by Michael Symons, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press
TRENTON, N.J. - Cory Booker says he's straight but doesn't mind questions about his sexuality because it challenges people's prejudices about gay people - a stance the scotch-drinking, cigar-smoking Steve Lonegan deems "kind of weird."
Speculation about Booker's sexuality - specifically, that the Newark, N.J., mayor is gay but keeping that a secret - took center stage in the Senate campaign this week. In a series of interviews with national media outlets, Booker and Lonegan raised the temperature in the special-election campaign with comments about an issue that has trailed Booker, who is single, since he first ran for office in Newark.
Booker, a Democrat, generally doesn't answer when asked about his sexuality, but in interviews has referred to former girlfriends and dating women. In a July 22 interview with Gannett New Jersey newspapers' editorial boards, he noted he is "a voice for marriage equality that had me the national speaker in Washington, as a straight male, the national speaker for the Human Rights Campaign."
This week, in an interview with The Washington Post, Booker, 44, talked about his "great dismay" that he has not "settled down with a life partner." He said he has been dating more at the encouragement of a pastor friend but tries to keep that part of his life private.
"Because how unfair is it to a young lady to put them in the spotlight if they haven't signed up for that yet?" Booker said. "And people who think I'm gay, some part of me thinks it's wonderful. Because I want to challenge people on their homophobia. I love seeing on Twitter when someone says I'm gay, and I say, 'So what does it matter if I am? So be it. I hope you are not voting for me because you are making the presumption that I'm straight.' "
That's not how Booker responded Wednesday on Twitter.
He told one person who had asked him about the rumor he's gay, using derogatory language, that, "Your bigotry is no less heinous than race bigotry." When another person encouraged Booker not to lower himself by responding to such comments, Booker wrote back, "Hate filled Trolls need to be called out."
In an interview Tuesday with Newsmax, Lonegan called Booker's remarks to The Washington Post "kind of weird." The Republican said he didn't know whether Booker is gay. The two square off in an Oct. 16 special election that will decide who will serve out the term, ending in January 2015, of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died June 3. In recent polls about the race, Booker has an almost 20-percentage-point lead, according to Real Clear Politics.
"It's kind of weird. As a guy, I personally like being a guy. I don't know if you saw the stories last year. They've been out for quite a bit about how he likes to go out at 3 o'clock in the morning for a manicure and a pedicure," Lonegan said.
Lonegan was referring to an interview Booker did last summer with a newly launched magazine, Du Jour, in which he talked about getting manicures and pedicures. Lonegan said his team looked but was unable to locate such a business in Newark that is open 24 hours a day.
"Maybe that helps to get him the gay vote, by acting ambiguous. That I can't address," Lonegan said.
"All I know is I don't like going out in the middle of the night, or any time of the day, for a manicure and pedicure," Lonegan said. "It was described as his peculiar fetish, is how it was described. I have a more peculiar fetish. I like a good Scotch and a cigar. That's my fetish, but we'll just compare the two."
Du Jour didn't refer to it as a fetish, rather as "a little personal vanity."
"I had an ex-girlfriend who ruined me in terms of my macho, ex-football-player self - she turned me on to mani-pedis," Booker told the magazine. "Being a public figure, people talk smack about you, so I found this 24-hour mani-pedi place and go in the middle of the night. It's this guilty pleasure I have. Look, manis are good, but pedis - there's something ... transformative."
Booker called Lonegan's comments "unacceptable" in an interview Wednesday with the Huffington Post.
"That's just sad. Honestly, that's just really sad. It's just disheartening to hear somebody, in this day and age in the United States of America, say, basically implicate, that gay men are not men, that they're not guys. It's shocking to one's conscience," Booker said. "That kind of callous, bigoted disrespect to gays and lesbians shouldn't be tolerated."
Democrats sought to broaden the controversy by drawing in Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who has endorsed Lonegan. Lonegan ran against Christie in the 2009 GOP primary for governor; Lonegan was mayor of Bogota, N.J., from 1995 to 2007 and former state director of Americans for Prosperity.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Sen. Barbara Buono said, "It is despicable that in 2013 he would claim that being gay means you cannot fit his outdated, 1950s-era definition of manliness" and encouraged Christie to denounce the comments and rescind his endorsement.
Christie, at an appearance in Sea Bright, N.J., said Buono is "looking to get attention for anything" and brushed off calls to not endorse Lonegan.
"I certainly don't agree with every utterance out of his mouth," Christie said but also said he agrees with Lonegan on a core group of ideas.
Lonegan's comments prompted a pointed response from the leader of the gay-rights group Garden State Equality.
"What does it say to our youth when a candidate for the United States Senate goes on national television and makes blatantly homophobic comments?" asked Troy Stevenson, the group's executive director.
Contributing: Susanne Cervenka, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press