Democratic Sen. Cory Booker defended his ties to New Jersey political bosses George E. Norcross III and Joseph DiVincenzo, the Essex County executive, on Tuesday, saying that while he may disagree with them on some issues, he “can’t allow perfect to be the enemy of the good.”
Booker, who has cast himself as a progressive candidate favoring tax credits for renters, curbing the power of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and criminal justice reform, has faced skepticism from some liberals who think he is too close to the men and other corporate interests.
As New Jersey’s junior senator, Booker would find it difficult to accomplish much (or even be elected) if he didn’t have working relationships with Norcross, a South Jersey insurance executive, and DiVincenzo.
But Maurice Mitchell, executive director of the national Working Families Party, asked Booker in a live-streamed Q&A about his connection to DiVincenzo, who oversees a detention center that holds undocumented immigrants for ICE, and Norcross, a member of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort club, who has benefited from a tax credit program for New Jersey businesses.
The two men co-hosted a $2,800-per-head fundraiser for Booker in June, raising the ire of progressive groups.
“That seems like a contradiction, that you would associate yourselves with folks who seem not in line with the values that your campaign has sort of lifted up,” Mitchell said.
Booker didn’t respond to Mitchell’s question of whether he would return Norcross’ campaign donation. But he spent nearly 15 minutes defending his ability to work with people with whom he disagrees. He called DiVincenzo a friend who helped him while he was mayor of Newark.
“I was one of the first people to say to him, ‘I need to come to that detention facility,’” Booker said. The facility, frequently has been cited for poor conditions. ”I’m one of those guys who wants to close detention facilities altogether, so we actually might not have an agreement on that issue. But when I needed help ... Joe D was one of those guys that was there for me that helped us get out of a lot of binds.”
Booker, running around sixth or seventh in national polls, also defended his relationship with former Republican Gov. Chris Christie — who had alliances with both DiVincenzo and Norcross. Booker said he could write a “dissertation” on all the disagreements he had with Christie, but he could also text him today if he needed help.
“I could have held a press conference every day blasting him, and it actually would have helped my politics, but I had to build housing. I had to create jobs," Booker said of Christie.
The response echoed one of Booker’s biggest moments on the Democratic campaign debate stage, when, amid a sharp exchange between former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris, Booker interjected a plea for unity: “Let me just say that the person that’s enjoying this debate most right now is Donald Trump, as we pit Democrats against each other."
In a Democratic primary campaign that revolves around the tension between pragmatism and progressivism, that has done little to assuage the party’s left, said Sue Altman, head of the New Jersey Working Families Party.
“It was a little Voldemortesque,” she said. “He didn’t mention Norcross by name. I think he’s very squeamish about addressing the Norcross stuff in public.”
Altman said the root problem is that politics, especially in New Jersey, has long been driven by party bosses. “That just underscores that even a super-smart, talented, charismatic, ambitious politician like Cory Booker can’t possibly transcend the influence of party bosses like Joe D or George Norcross who support him, bankroll him, and not just his campaign but the place he’s trying to govern,” Altman said.
Altman said that plans for systemic change pushed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who poll in second or third, are more appealing to the left.