At a Bergen County Democratic Committee fundraiser last night in Edgewater, with the skyline of New York City aglow on the other side of the river, two men went to the head of the room as human center pieces of the party’s new county – and state – wide look.
They didn’t go up to share the stage together. In fact, they had different arrival times, as is the custom when a U.S. Senator, and, in this case, a U.S. Senator-elect, are on the card.
But they both planted their feet in what for them is this comfortable, well-worn county, the bellwether of New Jersey’s strident political culture.
People in that room last night listened to U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and listened to U.S. Senator-elect Cory Booker, and quietly considered these two politicians who now occupy that same irregular and tormented platform stretching exactly the distance from Cape May to High Point.
Inevitably, insiders alert to palace intrigue in a place like Bergen mentioned the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and U.S. Senator Bob Torricelli, who infamously couldn’t stand each other.
One the cold fish behind a bullet proof vest, the other the TV star with a winning smile and golden throat, Booker and Menendez are undeniably different, with contrasting public temperaments and personas.
“Cory is a rock star and Bob is a rock,” assessed one party member.
Democrats are quick to dismiss the off-the-rails Lautenberg-Torricielli relationship as a very bad comparison, and highlight the similarities.
“They both want to make this work,” said Brad Lawrence of Message and Media, who advises both Menendez and Booker. “They know what’s gone on before and they both want to move beyond it. They share a lot, including their roles as pioneers. Cory Booker is the first African American senator from New Jersey, and Bob Menendez is the first Hispanic. There is also a lot of common area in terms of shared experiences and shared values.”
They were both urban mayors, dealt with municipal budgets, police and fire, nuts and bolts city politics, and sources familiar with the two men say they both had an early eye on Washington, D.C.
There is a dreadlocked intellectual in Newark’s Central Ward, who only speaks on condition of anonymity, who going back to Booker’s first appearances in the city began referring to him as “The Senator.” She was paying for a slice of pizza in Union Station hours before the polls closed during the Democratic Primary and the candidate sighted her and pointed to her in a sign of recognition and warmth and the woman pointed back and said proudly, “Hey, senator,” her longer than decade-old term of endearment.
In Union City, street operatives who have been glued to the same corners for years recall with admiration Menendez’s federal fixation. A framed portrait of then-U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ) hung on the wall of Menendez’s mayoral office.
It caught people’s eye back then.
It was a sign of where Menendez had his sights.
Schooled by Sharpe James and his barber shop drop-ins on constituents and brass knuckle urban tactics, some old school Newarkers could never overcome their irritation at Booker the polished imminent senator. Yet even the old school Menendez didn’t really like being a mayor, according to one source, because he was always a policy nerd struggling to get off Palisade Avenue.
One critical difference between Booker and Menendez was how they came up in the game and how that game play defined the acting and reacting of the man: Menendez as the tenement kid from within, Booker as the Rhodes scholar from Bergen parachuting into town; the former heavy on Bill Musto and zero unabashed Twitter gusto; the latter seemingly comfortable on mean streets – preferably with a camera crew in tow.
Menendez came up hard, buffaloing other men to get them to do what he wanted in the cigar ash-laden crucible of Hudson County politics.
While Booker kept one foot in and one foot out of the Essex County Democratic Committee, Menendez earned his keep in Hudson as chairman of the once heavy-handed Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO). A cold fish, he had a rep as a countywide terminator who could bite someone’s head off in a roomful of men as soon as talk in depth on a matter of policy if someone caught him off guard.
A source recalled one of the mayors overseeing a less than scintillating vote total in an election and at the post game HCDO meeting, the scene stopped just short of the Robert DeNiro bat scene in “The Untouchables.”
“Bob gave this one mayor a look,” a source told PolitickerNJ.com. “It was chilling.”
Booker never scared anyone that way.
Even his general election opponent Steve Lonegan baiting him with a constant barrage of attacks couldn’t take the wattage out of Booker’s public persona of nice guy on a mission.
