Cory Booker laughing it up at TechCrunch Disrupt, a tech-industry conference, in 2012. (Photo by Max Morse/Getty Images) and via TechCrunch's Flickr account
Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, is one of the hippest, most tech-savvy politicians in the country. He’s known nationwide for using Twitter to connect to constituents and others, and for saving old ladies trapped in burning buildings and dogs trapped in crates; during Hurricane Sandy, he even let some of his neighbors stay in his house. At first glance, he’s the quintessential charismatic politician come to save a city beleaguered by crime and poverty. But high-profile acts of heroism notwithstanding, America’s favorite mayor (and, it’s more or less assumed at this point, a candidate for president in the not-too-distant future) spends a lot of time chilling with Silicon Valley execs and hedge-fund bros, and, more importantly, freely uses those connections to enrich himself.
As the New York Times recently revealed, despite the fact that he is currently running for (and about to win) a seat in the US Senate, Booker has up to $5 million of equity in a YouTube-esque start-up company called Waywire that was conceived on his behalf a couple years ago by Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter guru. Booker personally lobbied tech-industry billionaires like Google’s Eric Schmidt (and other rich people he knows, like Oprah) to provide $1.75 million in seed money, and he's used appearances around the country made in the name of attracting investment to his troubled city (including a speech at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas) to plug the start-up. That won't help Newark much but it will likely help Booker's personal bank account.
“This is something that would be flat-out prohibited if Booker were a member of Congress, and for good reason,“ said Craig Holman, a lobbyist at Public Citizen, a government watchdog group. “It raises serious questions and conflicts of interest. Even if Booker may have a sincere love and passion for social media and high-tech businesses, those who are investing are very often going to have something at stake before him if he were a senator.” Even if the company is struggling, as the Times reported in a follow-up story, the potential for corruption remains very real.
Booker is no stranger to profiting from his national stature. He’s been getting hefty fees on the speaking circuit for years now (most of it has been donated to charity, though he pocketed over $200,000 after taxes—or about as much as 2016 presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton makes per gig). He also didn't disclose “confidential” payments from his former law firm, which has done millions of dollars of business with local agencies*, as the New York Post uncovered Sunday. And though in 2002 he railed against incumbent Newark mayor Sharpe James (as the anticorruption savior of the city) for not releasing his tax returns, he has yet to do so himself with the Democratic primary less than a day away.
His campaign spokesman told me that if elected, Booker would step down from Waywire’s board, put his shares in a trust, and block the company from lobbying his new office. But ethics experts say most of those moves are mandated by law anyway, and he would still remain unofficially closely tied to the tech industry—surely his friendship with people like Mark Zuckerberg, who donated $100 million to Newark’s school system in 2010, will have some impact on his voting behavior.
This goes deeper than another big-city politician from the Northeast being ethically shady. Booker’s “investment” in a tech company speaks to a broader trend in US politics toward embracing private technological innovation as the solution to all of our problems. As George Packer recently wrote in the New Yorker, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are increasingly applying their financial muscle in the political realm. Booker’s arrival in the Senate will coincide with tech companies ramping up their influence peddling in Washington DC. Zuckerberg recently founded Fwd.us, a lobbying group that represents the industry’s interests in immigration reform, and last week Twitter hired its first lobbyist and formed a PAC. Booker will be representing New Jersey when he gets to Washington, but he’ll also be sympathetic to the interests of some very wealthy (and increasingly well-organized) Californian entrepreneurs.
And while tech billionaires keep coming up with awesome new ways to share content with friends on the internet, we haven’t seen much from this crowd in terms of plausible strategies to reduce income inequality or address other structural economic problems. Their attitude that they can succeed in finding game-changing solutions where others have failed strikes some Democrats as the worst kind of arrogance.
“How about we focus on helping poor people climb out of fucking poverty instead of some tech startup that focuses on video curation?” opined one veteran Democratic Senate aide, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly. “I mean, Jesus Christ. Politicians' job is to ‘get’ tech to the extent that it's useful. Beyond that, it looks masturbatory.”
Booker’s actions also point towards a worrying trend in Democratic politics of embracing America’s captains of industry as partners in governance. As I wrote in Salon last month, Booker represents a new strain in liberalism that trumpets all the good the money of big banks and oligarchs can do, rather than the power of government working for the people. To his credit, he has convinced many of his rich buds to donate money to the city he runs. The problem is, this only works as a political philosophy as long as Booker and these celebs continue to hang out at ski resorts and the Aspen Ideas Festival. There’s no sense that government should provide for the least fortunate because of an underlying social contract—instead, the idea is to hope that America’s rich and powerful keep getting a nice buzz from using their money for good.
The danger is that these relationships with billionaires who have visions of techno-utopias dancing in their heads isn't that far away from government being a plaything of the very wealthy. In other words, the oldest kind of old-school corruption.
Unless something crazy happens, Booker will win the Democratic primary Tuesday and likely cruise to a victory in the general election (Republicans rarely win statewide races in New Jersey). He’s also poised to seek higher office at some later date, and when he does, he’ll have some very big money backing him up, making him a force to be reckoned with.
“I'm not envious of people's success in Silicon Valley,” Representative Rush Holt, the progressive congressman running against Booker who helped defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) last year, told me. “There are some businessmen and women who are supporting my campaign. No one's given me a company.”
*Correction 8/12: An earlier version of this article stated that his law firm did business with the city, when in fact the firm dealt with agencies that are not directly connected to the city, though Booker "has influence over them" according to the Post story. No one is alleging Booker broke any laws.
Matt Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer whose reporting about politics has appeared in Slate, Salon, the Daily Beast, the Atlantic, the New Republic, and New York. You can follow him on Twitter: @matthewt_ny
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