By: Rebecca Johnson
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has spent more than six years in the Senate evolving from a moderate defending private equity to a significant progressive voice on issues like gun licensing, marijuana legalization, and criminal justice reform.
Like many still standing in a crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates, Booker needs his campaign to gain traction before the primaries kick off in Iowa in just over two months time.
Booker is currently polling at just 2 percent nationally, but that doesn’t concern the senator.
In September, Booker told The New Yorker, “I want to just talk about polls first, because we polled everywhere from two to six per cent, usually around No. 6 in all the polls. But the one thing that most folks know—and it’s the truth of my life, your life—is that nobody in the Democratic Party who’s ever been polling ahead right now in a Presidential race has ever gone on to be President. The people we’ve elected—Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama—were all considered long shots, some of them barely registering in the polls, who then went on to an upset, usually in Iowa or New Hampshire, and then go on to the nomination.”
Cory Booker knows all about uphill battles and being the center of attention.
Booker’s activism was influenced by parents who were among the first African American executives at IBM. After his parents moved from Washington, D.C. to a mostly white suburban town in New Jersey, Booker was elected to the student government council and became a standout football player. After attending Stanford University in California, Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar, and Yale Law School in Connecticut, Booker was elected to the Newark, New Jersey City Council in 1998. Once in office, he immediately sought to combat wide-spread crime and drug abuse and even resided in one of Newark’s most crime-afflicted areas.
Four years later, Booker also took on the political machine of Sharpe James, the longest serving mayor in the city’s history who would later serve time in federal prison on fraud charges. In 2002, Booker ran against James in an election he eventually lost. The ugliness of that race became the subject of Street Fight, an Academy Award-nominated documentary that chronicles the knock-down, drag-out race for Mayor of Newark that pitted Booker against James and an old-style political machine that uses any means necessary to crush its opponents. Booker eventually unseated the five-term mayor in 2006, was reelected in 2010, and in 2013, he became the first mayor in 45 years to leave City Hall without an indictment looming over him and the first African American from the state to serve in the Senate.
His accomplishments in leading the City of Newark, include leaving the city with a balanced budget for the first time in a decade, doubling the amount of affordable housing available, making-over parks, and bringing in new business — in the form of two new hotels, a new residential tower, new office towers and a $150 million educational complex. He also became somewhat of a celebrity mayor, rushing out to address issues from the mundane to saving a woman caught in a house fire in 2012.
Despite these achievements, Booker’s time in New Jersey is not without controversy. During his seven years as the mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, the day-to-day realities of running the city continually collided with his growing national status.
To his strongest critics, Booker managed basic city services poorly and wrestled with endemic problems because he was too focused on his celebrity appeal.
Brendan O’Flaherty, the former acting chief financial officer of Newark during the first part of Booker’s administration and now a Columbia economics professor said in an interview with Roll Call, “He was campaigning for president; he wasn’t campaigning for mayor.” O’Flaherty has also written that Booker became a “celebrity mayor,” while the city was besieged with a large deficit, rising crime rates, and a water system scandal.
On the presidential campaign trail, Booker is striving for unity, kindness, and love as part of his strategy to inspire what he calls a “movement election.”
“That’s going to be how we’re going to win not just the primary, but it’s how we’re going to beat Donald Trump,” he said.
And his plan seems to be working on even some of his harshest critics. Former opponent Sharpe James, who blames Senator Booker for his 2008 fraud conviction and supports former vice president Joe Biden (D-DE) in the primary, isn’t saying no to voting for him. “If he wins the primary, I’ll support him for president. He’ll bring prestige and visibility to the city of Newark that truly needs it,” James said. “And maybe I get to carry his bag for a couple of trips.”
Booker hasn’t become the rock star of the 2020 Democratic primary, he isn’t the gristled elder statesman in the race and he does’t have the advantage that Barack Obama had in 2008 of a narrow field. But Booker is a scholar, he does have a knack for rising above the partisan fray. His optimism is infectious and he does bring a unique perspective among the candidates. Even as he’s struggling in the polls, he’s showing no signs of giving up.