Democratic presidential hopeful and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker passionately defended his reliance on the fundraising prowess of two controversial Garden State political bosses during tough questioning at a presidential candidate question-and-answer session hosted by the Working Families Party in Las Vegas on Tuesday evening.
Tim Merrill, an African American pastor in Camden, New Jersey, asked Booker whether he would give back the reported $470,000 that he received at a June fundraiser hosted by insurance executive George Norcross and Essex County Executive Joseph “Joe D.” DiVincenzo. Norcross and DiVincenzo are the Democratic Party bosses in South and North Jersey, respectively. (The Booker campaign disputes the size of the haul from the fundraiser.)
Merrill prefaced his question with an indictment of Norcross’ influence on the state’s tax incentive program, which reportedly prevented the development of a full-service supermarket in Camden, an impoverished city with few stores that sell affordable fresh food, for the benefit of other developers with ties to Norcross. Norcross is engaged in a bitter battle with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat elected in 2017 who has sought to overhaul the state’s 2013 tax incentive law, setting up a task force to investigate it and vetoing legislation that would have renewed it in its current form. (Murphy’s task force found that $1.1 billion out of $1.6 billion in tax incentives granted by the state in Camden went to businesses or nonprofits associated with Norcross.)
“I don’t agree with your characterization of how much resources this individual raised for my campaign,” Booker responded without elaborating.
The Booker campaign did not have its own estimate of the money raised by the Norcross-DiVincenzo fundraiser, which required guests to pledge $2,800 ― the maximum amount an individual can contribute in each stage of an election cycle. HuffPost’s analysis of federal election filings found that Booker raised just over $125,000 in increments of $2,800 or more from donors in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania on the day of the fundraiser and the two days afterward.
In his response Tuesday evening, Booker went on to discuss the ways he is seeking to prevent perceived conflicts of interest in his presidential campaign. He does not accept donations from corporate PACs, federal lobbyists or pharmaceutical company executives.
“A lot of the issues that you’re talking about I know are playing out in state politics, but I’m going to tell you the things that I can also do to help Camden succeed as president of the United States,” he continued. He went on to outline his plans to ensure affordable housing by, among other things, enacting a tax deduction for renters, and to reform agriculture policy so that processed junk food doesn’t end up being cheaper than fresh produce.
“We’re incentivizing food systems that empower communities to end food deserts once and for all in our country,” he said.
Maurice Mitchell, the executive director of the Working Families Party and host of the forum, followed up, pressing Booker on whether he at least understood the calls to return the money, given some of Norcross and DiVincenzo’s activities and rhetoric. He noted that Norcross, who’s called himself a conservative Democrat, is a member of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, and that DiVincenzo rents out part of a county jail to the federal government to serve as an immigrant detention center.
A visibly emotional Booker responded by defending his alliance with DiVincenzo in particular as essential to effecting change for his constituents when he was mayor of Newark.
“When I needed help, when I was mayor … our city was in the middle of a recession, was in economic free fall and we were facing decisions, no good decisions. Joe D. was one of those guys that was there for me that helped us get out of binds,” he said. “When I had communities that needed parks, you could go around Newark, we had the largest parks expansion in a century in our city during a recession and it stabilized some communities.”
“I could go through the things from housing that he was a partner of mine in to education ― our county schools now and our county college, the resources and the turnaround,” he added.
Booker expressed his frustration at some Democrats who he argued would never have taken on his mission of moving to and seeking to improve a city as troubled as Newark, but were nonetheless critical of the way he sometimes built uneasy alliances to advance his constituents’ interests.
“When the globe has a recession, inner cities have depression-like circumstances. And you find partners who may not align 100% but deliver real results for your community ― that’s what I’m always going to do,” he said. “I’m always going to be on the side of making progress for folks.”
He likened his work with DiVincenzo to his collaboration with then-Republican Gov. Chris Christie, whom he needed to sign off on the creation of new urban farms, for example.
“I could have held a press conference every day blasting him and it actually would have helped my politics,” he said. “But I had to build housing. I had to create jobs. I had creative ideas.”
Booker conceded that he “might not actually” agree with DiVincenzo about keeping the immigration detention facility open, but he noted that the Essex County leader has begun opening it up to visits from activists.
Scrutiny on the detention center has risen amid reports of human rights abuses perpetrated at the facility. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency deported a Ghanaian immigrant to New York City earlier this month despite the man’s allegation that two Essex County corrections offers had assaulted and raped him during his detention at the county jail.
The Working Families Party has been supportive of Gov. Murphy’s effort to clean up the state’s tax incentive system and publicly called on Booker not to attend the June fundraiser hosted by Norcross and DiVincenzo.
On Wednesday, Joe Dinkin, a spokesman for the progressive group, which is interviewing candidates as part of its endorsement process, said it was “up to our members to determine whether his answer was satisfactory.”
“In their pursuit of wealth or power, George Norcross and Joe D. have left real human suffering in their wake,” Dinkin said. “We continue to hope Senator Booker will reconsider his relationships with New Jersey’s political bosses.”
The criticism of Booker’s ties to Norcross and DiVincenzo in some ways reflects the inherent challenges of building a career in New Jersey’s rough-and-tumble political environment, where old-fashioned patronage remains the dominant currency. Christie, the last New Jerseyite to run for president, saw his White House hopes dashed largely due to a scandal in which his aides caused a traffic jam by the George Washington Bridge to punish a local Democratic mayor who did not endorse Christie’s 2013 re-election bid.
Booker, 50, has struggled to break out of the single digits in polls of the early primary and caucus states. But he has received donations from over 130,000 individual donors and exceeded 2% in enough voter surveys to qualify for the September Democratic debate.
This story has been updated to include that the Booker campaign’s disputes how much money was raised at the Norcross-DiVincenzo fundraiser, as well as HuffPost’s own analysis of federal election fundraising filings.