Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., was sworn in Thursday as the newest member of the U.S. Senate. His mother, Carolyn Booker, sat in the chamber and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-N.J., stood nearby as Vice President Joe Biden did the honors.
Wearing a purple silk tie, Booker put his hand over his heart, smiled and waved nervously as he took his oath. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only other black member of the Senate, came to watch and shake his hand.
Booker enters the U.S. Senate as the first elected black Democrat sworn in since 2005 when upstart Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill, was sworn into the chamber.
Booker's term comes with strings attached, though. Elected in a special election to replace Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in June, Booker will have just one year to establish relationships in the seniority-driven Senate and be tasked with the challenge of carrying out an agenda that satisfies voters back home before facing reelection again in 2014. In the days and weeks ahead, Booker will have to decide how he will tackle his position as one of 100 legislators, a role vastly different than that of the executive of New Jersey's largest city.
"I am confident that senator Booker will be a very aggressive campaigner. That is the primary reason why he will be so focused on New Jersey issues despite showing up in Washington with a national profile," says New Jersey political pundit and and director of The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, adding "this is not an undisciplined man. He understands the challenge he has ahead."
Booker will have to decide whether he'll come out swinging, boisterous and loud like freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has dived head first into national issues from Syria to the gun debate. Less than one year into his term, Cruz led Congress into a 16-day government shutdown in protest of the Affordable Care Act. Booker may choose instead the softer tack adopted by other nationally-known Democrats who entered the Senate before him like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. After a career as a consumer advocate and a spirited race against former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., Warren faded quietly behind the Senate curtain. Former funny man Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., also shunned his comedy routine and desire for the spotlight when he was elected.
Booker takes office as a senator with a self-styled national reputation as a dog-saving, human-rescuing, superhero mayor of Newark. Democrats no doubt are waiting in the wings to tap into Booker's fundraising prowess and star power for their own tough 2014 mid-term season. But when it comes to legislating, many expect Booker to adopt the strategy of the big-name politicians who came before him. Booker will have an opportunity to continue advocating for New Jersey residents still reeling from Superstorm Sandy and help expand public transportation options, another hot topic back home.
When. Sen. Hillary Clinton was sworn in, she cultivated a low profile, focusing instead on forming relationships with her fellow lawmakers behind closed doors. She famously reached across the aisle and sought out Republican allies by attending regular prayer breakfasts and avoided national issues. Instead, she put her sweat equity into rebuilding the World Trade Center in the wake of 9/11 and advocating for first responders.
During his time as mayor and on the campaign trail, Booker became accustomed to generating buzz as he focused on creating equal opportunities, evening the playing field through education reform and increasing the minimum wage. More important than an agenda, however, advocates say is how Booker carries out his priorities not what they are.
"It's important he is viewed as a hard worker who wants to help New Jersey," says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey, arguing Booker needs to set up a strong constituent services apparatus immediately.
In Monmouth's final poll leading into the New Jersey Senate race, a majority of voters viewed Booker as advocating for their politics, but some were still plagued with doubts as to Booker's intentions with 48 percent believing Booker's Senate run was a ploy to further his own political career.
"If you look at the people with national profiles who have entered the Senate, a number of Republicans have gone out and tried to make names for themselves," Murray says. "Democrats, meanwhile put their heads down. You cannot get away with being a Ted Cruz or a Rand Paul in the Democratic party."
Booker has another former New Jersey Democrat he can look to for advice. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., also entered the Senate under special circumstances. He was appointed to fill the remaining months of Sen. Jon Corzine's term and also had just one year before he faced election.
Menendez said he has cautioned Booker privately to take it all in and learn how the body works before jumping out front.
"His biggest transition, and I have told him this, is going from the executive powers of the mayor of the state's largest city to the legislative process of cobbling coalitions together to get to the votes that you want for the issues you care about," Menendez says. "I told him to take his time in assessing the landscape, the people and what not."
But Menendez said sometimes, a freshman has an opportunity to strike out on his own.
"When your passion calls you, use that eloquent voice of yours," Menendez says he has told his new colleague.