NEWARK – As the U.S. government makes its case against former Newark Deputy Mayor Ron Salahuddin, political observers consider the impact this corruption trial will ultimately have on national superstar Mayor Cory Booker, whispered in backrooms as the lone clear-the-field prospect to run against Gov. Chris Christie in 2013.
Once a staunch Booker partisan and right hand in the mayor’s administration, Salahuddin allegedly partnered with fellow defendant Sonnie Cooper in a city waste-hauling business while he served Booker – a classic contract-steering scheme.
His trial started this week and – to be clear – he is innocent unless proved guilty.
But in the interim there’s chatter about what wiretapped messages of alleged corruption in the Booker administration broadcast in a federal courtroom will mean for the mayor if he tries to go high wire himself with a statewide run against a former federal lawman like Christie.
At least one person believes there’s a cocoon of understanding around both public men.
The start of the trial prompted veteran state Sen. Ronald Rice, (D-28), to go on offense.
A longtime detractor of Booker’s and unsuccessful candidate for mayor conquered by Booker in 2006, Rice this week renewed his call for a state-level audit of the administration, even as the senator charged Christie with protecting Booker for political purposes.
“I still think there is much more in City Hall in Newark that needs to be looked at,” Rice told PolitickerNJ.com. “We need a compliance audit. Not only do we need to do an audit of the city; we need to do an audit of (Booker nonprofit) the Brick City Development Corporation. At the state level, nobody is paying attention. It’s almost like this governor is protecting the city of Newark as other governors have protected the city in the past.”
Rice said Christie likely knows where the bodies are interred but won’t follow through because he is politically content enough and astute enough to make Booker – a potential 2013 challenger to the governor and favorite prospect of at least two substantial political bosses – dance.
“Look at the complaint,” said the senator. “This stuff with Salahuddin was taking place right after Booker took office. Chris Christie was U.S. Attorney at the time. He had people on the street. Now as governor we can’t even get a compliance audit. I don’t know what’s going on. My perspective is he is politically protecting him. I think he’s controlling Booker and won’t audit Booker so Booker won’t run against him. I could be wrong. But the governor is also not talking about crime. They don’t talk about crime. They’re talking about charter schools run by hedge fund people. That triggers from my perspective that we need to look further at all of this.”
Another persistent critic of the mayor’s, John Sharpe James, son of the former mayor, said the trial shows how the inner circle of a self-professed reform-minded mayor were already scheming within weeks of Booker assuming office in 2006, a ruinous allegation that should sink Booker statewide, in James’s judgment.
“I believe it shows weak leadership that some of the key people he appointed that he thought were loyal were only there for their own financial interests,” James told PolitickerNJ.com. “This administration can’t mete out any specific reforms. They have had six different business administrators and what this case shows is no one was focused on the overall financial picture.”
James expressed outrage that the city laid off 167 police officers in 2010 and raised taxes by almost 25 percent with these allegations in the background.
“And now the focus has shifted to education,” he said in disbelief. “We don’t hear anything about crime anymore. I don’t think the effects of the trial have fully sunk in yet. We don’t have full scope of the corruption in this administration.”
At a minimum, “This is a mayor who has never said anything negative about Christie,” James added. ”I don’t see how he separates himself from Christie when he gives him accolades to him from a couch on the Oprah Winfrey show.”
But minus the mayor’s most longstanding critics, others say the trial won’t demolish or really even much diminish Booker, or expose an intractable Newark nightmare that won’t make it possible for the mayor to get statewide suburban traction.
On the day the feds nabbed Salahuddin, the mayor made clear to PolitickerNJ.com and others that he helped law enforcement take down his onetime ally. There’s also the tape of a voice identified as East Ward political operative Joe Parlavecchio describing the mayor as the only man in City Hall who’s not corrupt.
That storyline backs up Booker as a dented-up – but still gleaming – white knight laboring in a Byzantine trough not of his making, according to some political observers.
“I think when we think about Newark politics we think in the traditional sense that this has always been a corrupt place and the corruption has spread into state party politics,” said Dr. Brigid Harrison, professor of political science at Montclair State University. “This situation aside, one of the things Booker retains is the image he brought to the table: a squeaky-clean reformer. His reputation hasn’t been tarnished or sullied yet.
“There is the opportunity now, though, for his opponents either within the party or in the general election to paint him with the dirty brush of Newark corruption,” Harrison added. “Up to this point he hasn’t had to cope with that. There is an entrée now. How it plays out depends on how much his political opponents use it.”
State Sen. Ray Lesniak, (D-20), Elizabeth, along with South Jersey Democratic Party leader George Norcros III, is one half of a power team that avidly supports the notion of Booker as a Christie ’13 opponent.
Lesniak said the idea that the Salahuddin trial would backfire on Booker is nonsense.
“Several governors have had high-level officials indicted and convicted,” Lesniak said. “I don’t know how people think this would do damage to Cory Booker’s political aspirations. No governor has had a perfect administration.”
Law enforcement officials bagged the secretary of state under former Gov. Brendan Byrne, took down former Gov. Jim Florio’s chief of staff, and nailed former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman’s sports authority chair (later acquitted), Lesniak argued.
“The point is these things will happen,” said the veteran senator. “If there is a slew of them that’s another story. And in this case – there’s not a slew. To even be having this conversation right now is premature.”
But it could take hold at some point.
Patrick Murray, political scientist and pollster with Monmouth University, said Booker remains the favorite in a Democratic Primary.
“At the nomination level he will clear a vast majority of people,” he said. “Norcross and (powerful Essex Executive) Joe D will back him, and that knocks out a large number of players. Maybe you’re left with (State Party Chairman John) Wisniewski or (state Senate Majority Leader Barbara) Buono or even (former Gov.) Dick Codey. The most potent challenge would be between Booker and Codey.”
Then there’s the general election.
And that’s another story, in Murray’s view.
It likely won’t be the drek of Newark corruption that sticks to Booker as much as the smack of sameness, the political scientist said.
“In general, it could matter that Booker hasn’t struck differences with Gov. Christie,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily matter. There’s time and there are ways around the most obvious differences on issues, particularly if people are unhappy with Chris Christie. Certainly if people like Chris Christie it doesn’t matter who runs against him.
“There are ways to make corruption an issue, and it is one possible issue that could be used against him, but it certainly doesn’t knock him out of the nomination.
“It could be an issue in the general election,” Murray added.