WATERLOO, Iowa ― New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s favorite presidential campaign-trail yarn ― and he has a lot of them ― is about how his parents, two of IBM’s first black executives, overcame housing market discrimination to raise him and his brother in a predominantly white neighborhood in one of his state’s suburbs.
As an adult, Booker likes to recall, he asked Arthur Lessman, the white lawyer who helped his parents outsmart a racist real estate agent, why the attorney was inspired to do it. It turned out that Lessman had volunteered his services after watching television one day in 1965 when the normal programming was interrupted by breaking footage of Alabama state troopers brutally bludgeoning black civil rights activists marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.
Recounting the tale Friday afternoon to an audience of about 100 Democrats at a community college in Waterloo, Booker marveled at the far-reaching power of individual political sacrifices. It’s a testament, he declared with excitement in his voice, to his deeply held belief that “love is a radical force.”
The marchers in Selma “stood up for love of country and unleashed that energy and it instantaneously leapt a thousand miles and changed the heart of one man on a couch in New Jersey, who then would go on and change generations not yet born,” he said. “I am here right now because of that chain reaction.”
On the same weekend that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) officially launched her presidential campaign with a pledge to “fight back” against the “class warfare” waged by the super-rich against the rest of the country, Booker laid out a progressive vision of a different sort.
Rather than embrace a populist dichotomy that pits the broader American public against a common enemy ― an “us” against a proverbial “them” ― Booker focuses almost entirely on the “us” ― on an affinity for his fellow Americans and their historic capacity for self-improvement.
Booker, a 49-year-old graduate of Yale Law School, is fond of calling the United States’ forefathers “imperfect geniuses” for founding the country on Enlightenment ideals of humanism and liberal democracy even as they themselves clung to a narrow definition of who was truly human and who was not.
I was looking for a positive antidote to the poison that Trump puts out ― and I heard it. Tom Swartz, former Iowa state representative, referring to Booker
In this narrative, the cure for President Donald Trump’s racial demagoguery, cynicism and general nastiness is not simply to fight back with anger directed at corporate and political elites, but to follow Arthur Lessman’s lead and respond with compassionate patriotism.
“If we stand up with that energy, if we stand up with that force, if we stand with that love in America, I tell you this, we will rise,” he concluded his remarks to applause at a packed brewery in Marshalltown on Saturday.
Unsurprisingly, Booker’s appeals to America’s better angels recalled for many Iowans who saw him the rhetoric of former President Barack Obama, who, as a White House candidate in 2008, asked his countrymen to continue the founders’ work of forming a “more perfect union.”
The question is whether, in an era of an emboldened activist left skeptical of Obama’s optimistic outlook and appetite for bipartisan compromise, Booker is the man rank-and-file Democrats want to nominate for the top job.
On Booker’s first campaign swing since announcing his plans to seek the presidency on Feb. 1, voters mostly warmed to his pitch.
“I was looking for a positive antidote to the poison that Trump puts out ― and I heard it,” said Tom Swartz, 71, a former state representative who heard Booker speak in Marshalltown.
After the speech, Sue Blaisdell, 69, a homemaker who has read several of Warren’s books, wanted to hear more from Booker about how he planned to help struggling farmers. (Booker had referenced leveraging antitrust policy to help farmers; he supports enacting a moratorium on agribusiness mergers.)
But Blaisdell said she appreciated his positive message and its contrast with Trump’s invective.
“It probably is the one most important thing a candidate needs to do to get my vote,” Blaisdell said.
‘I Had To Run Something’
Booker joins the already crowded field of Democratic presidential contenders ― which includes several of his Senate colleagues. Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) have announced their candidacies; Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are still mulling runs.
Booker, whose mother’s family hails from the now-deserted Iowa mining town of Buxton, made clear that he plans to fiercely compete in the state where the balloting kicks off in the presidential race. Few White House contenders have won their party’s nomination without placing in the top three in the Iowa caucuses.
“My story is your story,” he told Democrats in Marshalltown, recounting his Iowa-based ancestors journey out of poverty and into the working class.
Many of the Iowans who came to hear Booker speak knew him already from his dramatic, televised confrontations with Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings last year.
He burnished his credentials among many Democrats when he released a memo Kavanaugh had written on racial profiling after the Republican-controlled committee refused to publicize it and barred Booker from questioning the nominee about it. On a less positive note, he dramatically referred to the flap as providing him a “Spartacus moment,” a reference that left observers quizzical.
Regardless, the hearings gave him a level of name recognition that Gillibrand, for instance, perhaps lacked when she made her first visit to Iowa as a presidential contender in January. And with his partisan bona fides already solid, one way Booker sought to distinguish himself this weekend from the pack based on his experience as mayor of Newark, an impoverished city where he held the top job from 2007 to 2013.
“I had to run something,” Booker said in Marshalltown. “And it wasn’t just something. It was a very challenged city. I had to manage it through the worst economic crisis of our lifetime. I had to stand in the saddle and make difficult, difficult decisions.”
The experience, which required Booker to work for several years with then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), imbued him with a pragmatism and appetite for bipartisan cooperation that he believes benefited him in the Senate.
