Tuesday’s confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s choice for Education secretary, will test the resolve of Senate reformers to install a strong backer of school choice in that office. It will also test the reform bona fides of New Jersey Democratic senator Cory Booker, a school-choice supporter who has served with DeVos on the board of a school-choice group. But now he harbors presidential ambitions for 2020, so he suddenly has “serious concerns” about DeVos, despite having worked closely with her in the past.
Booker had already made news last week when he broke with Senate tradition to oppose the confirmation of fellow senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general. He and Sessions had co-sponsored legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to civil-rights marchers. But Booker cast Sessions as a reactionary enemy of civil rights. Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, a Republican, sadly noted: “Senator Booker is better than that, and he knows better.”
Cory Booker was supposed to be different. Beginning when he ran a losing 2002 race for mayor of Newark, New Jersey’s largest city. The 47-year-old Rhodes scholar and Yale Law graduate has been hailed as a “post partisan” figure by people as diverse as Bill Bradley and the late Jack Kemp. In 2002, Kemp told New York magazine:
I don’t think there could be a finer young rising star in urban politics than Cory Booker. His policies go far beyond Democratic-Republican. There has to be a new way of thinking about poverty. Cory understands that private enterprise is not the enemy of the urban poor.
That kind of praise earned Booker much grief from left-wingers, even though he’d been a staunch supporter of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Newark Mayor Sharpe James defeated Booker in 2002 by polarizing the contest along racial lines, accusing the light-skinned Booker of being “a Republican who took money from the KKK” and who would have “to learn to be an African American.” James’s machine basically stole the election through voter fraud and intimidation. A federal judge issued an injunction against the city for using “selective enforcement” to tear down Booker campaign signs — to little avail. Public-housing tenants were told they could be evicted if they put Booker signs in their windows.
Back then, Booker had the profile of a true reformer, crusading against voter fraud and machine politics. He rode anger at the corrupt city government to an overwhelming victory in the 2006 mayoral race. During his two terms, he expanded charter schools in the city, brought in some new investment, and tried but failed to privatize some city services.
In 2013, Booker climbed the political ladder out of Newark by winning a U.S. Senate seat in a special election. In the race to succeed him as mayor, he was much closer on issues and in attitude to Shavar Jeffries, a former prosecutor, than to City Councilman Ras Baraka, a fierce opponent of school reform.
But Booker was already becoming a conventional politician. He declined to endorse anyone, telling The New Yorker, “I’ve got to work with whoever is in office, and I’m not going to make an enemy.” Baraka won, fighting off a last-minute surge by Jeffries.
Curiously, that was the attitude of two key Democratic education reformers who were attacked last year for meeting with President-elect Trump. Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and New York City charter-school leader Eva Moskowitz were both attacked for sharing ideas with Trump. Both argued that everyone who cares about kids should hope that Trump will succeed in his effort to provide more opportunities for school children.
If Booker succumbs to the temptation to curry favor with his party’s left wing, he’s likely to find he can’t do enough to satisfy the ideologues.
Booker remained silent about the controversy. As liberal New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait observed, any Democrat who tries to wave the flag for reform and becomes in any way associated with Donald Trump will come under withering fire from the powerful teachers’ unions.
Almost every politician, by definition, is ambitious and seeks a larger stage. But if Cory Booker comes out against Betsy DeVos, he will not only have given the school-choice movement he has championed a slap in the face; he will also have called into question the reputation he had of being a liberal problem-solver. As Booker told a school-choice conference last May:
This country’s become much more about what party you’re a part of than about the progress, and the possibilities, the dreams, the plans. I’m tired of partisanship. Partisanship doesn’t serve my city; we’ve had Democrats representing our city for as long as I can remember.
All true, and very high-minded. But if Booker succumbs to the temptation to curry favor with his party’s left wing, he’s likely to find he can’t do enough to satisfy the ideologues. But at the same time, he will lose much of the carefully cultivated image he had as an independent thinker with appeal to a general electorate.
“School choice is only growing in popularity and credibility among all population groups,” Bret Schundler, the former reform mayor of Jersey City, told me. “Those who block it will be viewed as on the losing side of this generation’s civil-rights struggle.”