Cory Booker’s Newark enemy says ‘I told you so’

Rice at the podium. (njsendems.com)
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Newark mayor Cory Booker's decision this weekend to go off the Obama reservation on "Meet the Press"—saying the campaign's attacks on Mitt Romney's private-equity background "nauseate" him—was an unconventional one in the context of the very Democratic, very pro-Obama city he currently runs.

The comments made slightly more sense in the context of Booker's future, statewide aspirations, maybe: It doesn't necessarily get him anywhere with New Jersey's Democratic voters to make trouble for Obama, but it does bolster the image of himself he's always tried to project, of a politician who is—like Andrew Cuomo or his funny-times ally Chris Christie—a mold-breaking post-partisan. And of course it can only help Booker with the large number of financial supporters he has who themselves come from private-equity backgrounds.

One person who was not at all surprised by Booker's commando activity this weekend: State Senator Ronald Rice, the machine Democrat who was unceremoniously crushed by Booker in the 2006 Newark mayor's race.

"I get a whole lot of 'I told you so' moments,'" Rice told me today. "Believe me, this is an 'I told you so.' People in Newark are turning to me now and saying, 'Mr. Rice, you were right.'"

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Rice's rhetoric when he ran against Booker echoed that of then-incumbent Sharpe James, whose wild insults and intimidation tactics were made famous by the documentary "Street Fight." It was paranoid and often unfit for polite company. (He suggested to me at the time that one of the reasons Newark voters didn't trust Booker was that he looked strange, "You know, because of his eyes.")

Rice's underlying point was one that the voters of Newark had bought when James peddled it four years earlier, which is that then-councilman Booker, born in predominantly white Harrington Park, was an outsider beholden to the wealthy businessman-donors who filled his coffers and with whom Booker openly promised to form partnerships to improve the lot of his poverty- and crime-ravaged adopted city.

Booker, in Rice's telling, was simply an agent of charter-school-loving hedge-funders who wanted to become mayor to do their bidding in making Newark a lab for privatization of big-city services.

"The real Cory Booker story," as he always called it, would be told.

Newark duly elected Booker, and Rice has been telling his version of the story to whoever would listen ever since.

"See it’s not a surprise to me because, if people don’t understand it now by paying attention to Cory traveling throughout the country, the people he meets with, people he supports and all the stuff happening in Newark with hedge funds and investors, if they don’t understand he's completely beholden to them, there’s something wrong with them," Rice said today. "It should not come as a shock to Obama, who understands [Booker] has these relationships and is going to play both ends to the middle as he always does."

Referring to the video statement Booker posted for his "social media followers" after the "Meet the Press" appearance in which he reiterated his support for Obama, Rice said, "You can't have it both ways. You can't clean up something you truly believe in."

Rice, a staunch union supporter who opposes charter schools, said he wasn't sure the Obama administration was in a position to get too outraged about Booker's freelancing: "Well I don’t think Obama’s going to pull away from it too much, primarily because some of the same hedge-fund people are supportive of Obama who Booker’s involved with. The Eli Broads. The secretary of education Arne Duncan."

Rice believes Booker is angling for higher office, but said the position he staked out on "Meet the Press," in defense of the private-equity industry against Obama's criticism of Bain Capital, wasn't actually about that.

"The whole movement with hedge-fund people, and Booker and the governor, Christie—they can't step back. They have to defend them," he said. "And I suspect he didn't feel comfortable in that position but he has no choice because of the millions of dollars they continue to provide him with … He believes in what he said about capital banks. But he wasn't comfortable being placed on a national stage and having to defend it. So he had to come back and kiss up to the Obama people, who should be offended as well."

As for what Booker is up to next, Rice, a Vietnam veteran, said Booker had been "sent here on a mission to help open the state further for privatization" but he's "started to become damaged goods now. Wealthy people are trying to keep that up but now they're strategizing how to get him out. They're saying, 'We got to pull him out and let Christie and others control this thing going forward.'"

Rice said the U.S. Senate primary for the Frank Lautenberg seat in 2014 would be a "dogfight," and suggested former governor Richard Codey, among other Democrats, could beat Booker if he ran.

He suggested a better course for Booker, who was famously elected head of the Oxford chapter of Hillel House when he was there as a Rhodes scholar, might be if he were taken away from New Jersey by Obama to be ambassador to Israel. ("Because he’s very well received by the Israeli community and very well liked, and a lot of his money has really been from those organizations that represent the Jewish community," Rice said.)

But one option that might no longer be open to Booker, Rice said, was re-election in 2014 as mayor of Newark. The "Meet the Press" interview, he said, had woken Newark's voters up to what he's been telling them all along.

"Never believe what I tell you, but remember I told you," he said. "Now people remember I told them. They didn’t have to believe me. Now they see it and can make their own evaluation."

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