Sen. Cory Booker Is an Optimist—but Can He Break Senate Gridlock?

Nearing the six-month mark of his Senate tenure, the New Jersey politician is trying to establish his bipartisan bona fides.

Sen. Cory Booker
Sen. Cory Booker MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

All along the way of Sen. Cory Booker’s political rise, in one way or another he’s been cast in—and played—the good-guy role.

He rose to prominence as the upstart Newark, N.J., city councilman depicted in the documentary Street Fight. As Newark’s mayor, he built a national profile by cultivating almost a million and a half Twitter followers, outshining New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg with his response to the 2010 “#snowpocalypse,” saving a neighbor from a burning building, and being known as the Democrat who managed to share a good-natured rapport with New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

In his first few months as a U.S. senator, Booker, a Democrat, has kept the good-guy image going by bantering with Republican colleagues like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky—in a Twitter exchange that morphed from a “Festivus” joke into a public challenge to work together on issues around federal sentencing—and breaking bread with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at a dinner during which, he told me, they “talked about families, and our motivation, and the things that make us human.”

It’s a “can’t we all just get along” style that might come across as naive, but one that he’s consistently cultivated, even embracing hecklers with his perpetual buoyancy:

Six months into his tenure, then, Booker’s challenge is to show that his optimism can actually translate into legislative gains that help his constituents, because in his tenure as mayor, he was, at times, dogged by the perception that “he dazzles at news conferences, but flags on the follow-through.”

So to start, he’s put his stock in a bill he’s jointly sponsoring with Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina—the only other African American in the Senate—that would create incentives for businesses to offer apprenticeships for young Americans in various skilled trades.

Their Leveraging and Energizing America’s Apprenticeship Programs, or LEAP, Act would put in place a $1,500 tax credit for each apprenticeship provided to young people under age 25 and $1,000 for apprentices between the ages of 25 and 29.

The idea, as Booker puts it, is that in an environment of high unemployment—one in which it’s been estimated that there are 4 million job openings for skilled workers that employers can’t fill—American “competitiveness and economic strength depend on our commitment to developing a 21st-century workforce.”

And if it gains momentum and eventual passage, it’ll be a feather in the caps of both Booker and Scott for demonstrating that a newer generation of Senate leaders can break through partisan gridlock. To that end, Booker calls himself “a prisoner of hope” for bipartisanship but also says he’s “a realist” who understands “how difficult it is to get things done.” Particularly when it’s an election year in which the Republican agenda is being driven in the House of Representatives, and Democrats in the Senate have been focused on boosting the minimum wage.