WASHINGTON — Former Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker is starting his new job in an unusual position — a freshman Democratic senator with celebrity status.
The man Oprah Winfrey once dubbed a “rock star mayor” — he has 1.4 million followers on Twitter — was sworn in Thursday during a brief ceremony on the Senate floor. He won a special election in mid-October to fill the seat of longtime Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in June.
Dozens of photographers and reporters followed Booker around the Capitol, from a cramped photo opportunity with Majority Leader Harry Reid to a ceremonial swearing-in in the Old Senate Chamber to a private reception thrown by the state’s other senator, Robert Menendez.
Booker also had a private meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office in the afternoon.
Clad in a bright purple tie with blue squares, Booker walked into the Senate chamber a bit before noon, a family Bible tucked under his left arm. He shook hands, hugged and talked policy with some of his new colleagues before striding to the back of the chamber and then walking down the aisle with Menendez.
Vice President Joe Biden administered the oath during the official ceremony as Booker’s friends and family members, including his mother, brother and talk show host Gayle King, a close friend, looked on from the Senate gallery. He placed his hand on the Bible, the same one he used for his swearing-in as Newark mayor, and it appeared to tremble at times.
Booker got right to work, participating in a roll call vote to support an attempt by Democrats to advance the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. His election gave Democrats control of 55 Senate seats, counting two held by independents. Republicans hold 45.
Later, during the ceremonial swearing-in attended by media and others, Booker playfully asked Biden if he could crash in a spare bedroom at the Naval Observatory, the vice president’s home. He has yet to find a place to live in Washington.
“This is a really special day for me,” Booker told reporters, “And I’m really blown away.”
Booker, 44, is the first African-American to be elected to the Senate since Barack Obama. He was elected mayor of Newark in 2006 and re-elected in 2010.
He grew up in suburban Harrington Park, N.J., the son of two IBM executives. He played football at Stanford University, was a Rhodes Scholar and graduated from Yale Law School.
During law school Booker moved into one of Newark’s toughest housing projects. He was elected to the City Council and unsuccessfully ran for mayor against Sharpe James, a bruising contest that was made famous by the documentary “Street Fight.”
Booker rocketed to celebrity status as mayor, hobnobbing with celebrities and bringing millions of dollars in philanthropic money to the city. He persuaded Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to donate $100 million to Newark’s school system in 2010.
Booker was dubbed a superhero in 2012 after he rushed into a neighbor’s burning home and rescued a woman from a fire. His Twitter followers read a mix of inspirational quotes, musings on “Star Trek,” one of Booker’s favorite television shows, and responses to constituent questions about potholes and other mundane issues.
Booker said New Jersey residents have told him to work on economic issues, including New Jersey’s high foreclosure and unemployment rates. He got his committee assignments late Thursday: the commerce, environment and public works and small business committees.
Booker said he has been showered with advice, and plans to take the best of it.
“Be humble, learn as much as you can, but at the end of the day you were elected for a reason. Don’t forget that,” he said in summing up the advice. “Don’t let the Senate change you. Try to change the Senate.”
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