An event about recidivism and, really, the ‘horizons’ of Cory Booker

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Abrams, Booker, and Paterson. (Jack Miller - Miller Photography.)
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Bob Abrams waited until Cory Booker had left the room on Tuesday morning to start talking up the many possibilities for New Jersey's most famous mayor.

"I think the mayor is going to have some horizons in the future, whether it's going to be governor, or senator from New Jersey, or something higher on the national level," said Abrams, the former New York attorney general and U.S. Senate candidate, who was moderating a discussion with Booker at the Stroock law firm. "We do think that he's going to give some further, wonderful public service in the course of his career."

Booker had left the stage a few minutes before the program ended, excusing himself go back and deal with his City Council in Newark.

During a discussion with former New York governor David Paterson about curbing recidivism, Booker spoke of the "perverse economic incentives" of drug-dealing and the exemplary work done by the Doe Fund in New York. But the crowd of 100 or so, mostly attorneys, seemed like they would have come to hear Booker talk about almost anything.

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New York is a key market for any big campaign, but given the dearth of money and media attention in Newark, it could be an especially important constituency for Booker's future ambitions, whether he decides to challenge New Jersey governor Chris Christie in 2014, or mounts a run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Frank Lautenburg, who, at 88, is currently the oldest member of the upper chamber.

Booker has never had the traditional donor base of a Newark mayor, a fact that was highlighted in the national press after Booker—who was supposed to be acting as a surrogate for President Obama—defended private equity against attacks from the Obama campaign. A number of outlets pointed out that Booker, a favorite of the hedge fund set, in part for his commitment to charter schools, had collected more than $650,000 for his first campaign from the financial services industry (including Bain Capital).

The New York media has mostly amplified Booker's positive efforts in Newark. Abrams introduced Booker by saying he had "a planned and unplanned flair for the dramatic," citing his snow-shoveling for a constituent, and his running into a burning building to save another.

In the New Jersey press, his flair for the dramatic has come in for slightly more scrutiny, with questions about the veracity of some of the local characters he recounts to his non-Newark audiences. (One of those characters, a threatening local named "T-Bone," has been particularly scrutinized, with Booker insisting he is "1,000 percent real" and also an "archetype.") And Booker's time as mayor has complicated the onetime insurgent's national narrative, too.

After Booker left the event, Paterson joined in Abrams' praise, closing the event with his own paean for Booker's future.

"He thinks sometimes in a counterintuitive way," said Paterson. "He really appeals to both sides of the political spectrum. He might have gotten himself into a little bit of a mess from time to time. But that's what's great about leaders.

"And he is the greatest resource, and one of the few that I can think of, that comes from"—he sneered, SNL-Paterson-style—"Newwww Jerrrrsey."

Outside, I talked with Booker a bit about the presidential campaign.

"I think the data is what the data is," he said, when asked about Obama's improving prospects. "People can see that the president has some, obviously some leads in the polls. But I take nothing for granted, we're going to work like crazy until the final day."

On the tone of the campaign, which he had previously criticized, Booker said, "Super PAC money, that's always going to be predominantly much more negative. As chairman of the platform committee, there's a lot of very positive, substantive—if you compare the two platforms—substantive issues out there. And I'm amazed as I stump around the country how much the conversation is always about issues, and not about campaign rhetoric. So I'm actually very encouraged that the message of ideas is getting out there."

He said the flaps over the Democratic platform had already blown over. and he declined to assess the effects of Governor Chris Christie's surrogacy for Mitt Romney.

"I don—I—let me think about that question," he said from the backseat of his SUV, right before the door closed.