Cory Booker: Advancing the Common Good

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By Donald Gilpin

Portrait by Kelly Campbell

An excited crowd was packed into the basement of Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street on a Monday evening in late March. More than 250, standing-room only, a wide variety of ages and backgrounds, chatted, consulted their smartphones, browsed through books laid out on shelves and tables around the room.

You might have thought that at 6 p.m. these busy, tired Princetonians would have been eager to move on—home to families and dinner or out to whatever activity they had planned. You might have thought that the announcement that the speaker had been delayed on Route One coming from Newark would have been met by a certain consternation, maybe groans, annoyance, perhaps even anger as the clock slid past the designated start time to 6:15, then 6:30. You might have thought that, when the speaker finally arrived about 40 minutes late, the crowd would have been a bit irritable, reserved, difficult to warm up.

You might have thought all these things, but you would have been wrong, and you would have been underestimating the relentless charisma of the awaited speaker, New Jersey’s junior senator, Cory Booker, coming to Princeton to promote his new book, United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good.

Loud applause greeted Booker’s arrival, as he descended the stairs and approached the speaker’s platform, 6’3” tall, in dark suit, white shirt and bright green necktie. Booker, the former mayor of Newark (2006-2013), only the fourth African-American in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, the second Rhodes Scholar (after Bill Bradley) to be elected senator from New Jersey, has become something of a pop culture icon. A graduate of Stanford University, then Oxford, then Yale Law School, he has been mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee and is widely rumored to be on Hillary Clinton’s short list for vice presidential running mate.

“And I would dare to say that’s just the beginning,” stated in his introduction Princeton economics professor Alan Krueger after presenting a long list of Booker’s accomplishments. The hearty applause from the audience indicates that they too foresee a bright, busy future for the popular 47-year-old senator.

The Journey

Booker’s parents both worked for IBM, and he was raised in the northern Jersey suburb of Harrington Park. A high school all-American football player at Northern Valley Regional High School, he received a football scholarship to Stanford, where he played tight end, majored in political science, was elected senior class president and led a student-run crisis hotline. After his Rhodes Scholarship year at Queen’s College, Oxford studying history, he went on to earn his law degree at Yale.

During his final year at Yale, Booker moved into Newark’s Central Ward, where he still lives during the part of the week when he’s not in Washington, D.C.

“I was searching for a community in struggle,” he recalls. “I wanted to be in the thick of it, and I wanted to be a lawyer who fought for the rights of those who didn’t have access to the law.” After years of schooling in the most elite settings, Booker suddenly found himself in an unfamiliar environment. His book describes in detail his coming to terms with the danger, the despair and the rewards of life in Newark’s Central Ward.

From the time that he moved into Newark almost twenty years ago, Booker’s life seems to have been a quest to find common ground with people from the most widely diverse segments of American society, to advance the common good, as he says—and, of course, to advance his political career. Newark was a much more difficult fit for him than the privileged worlds of Stanford, Yale and Oxford, but Booker was nothing if not driven and determined.

A year after moving into Newark, he pulled off an upset victory to win a seat on the City Council. He proceeded to try to implement a flurry of changes, but most often found himself the lone vote against all of his fellow Council members. Undaunted, Booker went on a 10-day hunger strike, living in a tent and later a trailer to draw attention to problems of drug dealing and violence in the city.

After losing the 2002 race for mayor of Newark to longtime incumbent Sharpe James, Booker continued his quest and ran again four years later. He won easily and was re-elected in 2010. Facing vast problems in Newark during his seven years as mayor, Booker sought to reduce the city’s crime rate, increase available affordable housing, shrink the budget deficit, eliminate corruption and increase transparency in the city government.

In 2013 he won a special election to fill the vacant Senate seat of the deceased Frank Lautenberg and the following year won a regular election to secure the U.S. Senate seat for a full six-year term.

Super Hero?

Booker has had his many fans and detractors as well, both of whom he vividly describes in United, but there has been little disagreement that he has been dedicated to his mission. As Newark mayor, he frequently patrolled the streets with the Newark Police Department. “I was arrogant enough to think that I would be elected major of Newark and that crime would just stop,” he recalls, “and I was taking every assault, every murder in the city very personally.”

