Booker uses social media to push for unemployment benefits

Democrat Cory Booker won a special election into the U.S. Senate. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

WASHINGTON – Cory Booker promised to be a new kind of senator, and he gave a glimpse of what he meant during Democrats' recent push to restore benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Booker, a New Jersey Democrat elected in October, emphasized his social media outreach as talked about his efforts to build pressure for a deal that could reinstate emergency unemployment benefits. He was one of 10 senators involved in negotiations that culminated in a bipartisan agreement Thursday.

“We had over 1.8 million contacts over social media, direct engaging over 100,000 people,” Booker said in a telephone interview, sounding like the young tech executives he counts as friends and supporters. “All of this going on kept the issue at the forefront.”

Booker said the 1.8 million contacts counts anyone who clicked a link he sent out via his famous Twitter account or Facebook. The “engagement” counts people who shared or liked his links, tweeted him back or wrote in response to a Facebook post.

“When people read something on social media, that’s one level, but when people actually engage in the material, liking it, sharing it,” he said, it reflects increased involvement and interest.

Booker has long been a political figure seemingly made for the digital age, and he arrived in Washington pledging to bring an entrepreneurial approach to the job.

Of course, it’s impossible to say how much his social media effort led to the deal that will provide five months of extended unemployment benefits – much of it retroactive to late December, when they expired. The key to sealing the agreement were Democratic compromises, such as ending benefits for wealthy individuals, to get enough Republicans on board for a bill that can clear the Senate.

After the benefits expired, Booker and other Democrats tried to ramp up the pressure with press conferences and media events in their home states. Booker gave his first Senate speech on unemployment benefits and made this the first issue he embraced in a high-profile way since arriving in Washington.

“I felt privileged to be a very small part of the efforts,” he said, heaping most of the praise on Sen. Jack Reed (D., R.I.), who led negotiations for Democrats.

More than 100,000 New Jerseyans have seen their regular unemployment benefits expire, Booker said, leaving them without government support because of the end of the emergency unemployment program put in place during the depths of the recession.

The Senate is expected to vote on the unemployment agreement later this month, though it’s not clear if the bill can clear the House, where conservatives argue that extending unemployment benefits discourages work.

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