A shorter version of this post ran in Wednesday's paper, here.
NEWARK — Yes, they're friends. Yes, they agree on some educational issues. And yes, they have worked well together in the past.
But Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker disagrees with his friend and occasional ally, Republican Gov. Christie, on at least a half-dozen issues — and that's why he lent his considerable star power Tuesday to Christie's expected opponent this fall, State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex).
"This election cannot be about personality; it's about issues," Booker said of the race between the widely popular incumbent and the underdog challenger.
Bantering about prom dates and Jersey diners, and lobbing a few attacks against Christie, Buono and Booker spent more than an hour on what was billed as a "listening tour" at four Newark businesses.
Thanks to Booker's national profile (he is often called the "super mayor") and tremendous social media following (more Twitter followers than any American mayor), Booker's presence attacted a scrum of reporters. And although Booker did most of the talking, it was a big moment for the little-known, long-time Central Jersey legislator: She saw more cameras Tuesday than she has at any campaign stop so far.
Booker and Buono, both of whom have worked as attorneys, first stopped at a law firm to talk about taxes, the effect of the economy on business and immigration. Buono said she wanted to visit the office again.
"I really mean it — I would love to come back," she said.
Booker said to the attorneys: "I'm glad you got a chance to meet the next governor of the state of New Jersey."
They then moved on to a realty office and a tuxedo shop where Booker used to buy his threads. Buono pushed her case at each stop, saying New Jersey is in far worse shape than Christie would have you believe. "There's a malaise, there's a certain anxiety that the New Jersey they grew up in is slipping away," she said.
But Booker still stood out. He is more than a head taller than his Democratic companion and he repeatedly showed off his Spanish. He was asked — and answered — most of the questions at the news conference in the back of the Andros Diner, and he went on tangents about his successes in Newark.
Still, Booker's support was unequivocal — he even called Buono "governor" a few times, before correcting himself. He cited her "real vision for cities" and insinuated that he may have not had to lay off police officers if Buono was governor.
"We would have figured out a way," Buono said.
Booker said that if voters, even moderate Republicans, looked past Christie's personal likability and examined the issues they would find themselves agreeing with Buono. He cited her support for a greenhouse gas treaty and gay marriage; he noted that Christie defunded Planned Parenthood, a tax cut for the working poor and a public transit tunnel into New York City.
But Booker also repeatedly brought up his friendship with Christie. He said he liked the Christie kids and even praised the governor for the "beautiful moment" when he embraced President Obama after Sandy.
"I have a lot of affection for Chris Christie; I worked closely with him as mayor," Booker said.
They certainly have.
Booker has strenuously supported several of Christie's biggest issues — the very ones the governor is running on: Pension and benefit reform for public employees (which Buono opposed), the reorganization of the higher education system, a cap on property tax increases and school reform in Newark.
That point wasn't lost on Michael DuHaime, Christie's campaign adviser, who said in an interview: "On issues of most importance to New Jersey voters, Mayor Booker has stood with Gov. Christie time and time again — showing Republicans and Democrats can work together."
Booker acknowledged that he he and Christie have had a "very robust and vibrant partnership" on educational issues, and he supports Christie's plan to give students in failing districts vouchers to attend elsewhere, while Buono doesn't.
But he opposes the governor on other educational issues: School funding, school construction and higher education affordablity.
Prominently supporting Buono serves to boost Booker's bona fides among loyal Democrats. He was considering a bid of his own for governor, but after deliberating for weeks last year he announced that he would instead explore a U.S. senate run in 2014. His prolonged decision-making process, and alleged disregard for the wishes of incumbent U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), irked some party stalwarts. Campaigning for Buono could ease the tension and pave the way for a senate run.
Buono, meanwhile, faces challenges in her bid to unseat Christie. Christie is more well-known, has raised millions more dollars and enjoys positive approval ratings from Democrats. But the state is still blue, and Christie's poll numbers have inched downward since the aftermath of Sandy.
And now, Buono has a big-name Democrat willing to help her out. "I will raise money for her," Booker declared Tuesday.
"Ya hear that?" Buono said, smiling.