When Cory Booker commenced his stately coronation march toward the late Frank Lautenberg’s U.S. Senate seat last Spring, pundits dismissed his GOP opponent Steve Lonegan as a hapless also-ran, unlikely to sway blue-ish Jersey towards his reactionary Tea Party platform. But with the October 16th election just one week away the race is tightening and, according to one recent poll, Booker, remarkably, is only 13 points ahead. While the Newark mayor will almost certainly win, his victory margin will be far slimmer than earlier projections despite the gulf between Lonegan and the political views of most New Jerseyans.
As John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University Eagleton Institute of Politics, told NJ Spotlight this week, “Lonegan’s comments on healthcare – ‘If you have cancer, it’s your problem. If I’m blind, it’s my problem’ — are so far outside the public thinking of almost anyone in a prominent position in politics in New Jersey over the last 80 years that it’s hard to imagine a statewide race with clearer differences between the candidates.”
In fact, New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican U.S. Senator since 1974. For Booker, this should be a cakewalk. After all, Lonegan is steeped in hues of Tea Partiers Ted Cruz and Ron Paul, a former mayor of Bogota who tried to close the local high school and start a boycott of McDonald’s for the sin of Spanish-language advertisements; a frequent loser in NJ political contests; head of the NJ chapter of the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity; a tin-tongued hothead who once compared Barack Obama to Fidel Castro. Yet he’s closing in on Charismatic Cory, who has won the hearts of Oprah, Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg, and 1.4 million twitter followers.
Last week, in a sign of desperation, Mike Bloomberg made an emergency drop of $1 million to buy TV ads to bolster Booker’s vapid campaign. On Friday Booker will begin a five-day bus tour across the state to muster support. Some cakewalk.
It’s not what Lonegan’s doing right. It’s what Booker’s doing wrong.
Take the candidates’ dispute over the Common Core, the state-driven set of academic standards developed by the National Governors Association intended to ensure that all American children, regardless of place of residence, have equal access to a rigorous curriculum.
Lonegan’s against it, of course. The Common Core, he insists, is merely federal interference (never mind that it’s state-led) and a violation of states’ rights (never mind that each state’s participation requires legislative approval). At a recent news conference in Trenton, Lonegan (clearly a “Walking Dead” fan) told reporters, “[w]e should not allow the federal government to take over the control of our children’s minds.” One of his compadres at the presser described the Common Core as politically comparable to Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. The candidate’s website is slightly less inflammatory: “Steve Lonegan believes the federal government role in education has been an overall negative and strongly opposes the Common Core curriculum standards and other attempts by Washington DC to regulate and control our local public schools.”
How far outside NJ’s educational zeitgeist is Lonegan? He’d eliminate the U.S. Department of Education (not sure how you do that, but he can ask Michelle Bachman), repeal the Common Core (not sure how you’d do that either, since it’s not a federally-approved program but a state-approved one), and gut federal college loans.
What a terrific opportunity for Booker! Here’s his chance to debunk Lonegan’s fallacies about the Common Core by pounding him with some of that famous hard-driving eloquence and differentiating himself to voters as a proponent of state-driven education reform.
From The Star-Ledger:
“Lonegan’s Democratic opponent, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, ‘generally supports” Common Core,’ said spokesman Kevin Griffis, but ‘real education reform means providing for well-funded, qualified teachers in every classroom, outstanding administrators in every school and involved parents in every child’s home.'”
This is exactly the sort of desultory and disingenuous response that has Lonegan within thirteen points of Booker. Everyone knows that the Newark Mayor is an ardent supporter of the Common Core, as well as other local and national efforts to promote educational equity for all kids. Yet here he’s transparently underplaying his passion for urban education, creating the impression of equivocation.
He sounds weak. In turn, Lonegan sounds strong.
Now in all fairness, one can rationalize Booker’s sudden tentativeness: he’s lost votes from traditional Democratic constituents like teacher unions because of his advocacy of tenure reform and high-stakes student assessments, and there’s been talk of a liberal backlash against his corporate ties, bipartisan approach, and propensity for drama. But this one’s a no-brainer. New Jerseyans respect straight talk. Booker can solidify his dominance in this last week if he starts talking straight.
Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.