Although Newark Mayor Cory Booker seems the candidate to beat in the Democratic Senate primary, Jewish observers see a lot to like in the field hoping to succeed the late Frank Lautenberg.
Booker, who has never held national office or handled foreign policy issues, nonetheless boasts a long-term relationship with many state Jewish leaders, including Englewood author, media personality, and former Republican congressional candidate Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
Two of Booker’s opponents, meanwhile, have established pro-Israel track records in Congress — Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Dist. 6) and, to a lesser extent, Rep. Rush Holt (D-Dist. 12).
The fourth candidate, State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, “may be great on our issues but I don’t know anything about her,” said Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee.
Roger Jacobs of West Orange, a Democratic activist, said Jewish voters would be well served by those running in the Aug. 13 primary, especially the three men.
“Mayor Booker is a great friend of the Jewish community. He is tremendously knowledgeable and aware of our issues,” said Jacobs, a former chair of the Community Relations Committee of the Greater MetroWest Jewish federation. “However, Congressman Holt and Congressman Pallone have been fully supportive of our issues.”
Middlesex County Democrat Roy Tanzman also had high marks for the three men, as well as for Oliver.
“I know all of the candidates real well. All of them have been very supportive of the Jewish community,” said Tanzman, a former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County. “Rush Holt has been very helpful in certain areas. He has a good heart. Frank Pallone of course has been very helpful in a lot of areas and has gotten money for the federations and for Holocaust victims. Sheila Oliver came to speak before the State Association of Jewish Federations and she was excellent. She knew the issues and she was very supportive.
“The bottom line is, with whoever wins I think the Jewish community will have a friend,” said Tanzman.
Booker, a Christian, speaks confidently on Jewish issues in speeches at Jewish institutions and has been raising funds in the entertainment and financial services industry, where many Jewish political and communal activists are prominent. Booker and Boteach go back to the politician’s days as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, where Boteach, then affiliated with Chabad-Lubavitch, asked him to head the university’s L’Chaim Society.
NORPAC members raised some $150,000 for Booker at fund-raisers in April and June.
“Cory Booker is anticipated to have a tremendous record on Israel but he doesn’t have it yet,” Chouake said in a June 16 phone interview. “But he has a tremendous interest in the Jewish community and you have to give him credit for what he has done. Cory is a unique candidate in that his knowledge base of Judaism and Jewish issues is scholarly. It is more than that he sits and studies. He has a historical perspective few people have. He is a media celebrity and is very generous with his time for Jewish philanthropy.”
On June 30, Chouake also hosted a NORPAC fund-raiser for Pallone, raising $15,000. Pallone has “an excellent voting record,” explained Chouake.
He said Holt “has a mixed record. I wouldn’t give him an A+. I wouldn’t give him an F. I’d give him a B. A few years ago I would have given him a D, but I think he actually has been more engaged in terms of our issues.”
Alan Steinberg, a West Orange Republican, considers Booker “a good friend” who could draw some moderate and conservative voters against the likely GOP Senate nominee, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan.
Lonegan’s opponent is Alieta Eck, a physician from Piscataway who is active in Christian Care Medi-Share, a faith-based medical ministry.
“Cory Booker will make a great senator,” said Steinberg, who served as regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency between 2004 and 2009. “He is not an ultra-liberal Democrat. He agrees with conservatives on some important issues, such as school vouchers and charter schools. He is clearly the front-runner.”
According to June polling figures from Quinnipiac University’s Polling Institute and the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, Booker is expected to win between 53 and 55 percent of the primary votes. Pallone would finish second with 9 or 10 percent of the vote, and Holt would take third place with 8 or 9 percent. The polls were taken before Oliver entered the race.
What may be the decisive factor in Booker’s favor is visibility.
According to a June 13 survey by the Monmouth University Polling Institute, his name recognition “far surpasses that of his rivals,” with 61 percent of likely voters “holding a favorable view and 15 percent an unfavorable view. Even Republicans are more likely to have a positive (39 percent) rather than negative (26 percent) opinion of Booker,” said the poll.