In the final senatorial debate against Republican challenger Steve Lonegan, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, used a popular phrase in an attempt to showcase his city as a hub of economic vitality.
"The most common bird you see in Newark right now is the crane," Booker said.
Lonegan, the former Bogota mayor who feels the development has only come from corporate subsidies, was ready.
"The only birds in Newark are the vultures," he said.
It was great political theater — and a continuation of a running theme in their campaigns as both Booker and Lonegan have attempted to appeal to voters as the business-friendly candidate.
But will the man who gets elected on Wednesday to become New Jersey's next U.S. senator really be in position to have a huge impact on business owners and business development in the state?
David Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, notes the two candidates have clear ideological differences, but he feels their ability to use that ideology on individual events in the state is limited.
"Senators do not have a lot of direct impact," he said in an email, "but of course what does or does not pass Congress in terms of tax policy, regulations and the like obviously affects (New Jersey's) businesses."
Krista Jenkins, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University, agrees. She said that while the role of a U.S. senator is federal by nature, she could "certainly think of instances that are operative at the federal level that certainly trickle down here at the state level."
Jenkins points to health care reform as a good example of how policy born in Washington and crafted by its lawmakers can have a direct effect on how business is done back in the states.
"You can't necessarily separate those things all of the time," Jenkins said.
For the most part, business groups in the state have remained mum on their preference of either Booker or Lonegan. Both the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and the New Jersey Business and Industry Association declined to back either candidate or share thoughts on which might be friendlier to the state's business community.
Chamber spokesperson Scott Goldstein said the organization did not take positions on elections, and NJBIA spokesperson Peter Peretzman added that the association did not tend to involve itself in federal issues.
But Laurie Ehlbeck, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the choice is clear: Lonegan understands how small business works in New Jersey.
"He gets our issues," Ehlbeck said of Lonegan, a former small business owner himself. "He's always been a strong advocate for small business."
The NFIB publicly endorsed Lonegan earlier this month, touting both his views on fiscal conservatism and his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
"Our members agree with Steve that the federal government should operate more like a business, and it shouldn't be so heavily leveraged," Ehlbeck said in her endorsement. "He knows that higher taxes kill jobs and limit growth, and we can count on him to bring fiscal discipline to Washington."
And what about big business?
Ted Zangari, who chairs the redevelopment law practice group at Sills, Cummis & Gross in Newark, said Booker's successes in Newark cannot be understated. And the prospect of having Booker in Washington is an exciting one for New Jersey's development and greater business community because it is a chance for the mayor of a large, urban city to bring with him an active understanding of how business in cities gets done.
"Mayor Booker has just spent the past seven years experimenting in this laboratory called the city of Newark," Zangari said. In Washington, Booker would get the chance to enter a "much larger laboratory," he said.
Zangari added that "there is a meaningful role for the federal government" in New Jersey's business and development community, pointing to federal incentive programs that need to be worked on further. Booker, he said, will have a "direct, tangible appreciation" for what works, and being able to relate his experience in Newark will prove to be "invaluable."
Developer Ron Laddell, senior vice president at Avalon Bay, agrees Booker's persona potentially could make him different.
"Due to Mayor Booker's background, success as mayor of Newark and with the positive notoriety that he has garnered from various regions of the country, Sen. Booker will enter the Senate with tremendous opportunity," he said in an email.
Redlawsk said there may be a perception that New Jersey's upcoming gubernatorial election might instead have a greater direct impact on business in the state, but what happens in Washington often sets the background for how things play out in Trenton.
Redlawsk said examples of tax incentive programs and pension reform in New Jersey showed a governor's pull can still be vital.
"Governors also have limited direct impact on any given state's economy simply because general economic conditions nationally tend to play a bigger role," Redlawsk said. "But a governor does have the ability to direct his administration in whatever direction he wishes and can push the legislature to support him, often with success even if the legislature is of the other party."
But Redlawsk said businesses should take notice of who wins the Senate seat because the stark contrast in their ideologies will translate into corresponding votes that impact commerce at a federal level.
Jenkins said actions will mean more than ideology. Time, she said, will tell whether the state's next U.S. senator will look to define himself as a workhorse or a show horse.
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