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Cory Booker Routes Around Capitol Hill Veteran To Win The Tech Vote

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, August 9 2013

Cory Booker, pictured with Biz Stone and Randi Zuckerberg, 2009. Photo: loiclemeur/Flicker

You've got to pity Rush Holt. The 64-year-old Congressman and physicist from Princeton, New Jersey who scored $22 billion in funding for federal research and development, and has consistently championed better science and technology education in the United States would, on paper at least, appear to be the obvious choice for the politically-minded denizens of Silicon Valley.

He's probably one of the only members of Congress who could hold his own in a mock Google interview, just as Obama did on the election trail in 2008 when he aced a computer science question about "the most efficient way to sort a million 32-bit integers."

"I think out in that world I have better name recognition than most members of Congress," he tells me in a phone interview. "I mean there's certainly some -- [Massachusetts Senator] Elizabeth Warren, [Minnesota Congressman] Keith Ellison -- we could probably name some that have better name recognition than I do, but I think I have pretty good name recognition both nationally, and therefore in that wired community around New Jersey."

Nevertheless, the lion's share of tech money and attention in this special election for the late New Jersey Senate Democrat Frank Lautenberg's seat is bypassing the 14-year-Capitol Hill veteran legislator for the fresh-faced, 44-year-old wunderkind Mayor of Newark and Twitter. The primary will take place next Tuesday.

"He has been working on his self-promotion for 15 years now -- he really has," grouses Holt in a late night phone conversation. "Compared to Cory Booker, no one has that kind of name recognition."

Asked about what he thinks of Booker's talk of bringing a new approach to Washington, Holt shoots back: "I would say that that’s not a new kind of politics, that’s Paul Ryan politics."

The accusation isn't entirely fair: Holt is referring to the current fight to establish the terms of debate over social security benefits and taxation. Booker told a local news outlet at one point this year that he might consider changing the benefits for younger generations of Americans. Holt has used that as ammunition against Booker on the campaign trail. In the last debate before the primary Thursday night, Booker responded to Holt by saying that Holt is "muddying" his record, and that he favors an expansion of benefits.

Campaign finance filings with the Federal Election Commission show that Booker has consistently out-raised his rivals. His latest financial filing with the Federal Election Commission shows that he has raised a total of $8.6 million over the course of the year, compared to Congressman Frank Pallone's $3.7 million, and his House colleague Rush Holt's $1.1 million.

The Richard Branson of Politics?

Recent news stories highlight how Booker has been able to do this on the basis of his name recognition and connections, which he has assiduously built over his tenure as Mayor of Newark.

But Booker also has his fans among rank-and-file techies, who are impressed with the stories of how engaged he is as a Mayor. Lisa Rein, a Bay Area resident, for example, first heard of Booker on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher.

"There was this whole situation [during 2010's Northeast blizzard] with this truck stuck in the snow, and he was trapped out there for half an hour, and the situation was getting worse and worse, and Cory Booker personally shows up with a shovel -- sure it's a good photo op, but how many politicians would do that?" asked Rein, who is Dr. Timothy Leary Futique Trust's digital librarian. Rein donated $10 to Booker's campaign this week. She said she isn't aware of any of the other candidates participating in the New Jersey primary.

Rein is just one of Booker's many fans in California. Campaign finance filings show that many of his supporters are in the business of technology and entertainment, and that 70 percent of his donations came from out of state. They include movie producers J.J. Abrams and Rob Reiner, actor Ben Affleck, former Walt Disney Chief Michael Eisner, David Geffen, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Steven Spielberg, LinkedIn Founder Reid Hoffman, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, tech entrepreneur and investors Marc Andreessen and Sean Parker. These bold-faced names are just a few of a panoply of others in the worlds of finance and technology who've contributed to Booker's campaign.

And earlier this week, the New York Times also detailed how Booker's ties to that world are even closer than had been previously disclosed: In making him chairman of the video-sharing startup Waywire, his friends have given him a stake in the company worth between $1 to $5 million, according to FEC filings.

The charismatic Mayor of Newark is a graduate of Stanford, Oxford and Yale, and built his profile over time by making unconventional decisions over the course of his career. Those decisions -- or publicity stunts -- brought him both widespread attention and admiration. In a sense, you could say that he's the Richard Branson of politics: Charming, astute and eager to use the power of publicity to help both himself and bigger causes. As a city councilman, for example, he protested the decrepit and dangerous state of a housing project in Newark by pitching a tent and camping in front of it until then Mayor Sharpe James provided more policing. In 2010 during a blizzard in the Northeast, Booker generated reams of publicity after he personally responded to Twitter requests for help shoveling snow out of driveways. Then last year, he made news when he rescued a woman from a burning house. A few months later, he made national headlines when he decided to show the world through social media what it's like to live on a $30 a week allowance for food through foodstamps.

All of this has earned him spots on the Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, dozens of adoring magazine and documentary profiles and 1.4 million Twitter followers -- almost four times the number of people who actually live in Newark. Booker has parlayed that celebrity into fundraising for the city.

