Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker has a large lead in polls over Republican challenger Jeff Bell as he seeks his first six-year term, but he has so far struggled to notch a marquee legislative victory to match the high-wattage star power he brought with him to Washington.
The former Newark mayor and prolific Twitter user known for personally responding to constituents on social media, snapping selfies with Senate colleagues and working with Republicans has been the lead sponsor on just one measure that passed the Senate. That resolution designated Feb. 14, 2014, as National Solidarity Day for Compassionate Patient Care, according to congressional records.
Bell jabbed Booker during a recent debate for talking more about organizing meetings than for achieving results, but Booker points to more than just sponsored legislation as a yardstick of his success in Congress.
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He helped secure nearly $12 million in grants under a federal Justice Department program for police in the state. He also co-wrote a measure with Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., that establishes a pilot program to assist veterans with traumatic brain injuries; it was included in a larger bill that passed.
Booker said the relationships he has established with Republicans, including Tim Scott of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky, will pay dividends if he's re-elected.
He said he's begun discussing legislation that tackles the country's declining infrastructure, wants to fix the country's tax system and believes he can be effective.
"I've only been there 11 months so I do not share that cynicism," he said. "I think we can do those things. I have faith in America. This is not a fait accompli.
"The key is, Is there an avenue, a wide pathway for you to do substantive service that makes a difference in people's lives?"
With less than a week until Election Day, Booker has a double digit lead over Bell, according to the latest Monmouth University poll. He has $3.5 million cash on hand compared to $91,000 for Bell, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings.
Political scientists and former lawmakers say the failure to pass much legislation in the first year is a part of how Congress works.
"Promises in a U.S. Senate election have to be understood in the context of what the Senate is," said Ben Dworkin, assistant professor of political sciences at Rider University. "The world's greatest deliberative body was designed to be slow, plodding and that was going to be a benefit of democracy."
As a freshman, Booker also lacks seniority, which matters because the Senate still operates as a hierarchical body, explained Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers.
Former Democratic Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware, who served as a placeholder when Joe Biden became vice president, said it's difficult for first-term senators to notch legislative achievements.
Most first-term senators focus on going to committee hearings, attending to constituent services and making frequent trips around the state, he said.
Booker, Kaufman added, is laying that foundation.
"In the Senate there are show horses and there are workhorses," Kaufman said. "(Booker) came in as a very high-profile member of Congress. You could go the way Ted Cruz does and just start firing in all directions, which I think in the long run won't be very effective."