cheering for Yellen. Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, is a hero to many progressives and exactly the kind of person a potential Democratic presidential candidate would want to name-check.

Obama’s two full-time years in the Senate, 2005 and 2006, were unremarkable, but set the groundwork for his White House run and could provide a model for Booker, who is friendly with the president. Obama made a series of high-profile appearances on the campaign trail back in 2006, stumping for candidates such as Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and illustrating his popularity among party activists. He picked an obscure issue (reducing stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union) to work with then-Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana. During his 2008 campaign, Obama cited his work with Lugar repeatedly, both as a example of his foreign policy expertise and his ability to be bipartisan.

As a senator, Obama attended major civil rights events while carefully avoiding moves that would typecast him as the “black senator” and occasionally frustrated the House Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus by refusing to co-sponsor their bills in the Senate.

Obama found it very difficult to make a major impact in the Senate, and Booker is aware of the challenges of turning his more than 1.4 million Twitter followers and famous friends like Oprah Winfrey and Mark Zuckerberg into real power. The recent history of famous Democrats entering the Senate is not one dotted with legislative accomplishments.

Hillary Clinton arrived in the Senate in 2001 with great fanfare, as did Obama in 2005. Neither was able to achieve much. Clinton’s Senate career is best known for her vote in favor of the Iraq War, Obama’s for its brevity. Warren has so far also had a very limited impact on the chamber despite her huge popularity among Democrats.

Booker is famous for using Twitter as a means to connect with constituents, a few years ago even shoveling show off the driveways of Newark residents who sent him messages on the social media service. He and his aides are trying to figure out how to model such direct contact with New Jersey residents and make it effective as he works in Washington in the more formal, slow-moving Senate.

“I don’t know,” Booker said in an interview with theGrio over dinner (the vegetarian mayor ordered a plate of broccoli) last month at the Madison Hotel in Washington, when asked exactly how he would transfer his high name recognition into influence. “It’s a little presumptuous to think that somehow I’m going to arrive in the Senate and be able to open my mouth and suddenly the heavens will open up and say, ‘listen to him.'”

He added, “My hope is I can find creative ways to empower people in New Jersey.”

Booker aides and the mayor himself downplay the Obama comparison, arguing the men have little in common beyond race and Ivy League pedigrees. (Booker attended Stanford and Yale Law School.) And Booker will no doubt do many things differently than Obama. For example, Booker hinted he will live in a low-income area of Washington, perhaps Anacostia, while Obama lived on Capitol Hill, as many senators do.

In addition, Obama arrived in Washington with almost universal enthusiasm among Democrats, while Booker faces skepticism among party activists, some of whom believe the Newark mayor is a hyped-up media creation undeserving of the fanfare he has earned. Black members of Congress privately say Booker has used Newark as a launching pad instead of helping its predominantly black residents advance economically, while other progressive Democrats blast him as too close to Wall Street and business interests.

Party activists were furious last year when Booker criticized the Obama campaign for castigating private equity firms like Bain Capital, which Mitt Romney had founded.

“He is a Good Liberal on many issues. He’s also an avatar of the wealthy elite, a camera hog and a political cipher who has never 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,” Salon’s Alex Pareene wrote in a recent piece.

Booker is aware of both his critics and the comparisons of his liberalism to Obama, Warren and other leaders in the Democratic Party.

But Booker, who has served as mayor of Newark since 2006, is determined to define himself on his own terms. He argues his career, from living in low-income areas in Newark to his speeches about reducing child poverty during his Senate campaign, demonstrate his clear commitments to helping low-income people. And he and his aides constantly say having just been a mayor, not his race or fame, will make him unique in the Senate. The jump from mayor to senator is fairly unusual in American politics.

When I asked if he considered himself a “progressive,” he avoided the term, saying he is a “Democrat” and an “American.”

“I thought I was going to be the next Geoffrey Canada, this was the person I wanted to be like when I was in college,” he said, referring to the education entrepreneur. “I frame my professional world trying to do things to empower disadvantaged folks, so I don’t know how you would label me. I’ll leave the labeling to people in the media. I get up every morning and go to bed every night thinking about how can I advance the ball for communities that really are not yet enjoying the promise of the American Dream.”

Asked if affirmative action in university admissions should be based on class or race or banned completely, he said both race and class should be considered.

“The Court got it right the last time, when they said race is perfectly appropriate to use as one point in a larger totality of circumstances,” Booker said, referring to a 2003 Supreme Court decision that ruled the consideration of race in college admissions was constitutional.

But he was wary of what he cast as a polarizing question, asking me, “You do ask this when you interview white people, don’t you?”