Eric Piza, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who previously worked in the Newark police department, said that Booker's fundraising is what helped in part, bankroll the overhaul of the department. Under Booker, Newark Police Department Director Garry McCarthy introduced a more rigorous implementation of Compstat and installed a new citywide network of surveillance cameras for the city's most troubled spots. The Newark police department also installed ShotSpotter, a system that uses acoustic sensors to pinpoint the location of gunshots on a map. (Nevertheless, he adds that recent layoffs in the police department may have set back any advances that might have been made with the technology overhaul.)

Now Booker is also using those same fundraising skills to also boost his campaign for the Senate seat.

Rallying the Netroots

For his part, Holt has been trying to rally the progressive netroots, banking on the party faithful who are the most likely to make the effort to schlep to a voting booth on a muggy August day when everyone else is on vacation.

To boost his visibility and support among this constituency, he's been promoting his progressive bona fides with bloggers (such as myself) and over at Blue Jersey.

"Apart from my progressive record in Congress, I’m the candidate who’s been pushing progressive issues over and over and over again in this campaign," he said in an interview late Wednesday night. "I’m the one calling for universal, single-payer healthcare, for essentially zero-interest student loans, for bringing back Glass Steagal, for imposing a transaction speculation tax, for a moratorium on fracking, ending the Cold War legacy Department of Defense programs, and for unilateral reduction in nuclear weapons."

Historically, he's also been a leading voice against the use of electronic voting machines, and a longtime and loud proponent of bringing more accountability to the National Security Agency. Most recently, he proposed abolishing the USA PATRIOT Act altogether.

During the interview, Holt also proudly pointed to National Journal's rating of him in 2009 as one of the eight most liberal members of the House, and to the National League of Conservation Voters' high ratings of his record on environmental issues.

Holt also mentions his work to secure federal funding for research and development, and to promote science and technology education: "I am personally responsible for the largest increase in R&D ever. In the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,] I got $22 billion, with a b, in new funding for research."

That money went to fund the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for the obscure but important National Institute for Standards and Technology, and for the National Institutes for Health. As a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, he also worked with Michigan Republican Vern Ehlers to ensure that science and math standards were included in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Last week, Holt also held a town hall event at Mercer Community College in New Jersey, which was also broadcast online. His campaign dubbed it "Geek Out Live," and it featured a discussion over science and social policy issues between the congressman and several other academics and audience members.

Despite all of this, his poll numbers among likely voters remains low, and they continue to predict that Booker is likely to win the race next Tuesday. A survey released this Wednesday by Quinnipiac University showed Booker nearly 40 percentage points ahead of his nearest Democratic competitor Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ.)

Quinnipac's poll found that 54 percent of likely Democratic voters support the Mayor of Newark. Only 17 percent were recorded as supporting Pallone, and 14 percent support Holt. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver registered on the radar with with five percent. The poll, taken between Aug. 1 and Aug. 5, had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

"[Booker] is the only one who has statewide name recognition. The other two Congressmen are well-known in their districts, but they’re not well known in their state," said "Deciminyan," the Blue Jersey blogger who conducted YouTube interviews with both Holt and Pallone to introduce them to his readers. ("Deciminyan" said that he wanted to retain his anonymity because he has relatives in New Jersey's state government who probably wouldn't want to be associated with his political opinions.)

He added that local party leaders have told him that they support Booker precisely because of his ability to raise money.

"I have met Booker several times, and he is extremely smart, probably one of the smartest politicians I’ve ever met," "Deiminyan," said in a phone interview. "He’s extremely persuasive. He’s got charisma like you wouldn’t believe. He knows how to work a crowd. I think one of the reasons that you’re seeing some county Democratic organizations support him -- and this was told to me by a Democratic party chair that I’d rather not name -- is that Booker can raise money for the local Democratic organizations."

Despite Holt's efforts, many of the leading netroots organizations have refrained from any endorsements. (He has the backings of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, Blue America PAC, and the Progressive Democrats of America.)

"The New Jersey race is not really being decided on the issues," said Adam Green, one of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's co-founders. "It's a low-information, low-turnout primary in an expensive TV market being decided on star power, so it's not really attractive to those of us who care about the issues."

Both Green and Neil Sroka, Democracy For America's communications director, said that instead, they're largely focused on the issue of Social Security. They pointed to a press conference they organized last Thursday in New Jersey, in which they called on the candidates to support a plan put forth by Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Tom Harkin of Iowa that proposes to expand social security benefits.

Green said that he'd been worried that Booker's financial industry backers might influence him on the issue. But he was mollified when the mayor responded to a question on whether he supports cuts by tweeting: "No. None & if anything expand Social Security."

For his part, Holt is soldiering on. During our interview, he needles the leaders of the Daily Kos by asserting that the influential blog is "missing the boat," by not endorsing him, especially since in Holt's estimation Booker seems wobbly on social security.

"He said to the Bergen Record, I would consider changing the promise of Social Security to younger workers. So I don’t know why the DailyKos for example, doesn't rise up on its haunches, and say: 'To hell with this!' But they’re evidently not paying enough attention."