In Crowded Field, Booker Aims to Set Himself Apart, And Find Common Ground

Mar 20, 2019

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., is one of more than 15 candidates pursuing the Democratic nomination for President.
Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has made two campaign sweeps of New Hampshire since he announced his presidential bid Feb. 1. The former mayor of Newark, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in a special election in 2013, sat down for a recent interview with Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley at the Airport Diner in Manchester.

(Below is a transcript of the NHPR interview.)

Your campaign is centered on unity and Americans coming together. The First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill that you passed, is one example that you point to, but I was wondering if you could point to other measurable success and bipartisanship?

So there's nobody in this race that lives in a community like I live. The last 20 plus years, I live in an inner city low-income area. According to the last Census, my neighbors:  rich with spirit, rich with character, incredible community, but the median income was $14,000 per household. And in an inner city area we created broad-based coalitions, often with conservatives, because we had to move our city forward. When I came home to my block, people wanted to know not what my philosophy was, or how many speeches I gave, what's changing on their block. And so for me I stay true to why I got into politics. We need to do more for the people being left out and left behind, but there is ways to find allies on the other side of the aisle. Criminal justice reform is a great example. Bills on economic investment to give people good-paying

Sen. Cory Booker announced his campaign Feb. 1, 2019.
Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

jobs, decent jobs. Or things we did in Newark. Look, I took a city that was maligned in the national scene-was considered one of decay and decline, now it's growing for the first time in 60 years, creating thousands and thousands of new jobs and new opportunity. And heck, I had a Republican governor, who I could write a dissertation on with all my disagreements with Chris Christie. But I worked really hard to say, ok, where can we find, scratch out some kind of common ground and translate that into real progress for the people who are all too often left behind in this country, that is moving against low income people, is moving against workers, is stripping the dignity of work. I think we can restore those things by reminding people of what we have in common.

How do you translate the policies that you had implemented in Newark in a more rural area like a New Hampshire?

The opioid epidemic is hurting this state, as well as mine, and areas all over. The lack of access to affordable prescription drugs is hurting the woman I met up in North Conway, who's making $28,000 a year and paying $1,000 a month for her prescription drugs, as it's hurting my neighbors who are often putting aside medication because they can't afford it. There are so many issues, I don't care if you are Republican or Democrat, we all should be upset and outraged and demanding that our leaders do something about. Well, I've got answers to those problems. I think I can build the kind of coalitions to get things through Congress. I've shown it with opportunity zones, I've shown it with criminal justice reform, I've shown it with some critical infrastructure to repair broken water systems that are poisoning our kids, and people in this state know about poisoned water. We have to start making sure we have a more courageous empathy that leads to action, that leads to change. I've done it in Newark, N.J., as actually a manager, a chief executive of a major city, I've done it in the Senate and the Legislature and I can do it in the White House.

Were there policies that you could point to that you say I'm particularly proud of, and policies that you thought would work, but didn't work out?

When I was mayor of the city of Newark, we tried so many things. Some worked better than others. Some didn't have as much of an impact. And that's the thing. You know, when you run something, when you actually have to manage something day-to-day, there are difficult things happen. Look, we fell into the worst economy of my lifetime, and I was managing already a poor city. When America has recessions, inner cities have depression-like circumstances, and so we did a lot of things to try to make a difference. Some 

Sen. Cory Booker greets customers at the Airport Diner in Manchester.
Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

worked, and some didn't. But most did, and that's why Newark saw a transformation. So I'm not going to say I had a career without stumbles or mistakes. You know, one of the biggest things that I worked on was police accountability. I inherited a police department that had serious problems, and I thought I was doing well. It took the ACLU coming in and a Justice Department investigation to show me data that we couldn't afford necessarily to collect at that time that we had to change our strategies to make sure that we were doing more to deepen ties with the community. That's why I partnered with the ACLU before I left to do some of the farthest reaching in the nation police accountability efforts. So I've learned a lot, having to manage something, having to deal with every single day the buck stops with you, when you're at a desk as an executive. And I feel like this has been some of the best experience, with one of the hardest jobs in all of America- being mayor of a big city with complicated, tough problems. And to take a city with six years of decline, and for the first time in six years it's growing in population, people want to move to Newark because of our public schools, move to Newark because of our economic opportunity now, I've shown that I've not only grown as a leader, but found a way to bring those ideas to the Senate and partner with people across the aisle to get things done.

How is what you've heard, while you've been in New Hampshire, different from what you've heard in other places?

So I want to remind you that this idea of saying common pain is, and we need to get back to a common purpose, it has been affirming to me to campaign in rural Iowa, in Nashua, in South Carolina, and hear so many of the same stories. And let me give you one, that is very personal to me. There was a woman in 

Cory Booker poses for a selfie with a diner.
Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

Plymouth, who told me about having to be a caregiver for their ailing parent, and one of their special needs children, who, like my mother had to do when my father, who was dying of Parkinson's, took on incredible expenses, physical toll, stress and strain, of providing that. And said, where's the help for the millions of caregivers out there who are going through this?  I saw that with my mom, which is why one of the big ideas I have and pushed it already in the Senate is, we need to be giving tax breaks and more kind of support to caregivers in this country, because they're actually not only doing the right thing by being their for family members, but they're relieving economic burden, because if that caregiving wasn't there, and they ended up into the health care system, they would be even more expensive. There are people like that who are caring for elderly parents who are struggling who feel so isolated in this country because we don't have that more 'courageous empathy' I'm talking about. People struggling with addiction, people struggling with mental illness, that makes us feel isolated from each other, and we're not, we're all in this together. And if we get back to this idea of common sacrifice and common struggle, I really believe that we can begin to address these problems, alleviate that stress and strain and isolation, and get back to that sense of national unity.