Booker, who spoke at the American Legion Boys State final assembly at Rider University, seldom skips the chance to speak to high school and college-age audiences. He's devoted considerable energy and capital as mayor trying to create opportunities for urban youths by improving the quality of their education, and brought city schools a $100 million matching grant from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, which was announced on Oprah Winfrey's couch in 2010.
"How can we have a democracy in which we create, in a sense, an educational apartheid, where kids born in certain zip codes get great educations and kids born in other zip codes are trapped in schools?" Booker asked during an interview with The Associated Press after the keynote address for a group he said helped him learn the ropes of government when he was a Boys State delegate in 1986.
Booker says he will run on his record of nearly two terms as mayor, which includes an educational philosophy similar to that of Republican Gov. Chris Christie and sometimes at odds with the public teachers union. He's in the race to succeed Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the country's oldest senator and its last World War II veteran, who died June 3.
The Ivy League-educated Booker agrees with the governor on merit pay for teachers and school vouchers, which the unions oppose. In fact, nearly $50 million of the Zuckerberg gift was used to fund the first-ever performance-based contract in a New Jersey public school district. Booker and the governor also support an expansion of charter schools in communities where public schools are failing, and tenure changes, which were negotiated statewide to win the unions' endorsement.
"Every single day the urgency of fixing this problem stares me in the face," Booker said. "There is true understanding in Newark that the system has failed the genius of our children. So for me, it's 'what is going to work to get my kids the same educational opportunities that I (had) growing up in a more affluent area of the state.'"
Booker has received the endorsement of another like-minded education reformer, South Jersey political leader George Norcross III, and the seven South Jersey counties that encompass his power base. He's also benefited from decisions to stay neutral by New Jersey Education Association, the state's biggest and most powerful teachers union, and the American Federation of Teachers, the predominant teachers union in Newark.
The teachers' endorsements probably would have gone to Rep. Frank Pallone, a staunch labor supporter or Rush Holt, a former research scientist. The two congressmen have been "stalwart supporters of our public schools," said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the director of government relations for NJEA.
The fourth Democrat in the race, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, has won points with the union for opposing vouchers - money for a pilot voucher program disappeared from this year's state budget - and for advocating for more money for public schools ($7 million was put back into the budget so that 270 districts will receive as much aid in the coming year as they got in the year that is ending). But, the speaker also posted a bill for pension and health benefits changes that labor bitterly opposed.
"All four of these candidates are more alike than different," said Gold Schnitzer. "They believe in our public schools, are supportive of the work the employees do and they want kids to succeed in the areas of the highest poverty.
The AFT's Nat Bender says the union has worked with all four previously. "The opinion of the membership hasn't consolidated around any of the candidates," he said.
Booker is the heavy favorite according to early polls, in large part because his name recognition is higher than his three opponents. The Republicans are Somerset physician Alieta Eck and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary on Aug. 13 is likely headed to Washington in the fall; New Jersey voters have not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in more than 40 years.
Associated Press writer David Porter in Newark contributed to this report.