Democratic fundraiser Zenon Christodoulou has close ties to both Booker and Menendez. They have contrasting styles and skills that will complement each other, he said, even as he acknowledged the obvious sizing-up period that is the atmosphere of powerful men trying to occupy the same space.
“It’s going to take a long time to really develop,” Christodoulou said. “It won’t be an overnight thing.”
It helps that Menendez just secured his own longtime ambition to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he proved a better skilled mechanic and salesman on the question of Syria than the front office of the White House, according to sources enmeshed on the front lines of the international crisis.
Menendez’s hand-over-hand scaling of the heights of Senate power and his bunkered up performance on Syria put him in a very good position to absorb the circus-world influx of the Twitter-happy Booker with the air of an unruffled elder statesman.
He reached the peak of Senate power – third man down from the President – in the nick of time, in fact, with Booker stampeding on the horizon.
There is a hierarchy in the U.S. Senate built on years and Menendez put in that time and got the prize.
“Menendez has a power platform of his own as chair of the foreign relations committee,” Christodoulou said, “versus someone with a grassroots community of supporters. They are now in totally different places and secure in their jobs and secure with themselves. As mature elected officials they will do everything possible to make it work.
“They should get an expert who knows how to effect a corporate merger,” Christodoulou added. “DaimlerChrysler tired to do it. Menendez and Booker will need someone to merge these very disparate corporate cultures.”
Sources on all sides concede that the hard-edged Menendez will inevitably encounter the rush of press around perennial media sensation Booker.
“We had that with Lautenberg,” a source, speaking on condition of anonymity, groaned to PolitickerNJ.com. “Frank would call a press conference on gun control legislation, we’d put all this time in, a lot of meticulous preparation, and no one would go. Then Booker would announce something about his gun buyback program with Bloomberg and there would be 100 cameras there. It was a little frustrating.”
But while Menendez may experience just the edges of what Booker gets in terms of attention, he has his own outreach in the Latino and NJ media, experience handling a comer on his Senate turf in the form of fellow Cuban American U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl), and, most importantly, again, the real solidity of his chairmanship.
“It’s always tough for the old guys who have done it the hard way to see the new guy come in and be the first guy who the press calls,” said a source. “Look at Barack Obama. Look at Marco Rubio, who’s not part of the old hierarchy of the Senate, but so attractive to the media. Cory has had a very similar ascendancy, but the reality is there is a fresh new seat in the back of the Senate chamber. Cory will be there for the Senate fundraisers and speaking engagements, as part of their profit-driven hierarchy, if you will, not the Senate hierarchy of the chamber itself, which is where Bob has excelled.”
Bullish about their senator, Hudson old-school sources dismiss Booker as an amateur, and some of them laughed in the faces of fretful Democrats who voiced concern about Menendez on the night that Booker beat Lonegan.
“It’s Olivier versus Scott Baio,” an impatient Hudson source told PolitickerNJ.com. “Come on. Stop the nonsense already.”
For their part, the staffs of the respective offices are saying all the right things.
“We’ve been working over the last couple of years to build a relationship,” said Mo Butler, chief of staff to Booker and the senator-elect’s prospective statewide director. “The mayor was out there being very supportive and consistent and leaning on him (Menendez) for wisdom and guidance. Those guys built a decent rapport and Menendez has been very supportive.”
Paul Brubaker, Menendez’s statewide director, likewise expressed goodwill.
“We have an enormous possibility for one of the greatest partnerships in the U.S. Senate,” he said. “They like each other and work well together. These are two guys who did campaign stops together and enjoyed each other’s company.
“And yes, they are different,” he admitted, “the upper classman and the incoming freshman.”
The nuanced differences are more interesting than the starkest dividing lines.
On the night of the election, PolitickerNJ.com asked a longtime insider to sum up Booker in one word as the successful U.S. Senate candidate quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. from the podium of victory.
“Mystery,” said the insider. “He’s still a mystery to me.”
Menendez, too, has an austerity that accompanies power, according to the people who know him best back in Hudson – but it’s the distance of one who operates with authority, cold-eyed and impenetrable.