His legend grew as he responded to a constituent’s Twitter plea by showing up himself to help shovel out her elderly father’s driveway; joined the Newark fire department and suffered burns in saving a woman from a house fire; invited Newark residents without power after Hurricane Sandy to stay in his home; rescued one dog from freezing and another who was abandoned in his cage.

Booker makes frequent TV appearances, has starred in a documentary series focusing on his efforts to reduce crime and bring about an economic revival in Newark, is friends with a long list of Who’s Who celebrities from Hollywood to Washington and has established a significant presence on social media with more than 1.6 million Twitter followers.

Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound—is this heroic figure too good to be true? Who would be surprised that Booker, avid reader of comic books as a kid, chooses Superman as his favorite fictional hero? In a phone interview the week before his Princeton appearance in March, Booker admits, “I got a chance to sneak away last Sunday night to the premiere of Batman and Superman. I strongly recommend it. It’s fantastic I’m a bit of a movie addict. I love it.” Is Booker the long-awaited antidote to the squalor, rancor and pessimism of our current political climate?

In his book, his interactions with the crowd of Princeton followers and his comments over the phone, Booker presents himself as more of a fellow-struggler than a hero, an earnest, idealistic motivator with a powerful message of unity rather than an ambitious politician. And whether it’s calculated, genuine or a combination of the two, the self-deprecating, warm sense of humor can win over even the most skeptical listeners. “Where are our federal infrastructure dollars when I need them?” he lamented in apologizing to the Princeton crowd for being delayed in Route One traffic. There were no visible detractors in the audience.

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Promoting Togetherness

In our phone interview, Booker talks about the challenges implicit in the title of his book, the difficulty in finding common ground in this era of anger, divisiveness and partisan politics. “Many people think we’re more divided than we’ve ever been,” he says, “and I want them to understand that’s not the truth of who we are. America has made incredible advancements in every generation when we came together as a nation and overcame obstacles and injustices and strove for greatness. My experience in my lifetime has been to be inspired and encouraged by those who were uniters who awakened us to our interdependence, and that’s going on in neighborhoods, towns and cities all across our nation.”

He goes on to discuss his work in the divided U.S. Senate. “I set out not to be the Democratic senator, but to be the senator who could deliver, who could get things done. This is a divided body, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to establish relationships with people on both sides of the aisle. I feel that’s become very fruitful for me being able to deliver for New Jersey, whether it’s with Ted Cruz, passing legislation to help our public radio stations, or getting the rail tunnel under the Hudson back on track, or providing access to brain injury centers, I feel very blessed that working across the aisle we’ve been able to get a lot of things done.”

Booker talks about the need to summon the country’s “collective will” to address the issues that he sees as the biggest tests of our time. “Can we persuade politicians to help raise the minimum wage, to have paid parental leave, to have a tax policy that’s more fair, to create more opportunity programs?” he asks rhetorically. “We can do a lot more to grow our economy and to give people a fair shot at the American Dream. These are policy decisions.”

In emphasizing a theme of his book, Booker addresses the question of how to respond to the frustrations of the current political landscape. “There’s a lot of things we’re not doing in Washington,” he said. “You can either surrender to the criticism or you can decide to change that. Despite divisiveness, despite the challenges and partisanship, I hope to inspire others, reaffirm my values and recommit myself. This is what we have to do. We have to fight for common ground.”

Sounding part-preacher, part-politician, Booker observes, “It’s not just about Washington. Washington follows where the nation is. It’s about who we are as individuals and the spirit we bring to our lives. That’s something I don’t just talk about in the book but actually show.”

Failure and Success

In his book and in his conversations, Booker talks frankly and humbly about his missteps in pursuing his idealistic goals, particularly in his early days in Newark. ”A lot of the book,” he relates, “is me writing about mistakes I made, being a jerk. A lot of the mistakes I made really helped me learn very valuable lessons. A lot of my mistakes there really showed me a better way to make change as I go about my work in the Senate.”

