Of the large Democratic field of presidential candidates, few have experience in the sort of retail politics required to win public office in city hall. It’s a campaigning style familiar to New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark.
The son of IBM executives, Booker was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in New Jersey. He received degrees from Stanford, Oxford and Yale Law School before working as a staff attorney at New York’s Urban Justice Center in New York in the late 1990s. He started out as a young councilman in 1998. He won the mayor’s seat on his second attempt in 2006.
Booker’s rise to the national stage followed a path through the halls of power in Newark and through interactions with constituents and fans on Twitter, where for years he’s cultivated a wide social media following since his time as mayor. He captured headlines in the New York Times and other national outlets multiple times — for personally shoveling a constituent’s driveway after a snowstorm, for running into a neighbor’s burning home to carry her out, and for chasing down a robbery suspect.
Seen as refreshingly hands-on, gimmicky or somewhere in between, Booker and his penchant for attention-grabbing behavior has won adoration from people who lauded his approach to promoting his city while sparking criticism from Newark residents who would have preferred less celebrity mayor and more nitty-gritty administrator.
Nuanced assessments of the senator’s term as mayor have been published by The Star-Ledger in February and the New York Times in 2012, toward the end of his mayoral term. In the case of the Times article, Booker immediately pushed back in a HuffPost interview where he said the Times left out important context.
Overall, his legacy in Newark is buoyed by a downtown building boom, a reformed school system and a lowered crime rate. New businesses have opened, and a decades-long decline in population reversed under his watch. In 2013, he left the city with its first balanced budget in a decade.
His mayoral record is blemished by a corruption scandal that hit a water treatment agency. He served as ex-oficio chairman, but he never attended a meeting and was never charged after state investigators found widespread abuse of public funds. He was the city’s chief executive when Newark faced post-recession budget problems, forcing the city to take state aid and have its finances watched by a state monitor. Taxes went up at at least 20 percent, according to The Star-Ledger.
Booker launched his presidential bid in February, the second black candidate to announce a run (Sen. Kamala Harris of California was the first). In a wide range of Democrats, Booker has remained in the middle of the pack, according to political analysts. The New York Times described some of Booker’s political positions as moderate and “pro-business,” noting that his relationship with Wall Street and Silicon Valley donors could hurt his standing with progressives. On the other hand, Booker has co-sponsored a bill creating a “Medicare for All” single-payer healthcare system and has advocated for loosening federal marijuana laws.
The senator was a vocal objector to President Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Days after his opposition to Sessions’ nomination, voices on the left were disappointed with Booker when he voted against a bill that aimed to lower prescription drug prices. At the time, Vox Media reported that Booker cast a vote typical of senators: a vote to protect jobs and industries that are prominent in their states. The pharmaceutical industry is big in New Jersey.
Booker’s campaign has touted a largely optimistic message centered on strengthening unity and building bridges across political divides, in contrast to the increasingly divisive political atmosphere. When he declared to run, he espoused a vision that will “channel our common pain back into our common purpose.”
“The history of our nation is defined by collective action; by interwoven destinies of slaves and abolitionists; of those born here and those who chose America as home; of those who took up arms to defend our country, and those who linked arms to challenge and change it,” Booker said in a video announcing his candidacy.
Booker has come out with a sharp critique of opponent Joe Biden over the former vice president’s comments on the “civility” he maintained with Democratic segregationist senators in the 1970s. Booker called out Biden and demanded an apology. One political strategist told the Associated Press that Booker might see a boost after coming out strongly against Biden’s comments.
“We sometimes tread upon issues that maybe we aren’t knowledgeable of,” Booker told ABC’s “This Week” on June 23. “I don’t think the vice president should need this lesson, but this was a time for him to be healing and to be helpful, especially at a time that he is looking to bring this party together and lead us in what is the most important election of our lifetime. And I was disappointed. I’ve said my piece.”
As a senator, Booker played a role in the passage of the First Step Act, a 2018 bill that introduced reforms to the country’s criminal justice system. The new law adds job training and mental health programs into the federal prison system. It also shortened the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
Booker said he wants to push those reforms further if he becomes president. He plans to reduce mass incarceration by expanding the president’s clemency powers and reducing the sentences for as many as 20,000 nonviolent drug offenders, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The senator said he would also tackle rising housing costs, morphing some of his other proposed legislation into a policy proposal. He’s pitching a new tax credit for renters who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. The New York Times reported the program would impact an estimated 57 million Americans, and it would cost the government $134 billion, a fraction of which would be paid for by reversing changes to the estate tax made by Trump.
About Cory Booker
▪ Current or most recent position: U.S. Senator from New Jersey since 2013
▪ Other elected offices: Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, 2006-13, Newark councilman 1998-2002
▪ Occupation: Partner at the law firm Booker, Rabinowitz, Trenk, Lubetkin, Tully, DiPasquale & Webster
▪ Education: Stanford University, B.A., 1991; M.A., 1992; University of Oxford, Honors Degree, Rhodes Scholar, 1994; Yale Law School, J.D., 1997
▪ Age: 50
▪ Residence: Newark, New Jersey
▪ Family: Single. He is dating actress Rosario Dawson.
▪ Campaign website: corybooker.com
▪ Small donors: According to the Federal Elections Commission, about 19% contributed by individuals to Booker’s campaign came from donors who gave fewer than $200.
▪ Big donors: Booker, a historically prolific fundraiser who in the past has relied on big donations from corporate law firms and the financial sector, has joined other presidential Democratic candidates in rejecting corporate political action committee donations. Top donors include Adam Kaliner, co-founder and president of Power Home Remodeling Group; Carrie Walton Penner, daughter of Walmart’s former chairman; attorney Vincent Giblin; William C. Matin, co-founder of Princeton Ventures; and Charles Ledley, an investor at Liminality Capital.
▪Fun fact: After Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012, Booker opened his home to about a dozen Newark residents and let them hang out, charge their phones and get lunch.
▪ On the issues: Booker has said he would offer clemency to thousands of nonviolent drug offenders on his first day as president. He has pushed for criminal justice reform through a bill he co-sponsored, the First Step Act, and proposes more reforms such as reduced mandatory minimum sentences. He also supports the federal government’s legalizing marijuana, a national gun licensing program, and “baby bonds” that would seed savings accounts with $1,000 for newborns. The senator also co-sponsored the “Medicare for All” and Green New Deal bills.
Sources of biographical information: The Cory Booker campaign, The Star-Ledger, CNN