Booker, New Jersey Senator, announces 2020 run

Former mayor of Newark embarks on campaign to become second black president in U.S. history
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., in Washington on Jan. 16, 2019.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., in Washington on Jan. 16, 2019.

Sen. Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who has projected an upbeat political presence at a deeply polarized time, entered the 2020 race for president Friday, embarking on a campaign to become the second black president in U.S. history.

Booker, in a morning email sent to supporters, drew on the spirit of the civil rights movement as he laid out his vision for a country 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 an accompanying video.

He announced his candidacy on the first day of Black History Month and planned to spend the morning offering his first three media interviews to national radio shows anchored by black and Latino hosts.

“We’ve got to get away from reflexive partisanship,” Booker said on the Joe Madison radio show.

He was scheduled to appear later on the television show “The View” with his mother in the audience.

Booker’s announcement had long been anticipated. He was among the most conspicuous campaigners for other Democrats during the 2018 midterm election, making 39 trips to 24 states as he honed a central message — that this was a “moral moment in America” — that is likely to frame his future critiques of the Trump administration.

Booker’s gift for idealistic oratory made him an in-demand surrogate throughout his career and will likely help set him apart from the growing Democratic field.

But even with his unique mix of soaring crescendos and soft-spoken anecdotes, his unbridled optimism and appeals across party lines could fall flat in a Democratic electorate energized by seething anger toward President Donald Trump and his agenda. Booker also has a lengthy record of moderate, pro-business stances that could be toxic for the party’s ascendant progressive wing.

For example, he defended the investment firm Bain Capital against attacks from the Obama campaign during the 2012 presidential election, and he had a chummy relationship with Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, for most of his tenure.

And his continued embrace of charter schools, long a favorite of wealthy donors but currently out of favor among the Democratic grassroots, could create still more problems.

Booker, 49, enters the most diverse presidential primary field in history. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard have officially announced their candidacies. Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Barack Obama, and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, have also announced bids.

With Harris announcing her candidacy last month, Booker’s entry amounts to a presidential first: offering black voters, who have been crucial in determining the past two Democratic nominees, a choice between two black candidates as well as other contenders.

Numerous other Democrats, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Vice President Joe Biden, are also mulling runs.

In announcing his bid for president, Booker is seeking to fulfill the promise that many have seen in his future for two decades, ever since he moved from Yale Law School to the blighted Brick Towers of Newark, the symbolic launchpad for his career as an inner-city politician.

His first electoral victory was for the City Council in Newark, ousting an incumbent Democrat. He failed in his first bid for mayor, in 2002, against another entrenched Democrat, Sharpe James. But the loss made Booker famous as he raised millions of dollars, and his political profile, in a race that drew national attention.

A documentary about his failed run, “Street Fight,” was nominated for an Oscar. Booker won the mayoralty four years later when James, who would eventually land in federal prison on charges of fraud, opted against a rematch.

As mayor, Booker crafted celebrity status through his early adoption of Twitter. He drew attention and money to the struggling city, including a $100 million check from Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, to be injected into Newark’s schools. The gift was announced with much fanfare on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” but brought mixed results to the troubled school system.

Booker’s connections to financial titans, on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, have also lifted him throughout his career, generating money for campaigns and for the city he ran. Those connections could power a presidential bid: One California donor, Steve Phillips, created a super PAC with a goal to raise $10 million in the coming months to support Booker’s bid — even before he announced his candidacy.

But in a Democratic Party where a backlash to the sway of billionaires and financiers is strong, Booker’s ties to both Wall Street and Silicon Valley risk harming his campaign as much as helping it.

His campaign, which will be called “Cory 2020,” said it would not accept contributions from corporate PACs and federal lobbyists. His campaign also said it would oppose any supportive super PAC, even though Phillips’ already exists.

For all the attention drawn to Newark by Booker’s national celebrity, recovery in the city has been mixed. Although crime is currently on a downward trend and development is booming, murders and robberies were on the rise when Booker left office in 2013.

In the Senate, Booker has been one of the most aggressive critics of the Trump administration, breaking with Senate precedent and testifying against the nomination of a fellow senator, Jeff Sessions, for attorney general. He also vigorously criticized a top Trump official, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, for concealing a racist comment made by Trump.

Using his perch on the Judiciary Committee, he has been a forceful opposing voice to many of Trump’s key nominations, releasing confidential emails during the confirmation hearing of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and, more recently, questioning the attorney general nominee William P. Barr’s record and past statements on race and criminal justice.

Having served in the Senate since 2013, Booker has been around long enough to earn a spot on some powerful committees, but he has a relatively thin record of signature legislative accomplishments. He did notch a major victory in co-sponsoring and pushing for a bipartisan criminal justice bill signed by Trump at the end of 2018, capping a long effort of advocating criminal justice reform in the Senate.

For more than a decade, Booker has been carefully cultivating a national presence, particularly through social media. At times whimsical, at others effusive and reflective, Booker was one of the first politicians to fully embrace the direct reach of social media, tweeting out direct responses to Newark residents complaining of potholes and broken heaters. Stories of him shoveling out residents of Newark in snowstorms, rescuing a shivering dog or darting into a burning building to save his neighbor went viral. He was invited to the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin in 2012 to pontificate about Twitter, and said he joined the social media network thanks to a tip from the actor Ashton Kutcher.

Although he has been courting political operatives in Iowa and New Hampshire for months, and was one of the first potential candidates to visit either state last year, Booker will likely focus heavily on South Carolina and other southeastern states with large black voting populations.

His first campaign events as a candidate will be a two-day swing through Iowa on Feb. 8, followed by two days in South Carolina. He plans to visit New Hampshire over Presidents Day weekend.

Although his announcement video was punctuated by the percussive beats of a drum line, Booker, who visited a church in Newark on Thursday night to pray before his announcement, said that he hadn’t quite settled on a campaign theme song, although Kirk Franklin’s “Stand” had been in heavy rotation.

“This last week, leading up to this day,” Booker said on the Tom Joyner Morning Show. “All I’ve been listening to is gospel.”

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