N.J. limelighted by its rock-star lawmakers

Posted: October 17, 2013

New Jersey, this is so unfair. You have a rock-star governor and, Wednesday, you will likely elect a rock-star senator, both potential presidential candidates.

In Pennsylvania, what do we have? Bupkus. OK, two workhorse senators and Tom Corbett, who CapitalWatch noted is "unpopular with Republicans, Democrats, and independents," basically everyone except his wife and Airedales, Penny and Harry.

How special is Jersey's special Senate race to replace the late Frank Lautenberg? It's been nasty, brutish, short, and exorbitant, costing taxpayers $25 million so Republican Gov. Christie - who acts as though he fears no man - would not have to appear on the same November ballot as Twitterholic and Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker. It's so special, it's on a Wednesday in October.

The campaign has featured two incendiary debates, too much shared information - such as Booker's admission of the "transformative" nature of pedicures - and an exotic dancer employed by an Oregon vegan strip club.

Five days before the election, Republican candidate Steve Lonegan's top strategist was forced to resign after describing Booker's innocuous tweets to said dancer as "what a gay guy would say to a stripper."

To make clear, the stripper is not vegan, just the club.

Despite Booker's having raised more campaign funds than Lonegan by 8-1, the Koch brothers ally and former mayor of tiny Bogota has proved to be a tenacious terrier of an opponent. He also manages to make Ted Cruz appear sane.

Lonegan woke up Booker, who has a tendency to take his gorgeous resume and political capital for granted. The mayor is very smooth; Lonegan is anything but. Booker prefers to stay on message rather than answer questions, while spending a disconcerting amount of time on Twitter and outside Newark, if not New Jersey.

"We need a leader, not a tweeter," Lonegan taunted repeatedly, and he has a point. He held a red-carpet "gala" in Newark for the "real stars of New Jersey" while Booker was in California collecting fat checks from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

Lonegan is the political equivalent of a car crash. His politics are atrocious, yet you can't look away. He believed gay couples incapable of having children, "a biological phenomenon," until a reporter reminded him about adoption and artificial insemination. Oh. With barely a pause, Lonegan said, "I have mixed feelings about that."

He is fearless and unapologetic in a world where candidates tend to equivocate. (Once elected, that's another matter.) He doesn't care how blue New Jersey is.

Politically correct? Don't bother. During the second debate, Lonegan said of Newark's Passaic River, "You may not be able to swim in that river, but it's probably, I think, because of all the bodies floating around from shooting victims in your city," to which Booker could only shake his head and say, "Oh my God, oh my God." The two squabbled so much, there was no time for closing arguments.

Once leading by 26 points in the polls, Booker is up by less than half that. These things tend to happen as elections near, but Booker has been semi-somnolent about his assumed coronation. (Christie soared as high as 42 points over Democratic sacrificial-roadkill Barbara Buono, and is now up a still-punishing 26.)

Still, Booker is likely headed to Washington, where he will live even more on television, the Internet, and parties with glittering stars and dazzling donations. After all, he has to run again in November 2014, which should not bother him at all. He grooves on the attention.

There is a glory to having rock-star politicians. Everybody pays attention. But they often work more for themselves, and the next gambit, than for the best interests of their constituents. It's entirely possible that John McCain and Marco Rubio have taken up primary residence inside some television studio.

New Jersey, much maligned, has two huge celebrity politicians who are only getting bigger. This is the state's moment.

Last week, Christie - the man who could not bear to share a ballot with Booker - complained about the government shutdown and failure of leadership in Washington. He told The Inquirer, "If I was in the Senate right now, I'd kill myself."

The White House? Another matter.


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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