WASHINGTON — When the U.S. Senate passed a bill to ban job discrimination against gay and transgender people, its newest member’s first impulse was to yell with joy. Then he remembered where he was.
Instead, Cory Booker reached into his pocket for his phone.
“I got it all out via Twitter,” said Booker, who has 1.4 million followers.
Booker, the 44-year-old Democratic former mayor of Newark, N.J., came into Congress as a rare freshman senator with celebrity status. He has been dubbed a rock star mayor by Oprah Winfrey, been called a hero for pulling a neighbor out of her burning home in 2012 and hobnobbed with Matt Damon.
During his first week in Congress, Booker tried to balance immersion in his new job with already standing out from his 99 colleagues on the staid Senate floor. Booker allowed The Associated Press to shadow his comings and goings.
“The model I’ve encouraged him to follow is Al Franken or Hillary Clinton,” said Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat and a friend of Booker’s. “People who came to the Senate with big national profiles but demonstrated a willingness to do the work, dig in, go visit every corner of their state and really focus on home-state interests.”
Coons came into the Senate after a special election in 2010. He is helping Booker, who also won a special election, navigate and knows what it’s like to start the job with no orientation and a skeleton staff.
After a swearing-in Oct. 31 filled with media and supporters, Booker has mostly stayed out of the spotlight. He’s studying the minutiae of Senate rules and has attended multitudes of meetings. He has worked out at the Senate gym to meet colleagues and attended a bipartisan prayer breakfast.
Known for his soaring oratory and confidence, he is now listening and asking questions, sometimes seeming overwhelmed or confused – and showing glimmers of his cheeky sense of humor amid the business of the day.
In his first committee hearing Wednesday, he joked that “I still have that new senator smell” after telling the leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency that higher flood insurance rates would devastate parts of New Jersey.
He asked Vice President Joe Biden if he could crash on his couch. And he answered a Twitter question about his thoughts on workplace romances with: “Don’t! Especially if u have 99 colleagues in 1 of the world’s most august bodies.”
He went to the White House twice. He joined a group of Democratic senators Wednesday and, hours after being sworn in, had a private visit with President Barack Obama.
“There was a guy with a football, and I grabbed it, and the president and I had a little catch,” said Booker, who played football at Stanford. Obama, he said, complimented his spiral.
Booker was the first to arrive at a Democratic caucus lunch Tuesday, piling his plate with greens and vegetables. He peeled plastic wrap off of a bowl of dressing as Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu arrived. The two headed toward the back of the room and sat down.
“Sen. Menendez came in and said, ‘That’s my seat.’ And of course I panicked,” Booker said. “At first I’m like, ‘Oh my God, did I really sit in his seat?’ And another senator came in and tried to play the same trick on me.”
Booker and his mother, Carolyn, met privately with Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Booker’s father, Cary, suffered a stroke in August shortly after moving to Las Vegas and days before Booker’s Democratic primary. Reid visited his bedside, and when he died Oct. 10, Reid reached out to Booker and his family.
In many ways, Booker is just another guy getting used to a new job – learning the rules and his colleagues, just as they’ve all had to do at some point.
He took his first vote minutes after being sworn in and thought votes were cast by pushing a button or pulling a lever. Instead, he learned, “you raise your hand.” On one vote, Booker missed his name while chatting with colleagues and flagged down the Senate clerk, voting yes with a thumbs-up.
He brought a congressional directory Thursday morning and watched each speaker intently, occasionally flipping through to match a senator with a photo. He is also learning how to navigate the labyrinth that is the Capitol and its office buildings.
“Is this the way home?” he asked his chief of staff as the two traversed the Senate basement.
He said he plans to advocate for New Jersey residents, hoping to ensure they receive unclaimed earned-income credits and helping victims of Superstorm Sandy. He met with an ethics officer to see how he can leverage private-public partnerships for New Jersey, as he did in Newark – most famously with a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to the city schools.
And though he’s been minding his manners, he’s still the same Cory Booker. A stalwart supporter of gay rights, he finally let out that yell upon walking into his office after the job discrimination vote.
“Call everybody in New Jersey,” Booker said to his staff, “and tell them we’re one step closer to an equal nation.”
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