By David Cruz
The first debate between the candidates for U.S. Senate was a slugfest from start to finish. Mayor Cory Booker, ahead in most polls by double digits, and Steve Lonegan, surprising many who thought he had no chance in this race, worked hard to draw contrasts and left the niceties for another day.
“This is a man who lives off corporate welfare programs in a city that still has a 14 percent unemployment rate. This model has failed miserably. If you talk to the real taxpayers of Newark — the small business — their taxes are skyrocketing. The only economic growth in Newark is the pocketbook of Mayor Cory Booker,” Lonegan said.
“This is a guy whose language is extreme — who’s represented the Tea Pary — and when it comes to people working for him, doesn’t even believe there should be a minimum wage. In fact, he represented a Tea Party organization and got paid almost a quarter of a million dollars last year to run a campaign against raising the minimum wage,” Booker said.
Lonegan, the former Bogota mayor, had been looking forward to this debate. His goal was to knock some of the shine off of the Booker image, taking every opportunity he could to portray the jet-setting mayor as an elitist who fiddles around Hollywood while Newark burns.
“While you’re parading around California with a bunch of Hollywood elite, 10 days in a row somebody’s shot to death in the streets of Newark. What New Jersey needs, sir, is a leader, not a tweeter,” Lonegan said.
For Booker, whose loquaciousness is near legendary, the goal was to paint Lonegan as a Tea Party stalwart, out of touch with New Jersey’s mainstream, and hostile to the state’s most vulnerable residents.
“And this again is the extreme views of my opponent. Please listen to what he’s saying,” Booker said.
These two men disagree on almost every issue, from education to taxation and immigration to gun control. Their exchanges today were pointed and there was a genuine lack of warmth, if not outright hostility, between the two. The word extremist was used liberally, by both the conservative and by the liberal.
By our count Booker used “extremist” 467 times. When the Newark Mayor was asked what happened to the nice, warm and fuzzy Booker who said you he was going to be positive, he said, “Well, I hope that you saw that I was positive. I was almost surprised at the epithets he threw my way. I teased him afterwards and I said I haven’t been called delusional before and actually ended up liking the guy afterwards. As I said in my closing remarks he’s a good guy, a Jersey guy.”
“Mayor Booker’s alleged successes in Newark is not true,” Lonegan said. “He’s been a failure and we cannot allow those failed policies to make their way to the New jersey Senate, and that the role of somebody in government is not to make money but to give to society.”
The debate was the first between the two candidates and drew a packed house of media to an adjacent viewing room. Afterwards, the candidates did their own spinning, each insisting he had accomplished what he’d come to do. There will be one more face-to-face — scheduled for next Wednesday.
Debates rarely serve to change minds, so who actually won today is subject to debate. But one thing that’s clear is that Lonegan was definitely in the room today. And a Booker cakewalk, long assumed by most pundits, is not quite so obvious heading into the home stretch.