What Was Learned at NJ Senate Debates


The criticism bandied about at two debates last week featuring all four Democrats running for the U.S. Senate was not particularly vitriolic, but it was telling about the candidates in an abbreviated race.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the frontrunner and a rising political celebrity, emphasized practicing consensus building over a commitment to specific issues and was circumspect about responding to barbs.

Two congressmen who have long been in line for a crack at statewide office went after Booker’s approach. Rush Holt, who carried himself like the physics professor he once was, and Frank Pallone, a lifelong politician not given to fiery speeches, seemed frustrated that a new face may be on the verge of jumping ahead of them — especially someone they don’t believe has their progressive credentials.

The fourth candidate, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, running with hardly any funding or organization, showed she could hold her own on stages shared by an unusually experienced field of candidates and may succeed in putting herself in the mix for future statewide campaigns.

The four are vying in Tuesday’s primary for the Democratic nomination in the special election to fill the final 15 months of the late Frank Lautenberg’s term. With three elections in three months, turnout is expected to be low — and that’s what gives the other candidates the belief that they have a shot against Booker despite polls that have constantly shown him getting about half the votes.

“Which candidate offers this kind of progressive vision and which candidate offers rhetoric about coming together in some new kind of way?” Holt said, poking fun at Booker.

The mayor talks about how he’s hands-on, Pallone said, but “he’s not even in Newark at least 20 percent of the time.”

Booker complained that Pallone especially was focused on him rather than issues. But he did address some of the grievances, saying that building consensus is a key to accomplishing political goals and that his trips out of town help him line up foundation support for a city that has seen state and federal grants decline.

“You can’t wait for resources to come to you,” he said. “I’ve gone out and helped bring in hundreds of millions.”

With all four candidates holding key elected offices, they had some incentive not to offend one another deeply: No matter what happens in Tuesday’s primary and the October election, all of them will still need to work together.