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ASBURY PARK, N.J. — As Newark's mayor, Cory Booker became known for a hands-on approach to governing. He invited residents without power after Superstorm Sandy to stay at his home. He responded to a neighbor's house fire and delivered diapers to a snowed-in constituent.
Booker says New Jersey voters who sent him to the U.S. Senate in a special election two weeks ago can expect more of the same. He will be sworn in to office Thursday by Vice President Joe Biden at the U.S. Capitol.
"I'm going to run around the state like I did running around the city as mayor," Booker said. "I think I'll be running around to all four corners of our state looking to serve people in very practical ways to show them I'm hard working, very involved, and will work above and beyond the call of duty."
Booker's hard-fought victory over tea party favorite Steve Lonegan earned a truncated term. Political analysts say Booker will have his work cut out over the next year establishing himself in Washington and preparing for a November 2014 re-election for a full six-year term.
The special election was held to fill the final year of the term of Frank Lautenberg, who died in June.
"I will take Booker's promise to work hard in the Senate at face value. He will definitely garner a great deal of attention as the Senate's only African-American Democrat," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate elections for the Cook Political Report. "The leadership wants him to stump and fund-raise for other candidates.''
David Redlawsk, a Rutgers University political science professor, said it's difficult to predict how Booker will fit in with his Senate colleagues.
"He's certainly not going to avoid cameras, but I don't know if he'll seek them out," Redlawsk said. "There are 99 other senators to compete with, and he may find that being a legislator is lot different than being a mayor."
Booker's focus at first may not necessarily be on federal issues. He said he'd like to target crime problems in his home state and advocate for criminal-justice reforms.
"Back here in New Jersey, there's a lot of things I want to do right out of the blocks to help folks. We have a strategy to get guns off the streets that actually worked really well in Newark and I've already talked to people in Camden and Trenton about it, and I've talked to the mayor of Jersey City (Steven Fulop) about prisoner re-entry and things we can do to help empower people and reduce crime in that city," Booker said. "The great thing is, now that I'm a statewide elected official, I can go around and be of assistance in ways that make a measurable difference in a very practical way."
Redlawsk and Duffy said Booker could be groomed by top Democrats for future possibilities, such as a return to New Jersey to run for governor in 2017, but Booker downplayed what potentially is ahead.
"My long-term plan is to be a United States senator for the time that the residents of this state allow me to do that. I think you really weaken your ability to contribute if you begin to think about other offices and not where you are," Booker said.
Booker's father, Cary, died a week before the election after a long bout with Parkinson's disease. He was 76. Booker said memories of his father will be strong at the swearing-in ceremony.
"I think it will be a wonderful afternoon. As my dad would say if he was here, 'Son, when you put that hand up, as soon as it goes down, you better work hard every single moment,'" he said.