Krueger, in his introductory remarks at Labyrinth, described United as “a beautifully written book. It is told with passion and compassion. The book tells the story of Senator Booker’s journey and it’s a remarkable journey, and it’s one that brings our nation together.”

Booker’s warm, often self-deprecating sense of humor is strongly evident in the book as in his speech. “My dad was a comedian,” Booker says. “He got by on his quick wit and his gift of gab. And yet he had a tough childhood.” And, except maybe for the childhood part, Booker could say the same about himself—both father and son, adept practitioners of the comedian’s art.

The memoir is rich in both light and dark tones. “I hope my book is inspiring,” he says, but I also hope that I didn’t pull punches and that I told the truth” And that truth is full of brokenness and failure and death, as he talks about the death of his father, and of close friends in his community in Newark, including a young man who lived downstairs from him in Brick Towers. “I found that the best things to talk about in the book were either moments when I was getting my comeuppance or moments when I was broken by this country, by circumstances in this nation.”

But Booker’s unwavering response to the darkness is optimism, as he urges, “We must use our lives with courageous love. Every moment we have a choice—to accept things as they are or to accept responsibility for trying to change them.”

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Elections 2016

In discussing the primaries, Booker, who has made a number of campaign speeches for Hillary Clinton, once again embraces the positive, at least on the Democratic side. “I celebrate the primaries we’re having. It’s a wonderful engagement of ideas between the candidates. It’s been a good contest,” he says. “Unfortunately what we’re seeing in the Republican Party now is disappointing and often discouraging.”

He emphasizes his support for Clinton, “I’m campaigning very hard for her. I’m a believer. She’s somebody who’s proven herself over decades and her commitment to serving the less fortunate, the marginalized in our country. She’s somebody I trust who can make a difference for our country on the issues that matter.”

Expressing his admiration for Bernie Sanders and predicting a unified Party after the convention, Booker goes on to state, “We have two great candidates, and I think that Senator Sanders, whom I’ve served with, understands the urgency of what’s at stake, especially if Trump becomes the nominee. The urgency is there for Democrats to win in this election, and I’m confident they will come together.“
Call for Action

Eager to promote his positive message, Booker reflects on the future of the Democratic Party. “Our party has a stronger message for our economy, for education, for innovation and growth,” he states. “The Democratic Party has shown time and time again how the economy recovers and grows strong under a Democratic president and is often driven into a ditch with a Republican President.” But, despite the fact that the two baby boomer-generation Democratic candidates are aging and he is a generation younger, Booker is unwilling to address his own political ambitions, vice presidential or otherwise.

“Absolutely not,” he says. “My next election isn’t until 2020 for the Senate. I feel really blessed to be where I am and to focus on the job at hand for New Jersey. The focus for me is regaining the Senate for the Democrats and seeing Hillary Clinton get elected.”

In summing up his thoughts about the difficulties and opportunities in the 2016 election season, Booker invokes Martin Luther King, urging people to get involved. “For a lot of people who don’t like what’s going on,” Booker says, “the way to combat that is not just to condemn it, to be stuck in a state of what I call sedentary agitation, but to get up and do something about it, to match their negativity with your political action. You have to match their darkness with your light.”

He continues, “I have often said that our nation needs more poets. We have to find a way to prick the moral imagination of our country. I hope this will be an election when we don’t give in to the demagogues and the derision and instead rise to more engagement, more activism and strive towards justice.…There’s no presidential candidate who’s going to ride in and solve the challenges we have. There has to be an expansion of our moral imagination of who we are, followed by a courageousness of action that we’ve seen at so many points in our history.”

In the conclusion to the chapter of his book titled “Ms. Virginia Jones,” Booker talks about the lessons he learned from Ms. Jones, the 68-year-old president of the tenants’ association at Brick Towers in the Central Ward of Newark, where he lived for eight years: “For Ms. Jones, hope was relational. It didn’t exist in the abstract. Hope confronts. It does not ignore pain, agony or injustice. It is not a saccharine optimism that refuses to see, face or grapple with the wretchedness of reality. You can’t have hope without despair, because hope is a response. Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word.”

Wherever his future leads him, Cory Booker, pursuing his mission to find common ground and advance the common good, means to make sure that despair does not have the last word.