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Cory Booker Talks a Big Game, but Can He Deliver?

John Moore/Getty Images File Photo
Booker is a national figure thanks, in part, to his active Twitter account. Many believe he’ll be the voters’ choice to fill the remaining term of Lautenberg, who died in June.

It’s an open secret on Capitol Hill that former chief executives, such as governors and mayors, can find the world’s greatest deliberative body to be frustratingly inactive. Sen. Mike Johanns, a former Republican governor in Nebraska, is retiring after one term in the Senate — and his successor in the governor’s mansion has now twice turned down opportunities for what would have essentially been free rides to Capitol Hill.

“If you are a public official who is nourished by accomplishment, you are starving in this Congress,” said former Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., who spent 30 years in Congress before retiring in 2011.

Sometimes, former governors have worked together, regardless of party affiliation. That was the case in June, when Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, Maine independent Angus King and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III worked on a long-term student loan compromise that ruffled feathers on the Democratic side.

Booker’s campaign did not respond to an interview request, but the Newark mayor has made it clear in debates with Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. and Rush D. Holt and state Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver that he has little patience for legislative inertia.

“It’s time for action and getting things done,” Booker said during an Aug. 5 debate.

But getting things done as a legislator is different than as an executive, as Dorgan pointed out.

“Going from an executive branch ... to the Congress is sometimes a shock. In an executive branch post you are in charge — you make decisions and are accountable for the decisions. In the Congress you can’t give orders, you have to find ways to build a consensus or develop coalitions. Very different skills!” Dorgan said in an email. “But good politicians usually possess both skills.”

Booker’s sell to voters has rested largely on what he says was his ability to turn around the state’s largest city during one of the country’s worst economic declines. But it’s his national profile, including as a surrogate for President Barack Obama during the 2012 campaign, that’s allowed him to raise an average of $1.2 million per month this year and made him the favorite to fill the remaining term of the late Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg.

With Senate control hanging in the balance in 2014 — and the next New Jersey senator up for a full term, as well — it’s not surprising to hear Booker admit that he’s in high demand on the campaign trail already.

Still, Booker hopes to bring his Newark know-how to a capital city beleaguered by partisanship.

“Come on, we are a great economy, and the reality is if we make strategic investments, if Congress actually does something, we can have incredible growth,” Booker said in a debate. “How do I know that? We did it in Newark.”

One way of gauging his interest in being a workhorse instead of a showhorse could come in his first hires as a senator. Two previous Democratic media sensations — Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton — both hired Senate insiders at the senior staff level for their Senate offices.

Then again, Booker could go after the headlines if, as Manley put it, “he wants to become irrelevant like [conservative senators] Ted Cruz, Rand Paul or Mike Lee.”

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