Cory Booker’s Silicon Valley cash

An NYT story details how the Newark mayor uses his elite connections for personal gain

The New York Times’s disturbing story on Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s ties with Silicon Valley is what 21st century corruption looks like.

Booker, the leading Democratic candidate for an open New Jersey Senate seat, has been moonlighting as chairman of yet another social video startup thing—one with the backing of plutocrat patrons like Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, Oprah, and Reid Hoffman, who also give campaign donations to the rising political star.

That blatant cronyism has given public servant Booker an asset called Waywire, which is supposedly worth between $1 million and $5 million, and which he forgot to disclose in his campaign filings until recently (it’s unclear if the disclosure came because of an impending NYT story or if the NYT story came because of the disclosure). Booker also took months to respond to Star-Ledger requests earlier this year regarding how much money he’s made giving speeches. That turned out to be $1.3 million, half of which he has given to local charities.

But the Waywire story is just bananas. Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter guru meets up with a Gilt Group exec and the mayor of Newark in a New Jersey diner to ask the mayor to “found the company,” of which he’ll be the biggest shareholder. Google’s Schmidt is its first investor. Oprah kicks in some coin. It’s variously a “site for video-hungry teenagers and a platform to bring people of political passion together,” in the Times’s words. It has already laid off a bunch of employees and abandoned its Manhattan (not Newark, notably) office space.

The site is going nowhere, as Quartz’s Tim Fernholz writes:

Just over a year old, Waywire has no discernible revenue and has already seen its first round of lay-offs. Initial press reports pegged it as a “platform for teens” or maybe a “socially conscious Youtube,” but after a year its founders seem to have settled on “Pinterest for video.” Sweet value add, except that Chill is already a Pinterest for video, Telly is a Pinterest for video, RockPack is also a Pinterest for video, and oh yeah, Pinterest is already a Pinterest for video.

Check it out yourself. Point is, Booker will still owe Schmidt & Co. favors even when it goes under.

The kicker, if you weren’t already convinced that this story wasn’t about blatant influence-peddling? The advisory board (which of course includes Jeff Jarvis, who’s touted Waywire as “CurrentTV done right”) also includes the 15-year-old son of CNN President Jeff Zucker. “Included,” I should say. Young Zucker resigned in the wake of the NYT’s story and turned in his stock options.

There’s more color here from the Times, believe it or not. Booker’s Waywire cofounder, the Kutcher Twitter guru gives the Times these gems:

She said she has wondered how the civil rights movement might have been different had the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had access to Twitter. “Social media is a movement,” she said, “and Cory Booker is a leader in this movement”…

“Cory is the inspiration architect,” Ms. Ross said. “He really is the thought-leader soul part of the business.”

That is some world-class Silicon Valley mumbo-jumbo right there. But Booker is right up there with her:

In a telephone interview, Mr. Booker deflected questions about his financial interest. Instead he stressed that he was drawn to exploring technology because he believes it can be, among other things, a democratizing force.

“What was exciting to me was that it was expanding entrepreneurial, economic, and educational opportunities for so many,” he said.

Booker, it’s worth remembering, is the same politician who leaped to the defense of the poor put-upon private-equity sector during the presidential campaign.

What Fernholz aptly says “epitomizes the incestuous back-scratching intersection of tech start-ups, politics, and wishful thinking,” and I’d say that’s being kind.

Great work by the Times.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,