The Jersey Woman Who’s a Cory Booker Threat

Sheila Oliver isn’t going to make this easy for him.

Conventional wisdom gives the telegenic Newark Mayor Cory Booker the edge, the most recent poll looking much like a rabbit-and-turtle race where Booker nabs more than 50 percent of the vote compared to comical single digits for the competition. Coughing up the dust of Cory’s Road Runner advantage are longtime Congressmen Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Rush Holt (D), each receiving 10 percent and nine percent respectively in a Quinnipiac University Poll and a flatulent nine or … these numbers aren’t even worth mentioning because they barely register.

Funniest thing is Pallone actually has more than half as much money as Booker does in the war chest: a healthy $3.6 million compared to the Newark boy wonder’s crack-the-ice $1.6 million. On the surface, that could seem problematic for Booker, but maybe not, considering the name recognition he’s amassed statewide through energetic tweeting, his demolition overhaul of the once-hopeless Newark, and a national celebrity that makes him a political Kanye to President Obama’s Jay-Z. But, who is Frank Pallone? In the crowded field that is the New Jersey Senate race, money may not matter as much as profile—hence Booker could defy conventions in the expensive tri-state Jersey/Philly/New York media market.

The very sudden death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg may have ripped across the Garden State electoral landscape and offered new advantages for Booker—namely the lack of an old chastising Uncle Frank smacking Booker’s hairless neck line. Gov. Chris Christie may have given Booker a solid by scheduling the super-early August 16th primary and October 16th general election, thereby giving any opposition in the crowded Democratic field very little time for mobilization, but that was all about Christie and other factors.

Trenton’s overweight lover is a masterful pol who weaves plays for his own short-term gain and long-term viability. Even though he’s double-digits ahead of his re-election rival state Sen. Barbara Buono, he sets the calendar to make double sure he crushes her rather than risk an unplanned wave of Democratic voters shrugging off any goodwill claimed from Superstorm Sandy and walks along the Jersey beaches with Obama. And sources point to the shadowy, clever hand of Jersey political Jedi Steve Adubato Sr. in the mix, the longtime broker and quiet Christie supporter easing the way for Booker’s Senate win so he can ease the path for the next and first Latino mayor of Newark, city councilman Anibal Ramos.

Still: Why the beads of sweat on Booker’s bald brow? The Newark Mayor shouldn’t take any of this for granted—if he’s really as smart as they say. Observers were stunned by the unexpected bid from Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex)—a crafty, holds-no-tongue North Jersey political queen and former teacher. Booker was supposed to have been the only African-American in the race. And while the Speaker’s entrance may appear quixotic at best, it could open up a can of stink for Booker particularly as it 1) relates to the black vote and 2) impacts his ability to charm the rest of North Jersey outside of Newark.

Consequently, Oliver may hold the key to her home of Essex County—which, incidentally, holds Newark. It is the most densely populated county behind Hudson County neighboring New York City, holding some 800,000 residents and a piggy bank of crucial voting blocs. No one can win statewide in Jersey without Essex, and the entrance of Oliver just made that plan a lot more difficult for Booker.

Oliver, a very public Booker-hater, represents old guard black politicos who still wield considerable clout. Booker can’t win without Jersey’s black vote, which accounts for nearly 20 percent of the overall state electorate, and Oliver is making it very clear that she won’t make it easy. And while the Speaker could be driven by anti-Booker animus and an urge to finally school the young gun Mayor—whom she has disagreed with on everything from public school reform to urban “redevelopment” (Oliver believes Booker has merely made Newark into a gentrification playground)—this is a move to ensure her own long-term relevance and survival on the state stage.

In Jersey, the politics are complicated and unpredictable, with the map constantly being altered and the alliances constantly shifting. It’s never what it seems. You never know what’s really happening behind the scenes: Pallone could be nudging Oliver along to upend Booker in Essex; someone in Obama-land could still be holding a grudge over the fast-talking Mayor’s infamous Meet the Press flap in 2012.

It’s not locked, yet. How much Oliver plays having nothing to lose could very well determine the trajectory of the race.

Charles D. Ellison is the Washington correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for UPTOWN Magazine. He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison.