WASHINGTON – The Senate’s Tuesday lunches are an odd institution.
The Senators arrive for separate meals – Republicans in one room, Democrats in another -- in which they debate and discuss the issues of the moment, decide on strategy and plot out of the rest of the week. For reporters, this is a target-rich environment – all 100 Senators arriving at roughly the same place at roughly the same time, all in underground tunnels and narrow hallways.
It's an easy time for the hill's media mob to buttonhole lawmakers, pick up information and stockpile quotes.
With dozens of notebooks at the ready, It’s also an easy way for a Senator to get his or her views into print, or just some ego-stroking attention. As the questions come, some don’t seem to mind if their lunch gets cold.
Cory Booker didn’t play along in his first week on the job. Booker, New Jersey’s new Democratic Senator, and a man known to consume his share of the spotlight, instead followed Senate tradition by keeping his head down and politely shunning requests for quotes. As reporters approached him Tuesday, Booker dashed off one quick answer and stepped into an elevator. Other times he referred the media to his press secretary – assuming a notably low profile in much the same way as other freshmen do, even those who lack his national name recognition.
“I’m now a championship spelunker,” Booker said Friday, referring to his newfound ability to navigate the Capitol’s tunnels.
Nine days into his new job, Booker said he has tried to focus on his new responsibility of representing all of New Jersey's nearly 9 million residents, rather than the 3 percent or so who reside in Newark, where he was mayor.
“I’m having so much fun because my ability to serve has been increased dramatically,” Booker said in his still undecorated office.
Booker had just met with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, talking to him about the ongoing recovery from superstorm Sandy and, Booker said, pressing for a grant to help Atlantic City avoid firefighter lay-offs.
“We have this conversation daily if not hourly: focus on what’s important in New Jersey and deliver,” Booker said of himself and his staff. “Deliver, deliver, deliver.”
Booker’s first public hearing was also about Sandy, and his first major vote came Thursday, when he supported Senate approval of a bill barring workplace discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgendered people.
He was part of a group of Democratic Senators who met with President Obama earlier this week to go over the rocky roll out of the president’s health law. Booker, like others, expressed concern, but predicted that the law will eventually help New Jerseyans.
“Obviously I have a lot of concerns,” he said. “Tens of thousands of New Jerseyans are now in this point of fear and concern. We’re hearing a lot about it.”
Booker listed worries from residents who fear they will lose their health plan, see rising bills or be forced to find a new doctor. “That’s real concerns … those have to be addressed.”
“On the flip side,” he added, “we’ve actually gotten calls into the office of people who are thrilled, folks that did not have insurance before who were being denied insurance before, who couldn’t stay on their parents’ policies.”
He said “hundreds of thousands” of New Jersey residents are benefitting from the law and predicted that within two months “most of the problems – not all – are going to be behind us.”
Booker said he has focused on getting to know his new colleagues. (Indeed, as he presided over the Senate Thursday – a chore assigned to freshmen – Booker could be seen frequently thumbing through a book with head shots of all the Senators).
“Working out in the gym has turned out to be just a very valuable thing to do. Going to the prayer breakfast,” he said. He said he had also simply met some Senators in their offices.
Booker spoke to three local reporters in a still bare office. On the floor were paintings waiting to be hung – one of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, a Booker mentor. Another was a print of Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” an iconic painting based on the experience of Ruby Bridges, who as a six-year-old integrated an elementary school in New Orleans. The painting depicts a young girl walking to school, escorted by U.S. Marshalls, with a racial epithet scrawled on a wall and thrown tomato lying on the sidewalk.
“Almost every Senator I talk to my mind gets buzzing with things to do. It’s almost like you’ve got to just narrow in, focus on what’s important to your constituency,” Booker said.
On Thursday he had his first stint presiding over the Senate. For once, the celebrity-powered Booker seemed star-struck himself.
“I was going to use an expletive – it was darn awesome,” he said. He was “presiding over one of the most important governmental institutions in the globe” and “listening to people who since I was a kid were making profound impact.”
He added with a laugh, “and they’re all referring to me as Mr. President!”