Years before Bill Stepien became one of Donald Trump’s top political advisers, he helped launch a behind-the-scenes effort backing an underdog Democratic candidacy: Cory Booker’s bid to become Newark mayor.
Stepien is now a top White House advisor, and Booker is seeking the Democratic nomination to oust his boss.
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The GOP push in 2002 to help Booker, then a city councilman in the state’s largest city, against then-Newark Mayor Sharpe James was one of the earliest signs of the kind of bipartisan alliances Booker, a two-term senator, would later form.
Those alliances helped him become a rising political star and in-demand guest speaker — but haven’t helped him in a crowded primary field fueled in part by anger and a resurgent progressive wing of the Democratic Party, as his poll numbers remain in the single-digits.
Though that initial Republican endeavor failed, Booker would become mayor of Newark four years later and continue to build partnerships with politicians and activists across the political spectrum, from Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to Wall Street bigwigs to serving on the board of a pro-school voucher group with now-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Booker maintained a warm relationship with Christie, who, like him was a big believer in expanding charter schools. He refused to criticize Christie during the Bridgegate scandal or when Christie became the most unpopular governor in state history. More recently, when Booker’s Democratic colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee tore into then-judicial nominee Paul Matey — a former Christie administration official — over an array of Christie administration scandals, the New Jersey Democrat wouldn’t join them.
In May 2002, Stepien — who did not did not comment in response to text messages and phone calls seeking comment — filed paperwork to form a PAC called Citizens for a Better Essex County (where Newark is located), designating himself treasurer. The purpose, according to the description in the filings, was to “improve Essex County government.” But it was really an effort to independently help Booker’s bid against James, Newark’s longtime incumbent mayor, who ran a formidable political machine and was accused of using the city’s resources to his own political benefit.
Though James and Booker are Democrats, and Newark is overwhelmingly Democratic, its municipal races are technically nonpartisan. But the PAC spent about $15,000, mostly on mailers aimed at helping turn out Newark’s several thousand registered Republican voters for Booker.
In the Senate, Booker has sought out Republicans to make common cause, for instance, sponsoring a major criminal justice reform bill with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Among those involved in the 2002 PAC was Mike DuHaime, then a Republican operative in his late 20s who years later would go on to become chief strategist for Christie. So was Bill Baroni, a Republican attorney who was later elected to the New Jersey General Assembly, then the state Senate.
“I looked at it as someone who basically says, I love the state and care about the state, and I basically thought that Sharpe James shouldn’t be mayor anymore. Booker should be,” DuHaime said in a phone interview. “It was a nonpartisan race and, given these two choices, Cory would certainly be the better option of running the biggest city of the state.”
“I tried to get something together that would get Republicans to turn out,” DuHaime said. “We did some mail and door-to-door efforts. I don’t know how impactful it was, but we tried to let people know there was an alternative out there to Sharpe James.”
POLITICO could not obtain copies of the mailers, but they’re referred to in a book titled, “The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America.” One flyer was titled “Cory Booker: Restoring Newark’s Promise.” Another was “Cory Booker: Fiscal Responsibility for Newark.”
DuHaime, Baroni and Stepien all worked for the late Republican New Jersey Rep. Bob Franks. All three would later take on high profile roles with Christie: Stepien as campaign manager and deputy chief of staff, DuHaime as his chief campaign strategist and Baroni as his hand-picked deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Baroni, who was one of two people convicted for playing a role in the Bridgegate scandal, began serving an 18-month prison sentence this week. Stepien, who was also caught up in the scandal but was never charged with a crime, was Trump’s political director and is now working on his 2020 reelection campaign.
Whether the PAC had any influence in driving Newark’s few Republicans to the polls in 2002 is unclear. But even if it did, it wasn’t enough. Booker lost that election, which was immortalized in the 2005 documentary “Street Fight,“ which helped propel him to national fame. Booker went on to be elected Newark’s mayor four years later, and in 2013 won a special election to the U.S. Senate, after the death of Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
The PAC was funded by just three people who each gave about $5,000, according to the single donor disclosure form it filed: Republican fundraiser Candace Straight, her late mother, Dorothy, and investment banker Steve Distler.
Straight at the time was running as a Republican candidate for Essex County executive.
“The guys asked me to support Cory. I did by trying to get the Republican vote out. And I hoped that if it energized Republicans they’d come out and vote for me,” Straight said in an interview, adding that she also wanted someone to challenge James because she thought he was “a crook.” (James was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2008).
Asked whether Booker knew about the PAC’s activities, Straight said, “my belief was he was aware of it, but I have no actual knowledge of that.” She said Victor Herlinsky, a Democratic lawyer and longtime Booker fundraiser, was aware of her involvement.
Herlinsky did not return a call seeking comment.
A spokeswoman for the Booker presidential campaign did not return a call and email seeking comment.