Cory Booker, Hillary Clinton, and the Ghost of Jon Corzine

cory booker

In the lead up to his selection of a running mate, Governor Jon Corzine was flailing.

By the reckoning of the peanut gallery in his own party, Corzine was a colorless baby boomer from Wall Street who found himself without any real deep alliances in a state where party affiliation has no function other than to pacify a security blanket-seeking ill-informed person who needs the comfort zone proximity of a national brand while he forks another round of hard-earned cash.

At that time – this was 2009 – there was really only one red snapper lieutenant governor option for Corzine, whose own floundering political fortunes appeared to be compounded by his affiliation with the losing 2008 presidential team captained by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Corzine was Clinton’s head New Jersey chieftain, and he – like all the rest of them – had endured the humiliation of watching the Clinton well dry up overnight. Barack Obama’s eclipse of the former first lady and her minions served as an uncomfortable reminder of mortality itself.

Facing his own reelection amid whispers of doom, no cabinet position in the offing to spare him the gauntlet and turf-pawing U.S. Attorney Chris Christie raring to go for the GOP, the running mate-seeking Corzine needed perpetually namaste-bowing Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who made Corzine melt into the background at every joint press conference.

It was a difficult admission for Corzine and his allies.

They didn’t feel like being overshadowed by a mayor with no accomplishments in their eyes, and having to acknowledge the cracks of time in their own brand by getting bailed out by an Obama-loving Generation Xer. It was difficult, but Corzine and co. made the ask anyway, out of naked self-preservation, rationalizing Booker on the ticket the way Dean Martin must have contented himself to stay in the background all those years during his run with Jerry Lewis: all the reporters wanted the Lewis, not Martin, interview, but Lewis was a clown.

They’d throw the kid a bone by putting him on an exciting STATEWIDE TICKET!

But Booker refused.

There were grumbles in the party behind the scenes. He was too close to Christie. They shared donors. He was all about himself, not the party. But it all seemed distant chatter compared to the more germane reason Booker didn’t bite at Corzine’s offer. He was going places on his own. He didn’t need to prop a slack Baby Boomer gunny sack. Clinton had gone down already as an emblem of her era, and now Booker and Obama were primed to shoulder a new generation.

It was nothing personal.

“He didn’t want to be LG,” a source close to him told PolitickerNJ.

Corzine that fateful political rambled through a short list that got longer with every passing day, ironically lingering longest on Donald Trump’s Apprentice protege Randal Pinkett as a Booker bullpen swap, getting nearly laughed out of his party for considering (of all things) a reality TV star! for public office, before putting senators Barbara Buono and Loretta Weinberg in a short-list rundown and opting at last for Weinberg.

Speed ahead now to 2016.

Having made the transition on his own from Newark mayor to U.S. Senator – the first African American in New Jersey history to occupy that federal office – Booker has raced around the country from the start in support of the reanimated Baby Boomer once thought to have been laid to political rest along with Corzine. The inveterate political animal’s arguably been Clinton’s most animated surrogate, still trying to trudge positively through all the sepsis of his home state, including echoes of a hollowed out Newark Watershed, and associations with Governor Chris Christie, the man who buried Corzine, whom Booker might have been able to save had he been on that 2009 ticket, or who might have ended Booker had Christie beaten them both.

He’s proved a rip-snorting presence at key times during Clinton’s repeated Democratic Primary stumbles, most notably in South Carolina, going Southern preacher on a crowd in the lead-up to primary day, when Clinton (momentarily) checked the advance of progressive movement leader Bernie Sanders. And despite the handicap of New Jersey itself and the shadow of Christie, amid the toothpaste squeeze out of middle America no-names, a few of them Corzine contemporaries, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack among them, Booker’s managed to stay credibly in conversation by virtue being more charismatic than any of his competitors.

His relevance arguably goes beyond his preferred method of communication, where he has amassed 1.67 million Twitter followers. He’s a millennial relatable individual who as the former mayor of Newark and a consistently unifying public presence can speak at a gut level to the social unrest in the country right now. In the words of one New Jersey insider, “I think the country gets more polarized not less as we get to November. HC needs to hold serve with blacks, progressives and millenials and she wins. Kaine doesn’t help with them. Booker does. Right?This latest shooting is really bad. A doctor helping an autistic patient? Not good. Even the most ardent blue lives matter conservative has to have a problem with this.”

Still, at least one other source said it would never happen.

The reason?

Christie.

“If Cory leaves, Christie would appoint himself to the U.S. Senate seat, and Democrats don’t want that,” the source said. “No way. They want Christie gone.”

Historically hounded by his closeness to Christie, caught in the blur of parties in the name, he insisted, of civility, Booker this morning came as close as he ever has to ramming the Republican who as U.S. Attorney prosecuted Booker’s City Hall predecessor in Newark. On the eve of Clinton’s VP selection with most everyone anticipating a “safe” pick, Booker zoomed into Cleveland to denounce the Republican National Convention as a kind of glitzy Salem Witch Trial, gingerly stepping around Christie by name until NJ reporters forced him to land at least one stinging blow on the Republican governor, albeit not with a closed fist.

Booker mostly objected to what he said was the convention hall’s mob-like atmosphere, with Christie “whipping up,” in the senator’s words, a crowd that chanted “lock her up, lock her up,” each time the New Jersey governor cited a Clinton trouble spot and asked if she were guilty or not guilty.

Impassioned, almost close to tears with emotion, aging college football player Booker in his denunciation tried hard to project as that great unifying force, the man of the hour in the country’s moment of crisis, both on the streets and in the halls of power. It seemed like out-of-the-box theater as Clinton – seldom out-of-the-box – prepared to make her choice.

Having rebuffed the colorless Corzine once, was the timelessly Christie-hamstrung Booker – pounding so obviously to get in on this national ticket, going back to the earliest days of the Democratic Primary campaign- in line for an out-of-nowhere endzone dance on a Clinton hail Mary, or squirming at the edge of being at last rebuffed this time, repaid in fact, by a miraculously still-standing colorless Corzine contemporary?