(The Root) — Newark, N.J., mayor-turned-Senate candidate Cory Booker has enjoyed a pretty charmed existence during his decade in the national public eye. He has been on the receiving end of mostly fawning media coverage in the national press and appears regularly on national news programs that some members of Congress have a tough time getting booked on.
He has also been the darling of celebrities like Barbra Streisand and tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg, both of whom have given substantially to either Booker’s political campaigns or his pet policy projects (in Zuckerberg’s case, $100 million to Newark schools). Then there are the breathless accounts of his heroism, from saving a woman from a fire to saving a freezing dog.
In the last year, Booker has gotten his first taste of tougher scrutiny. A 2012 New York Times article raised the specter that Booker was more focused on the political offices he might hold someday as opposed to the job of mayor. But no week has been more challenging for Booker in terms of press than this one. It emerged that the mayor has exchanged Twitter messages with a colorful (both literally, in terms of tattoos, and figuratively) stripper by the name of Lynsie Lee.
You can already sense some of Booker’s political foes rubbing their hands together with glee at the thought of the Democratic golden boy, who many believe has been planning a path to the White House since high school, experiencing his first major stumble. What some of them fail to realize is that this scandal may be one of the best things for Booker’s career.
Last year I interviewed a number of political analysts, consultants and candidates for The Root, all of whom agreed that Booker’s bachelor status is problematic for his long-term political success. They stressed that this is not a problem specific to him, but in general, Americans vote for candidates they trust — and they are more likely to trust candidates they relate to. Most voters are less likely to relate to a candidate who is not married with kids, or at least married and then divorced, with or without children. I don’t think that way, but every expert I spoke to said that the overwhelming majority of voters do.
Some of those interviewed also explained that bachelor candidates are open to allegations that they are gay, something that is increasingly less of a handicap for candidates, but it depends on what office the candidate is running for and where. Our country has yet to have an openly gay candidate campaign for a U.S. Senate seat and win.
Rumors have long swirled about Booker’s sexuality. He has helped fan the flames, declining to deny in recent interviews that he’s gay, calling the speculation “wonderful.” But the fact is, homophobia is still alive and well, as evidenced by some of the homophobia-tinged blowback that Booker’s remarks received. From a political standpoint, while Booker may consider the rumors wonderful, his political advisers probably do not. Being perceived as gay-friendly is a wonderful asset for any liberal political candidate seeking higher office today. Being perceived as gay may not be.
With relatability being the standard still used to judge a candidate most likely to succeed with voters, that means the candidate with the least number of political handicaps has to be considered the one with the most viable chances of winning a particular race and having a long-term political career. For instance, Barack Obama did not have the most relatable name or upbringing, but having both black and white relatives, and a traditional nuclear family, allowed him to appeal to a wider swath of voters. If he’d been Barack Obama, bachelor, it is unlikely that he would now be President Barack Obama.
So what does this have to do with Booker’s recent scandal? Well, now in some ways his advisers can have their cake and eat it, too. Booker gets the plaudits for being perceived as one of the most gay-friendly candidates in the history of candidates, but now he gets to benefit from being perceived as a typical red-blooded American male — which, in the eyes of many voters, is a man who likes women. I believe that far more damaging to Booker than any rumors that he might be gay was the perception that he might be so consumed with success and reaching the Oval Office someday that he never bothered with sex, or relationships or any of the other entanglements that complicate our lives.