Booker recalled at his various Iowa stops how a particular Republican senator spoke out against his proposals to reform the criminal justice system, before revealing to his listeners, with a smile, that it was their very own Sen. Chuck Grassley. At a Des Moines event, some in the audience booed at the mention of Grassley, which Booker admonished them against doing.
Grassley, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, can make or break any proposed legislative changes to the country’s system of law enforcement and incarceration.
Rather than respond by attacking Grassley over the issue, Booker said he made his case to him exhaustively behind closed doors. The result of their collaboration was the passage of the bipartisan First Step Act in December, which makes the most significant changes to the criminal justice system since the 1990s. Among other things, the bill expanded in-prison job training and reduced mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
“Some people in this election are going to tell you we are going to fight fire with fire,” Booker said, referring to partisan sniping. “Well, I ran a fire department. That’s not going to be a constructive strategy.”
Shrugging Off Criticism From The Left
Of course, Booker’s tenure as Newark mayor is also the source of some of his harshest criticism from the left. He courted Wall Street to help redevelop the city and subsequently spoke up against an ad released by Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012 because the spot blasted Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s work in private equity. As of now, he does not use the term “Wall Street” ― a favorite target of attack among his party’s other White House contenders. (He is quick to point out that he has supported aggressive financial regulation and voted against the 2017 rollback of key elements of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law.)
In his efforts to improve Newark’s troubled public schools, Booker championed the introduction of charter schools, which progressives lambaste for undermining labor unions and the concept of education as a public good.
Booker’s embrace of charter schools has followed him into Congress. He addressed a convention sponsored by a charter school chain in New Orleans in January at a time when public school teachers in Los Angeles were on strike, partly in opposition to pro-charter school policies.
In addition, Booker has faced questions about his willingness to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry, which has an outsize presence in New Jersey. He drew progressive ire for voting against a resolution in favor of allowing prescription drug re-importation from Canada two years ago.
Booker subsequently worked overtime to prove his bona fides on the issue, foreswearing donations from pharmaceutical industry political action committees and top executives in June 2017. He is also a co-sponsor of the most ambitious drug price legislation in Congress, including a bill he introduced with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that would deprive drug companies of their patents if they failed to offer prescription drugs at the prices for which they sell them in other developed nations.
In Iowa, Booker did not get many tough questions from voters about his ties to Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry or even his support for public charter schools.
Time and again, Booker nonetheless opted to lean into his perceived weaknesses, particularly on public education. He lamented attacks on public educators and their labor unions, promising higher pay, more staffing and universal preschool, as well as a more equitable tax code to finance those priorities.
Rather than mention charter schools explicitly, the former mayor alluded to his openness to the alternative education institutions with a colorful metaphor.
“I was like Malcolm X — by any means necessary, [the children of Newark] were going to get an education,” he said at a panel discussion in the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids on Friday evening.
At the same time, Booker did not run away from the stances that clearly put him in a more moderate category on economic policy than a Sanders or a Warren.
He admitted at the Cedar Rapids event that prior to passage of the Republican tax cut bill in late 2017, he believed the top corporate tax rate was too high. But rather than lower it to 21 percent from 35 percent, as the GOP measure did, he would have left it at 25 or 26 percent.
And in a conversation that night about climate policy in Iowa City, he described nuclear energy as part of the solution.
Booker was keen to emphasize that action on what he sees as the country’s most urgent priorities ― such as universal health coverage and addressing climate change ― would require either compromise with Republicans or a “blue tsunami” big enough to grant Democrats a filibuster-proof 60-vote supermajority in the Senate.
Booker is a co-sponsor of Sanders’ Medicare for All legislation, which would replace private health insurance with a federal single-payer program. But on two occasions in Iowa, he suggested that the bill is an aspiration unlikely to be realized in the near future, given the constraints of GOP numbers in the Senate.
Single-payer health care “is a goal we should shoot at,” he told a crowd of 500 people at Kum & Go Theater in Des Moines on Saturday.
In the interim, he proposed backing a Medicare buy-in or lowering Medicare’s eligibility age to 55 or 50.
What Booker did not volunteer in his discussion is that he not only opposes efforts to abolish the filibuster in the Senate, he has promised to personally defend the practice if it came under assault.
Still, many of the Democrats who attended Booker’s events seemed either unaware of Booker’s deviations from progressive orthodoxy or relatively unbothered by it after hearing him speak.
Shawn Harmsen, a 46-year-old journalism professor, hosted a campaign gathering for Booker at his home in Iowa City, where he prominently displayed a blue “I [heart] public educators” sign on his front lawn. Harmsen wants to know more about Booker’s support for charter schools, but held out the possibility that such educational alternatives might be acceptable in circumstances “where you have minority communities who are tired of waiting for the public school system.”
Roberta Rosheim, a 69-year-old retired school teacher and union activist, and her husband, David, 74, a seller of rare books, went into Booker’s Des Moines town hall skeptical. Roberta had read about his support for charter schools and his past receipt of pharmaceutical industry money.
But Roberta said they emerged “impressed.”
David added, “I thought he came out very much for public education.”
The fate of Booker’s presidential bid may rise or fall on his ability to thread the needle of his message and convert such voters.