By Tom Moran
After each Democratic presidential debate, I’ve come away thinking that this time, Cory Booker will win enough hearts and minds to break into the top tier of candidates, where he belongs.
But he stands now on the brink of doom, unlikely to qualify for the December debate, trailing badly in the money race, and stuck in the deep basement in every poll.
Having watched Booker closely for more than 20 years, I regard that as tragic. And it’s not just because he would crush Donald Trump in a general election, allowing me to exhale fully for the first time in years.
It’s because he is the most thoughtful and effective politician I’ve ever known, a hard-headed progressive who manages to find common ground with Republicans over and over, even in Washington today. He’s our best hope for healing at a time when the country seems ready to break in two.
Why isn’t he getting traction? I’ve been asking every expert I know for months, and the most common answer is that he’s not mean enough. He keeps talking about love when Democrats want to fight. I asked Booker about it.
The love message is not a kumbaya thing,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you don’t fight. It’s about how you fight. We can’t cast this as just an effort to beat Republicans. It has to be that we unite Americans. And they way to do that is not to vilify each other, but to call us together in common purpose.”
“This is not sentimentality. It was love of country that made people storm the beaches of Normandy. It’s why the Freedom Fighters got on buses, why people marched in the face of dogs and firehoses. Love is the most powerful force there is,” he continued.
To some people, this poetic style of speech sounds like a performance. I get that, but it drives me nuts, because he actually means it and has lived it throughout his career.
He does fight. If you doubt that, ask Sharpe James, the mayor who ran Newark for a generation until a young Cory Booker challenged the machine and forced him into retirement. David can’t beat Goliath without fighting.
And he does look for common ground, always.
Start with the most recent example: Booker engineered the passage of the only significant bipartisan legislation enacted in the Trump era, a criminal justice reform that cut mandatory sentences, provided for early release for good behavior, and reduced the racist disparity in sentencing between crack and cocaine.
Ross Baker, the Rutgers professor whose expertise is the U.S. Senate, says it was a tough fight at the start, but Booker showed a special talent for bringing Republicans into the fold.
This was his baby,” Baker says. “Booker is very much a bridge-builder. It was a major piece of legislative engineering.”
Another example: A few years back, I asked Tony Coscia, the head of Amtrak, about Booker’s work on getting federal money for the Hudson River tunnel project, known as Gateway. Was he a showboat, or the real deal?
As it turned out, Booker had worked hard behind the scenes to gain support from key Republicans, by cutting deals to support their top priorities in return. “It was stalled, and he played a huge role in getting it moving,” Coscia said.
There is prose behind the man’s poetry. And we saw that over and over in Newark.
As mayor, Booker cut the size of the city bloated workforce by 25%, a feat of austerity unmatched in my years following New Jersey politics. Even then, he had to raise taxes sharply to make ends meet. He knew his popularity would take a hit. But he faced the math, like a grown up, and he won support in the fractious city council.
On education, Booker is drawing flack for supporting charter schools by raising tons of money for them and securing needed political support in Trenton. He pushed an innovative contract for district teachers that rewarded the best with pay hikes while inducing ineffective teachers to quit by denying them scheduled raises.
Again, he knew he’d take a political hit. But he brushed past the stale ideological fight and looked instead at the impact on Newark kids, who struggled with low test scores and high levels of drop-outs for generations.
Today, the charter schools educate more than one in three Newark children, and as a group they are miraculously outscoring the state average on reading and math tests in grammar and middle school, even though the rules in Newark block them from gaming the system by enrolling only the most promising kids. The conventional schools are doing better, too, sometimes drawing on tactics and training used by the charters. The district’s graduation rate has jumped by more than 20 points.
Chris Cerf served as state education commissioner while Booker was mayor, and later was Newark’s school superintendent. He has worked in Bill Clinton’s White House, and in senior posts under Michael Bloomberg, and Chris Christie.
I’ve been around a lot of elected officials and have a bird’s eye view of how they work,” Cerf says. “There is a moment of truth they all face when there’s a conflict between their beliefs and principals, and their political interests. Cory passed that test every time, and that’s unusual. He’s courageous, even when it compromises his politics.”
We’re seeing a live demonstration on that when it comes to charter schools in this race. Democratic voters have soured on them, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren is advocating a cutoff of federal funds. But Booker says he won’t back down, and he drafted an op-ed in the Washington Post last month supporting charters.
“Frankly, I don’t care if that makes me less popular,” he says. “We did what we needed to do to give our children a chance to break out of poverty and go to college. I know it’s a political liability. But I don’t think our party should come after schools that are succeeding in educating black and brown kids.”
His record has its blemishes, at least two big ones. On his watch, a federal investigation prompted by the ACLU found that Newark police targeted African-Americans with an aggressive stop-and-frisk program and buried a flood of civilian complaints over brutality. Booker resisted federal oversight at first, then reversed course under pressure.
A corruption scandal at the Newark Watershed took place under his nose, and while he wasn’t implicated personally, several of his appointees were.
If he were to gain traction in the presidential race, he’d have to answer for both problems.
But it doesn’t look like that will happen. To make the December debate, he’d have to roughly double his support in the polls within the next two weeks.
He’s complaining now about party rules that require candidates to show strength in fundraising and polling to win a spot in the debates. He says the rules favor wealthy candidates like Tom Steyer, who can juice their poll numbers with TV ad blitzes.
It’s deeply problematic,” he says. “We’re creating an artificial process that selects for people of great wealth. We are at a point now when we have more billionaires than African-Americans.”
Perhaps. But it’s too late to change the rules now.
For me, it’s been frustrating that Booker’s accomplishments have drawn almost no attention in this campaign. I asked Julian Zelizer, professor history and public affairs at Princeton University, how Booker might rate as a president.
“It’s always hard to tell but what stands out is not so much the love part,” he says. “It’s that he is very thoughtful, deliberate and smart. Look back to Obama, and even Clinton. I think that’s something people are longing for, more than ever. It would be really great for the country. And it’s something he could have restored. Campaigns often don’t work for good people.”
Booker is keeping a brave face, and it’s hard to imagine that he will drop out before the Iowa caucuses, given his impressive ground operation there, the big crowds he’s drawing, and the fact that most Iowa voters remain undecided.
Even if he loses, he’s not done. He could be a good choice as vice-president. And he could always run again, given he’s only 50 years old, a pup by today’s standards.
But I think Democrats are blowing it. And if it’s because they are too angry to embrace Booker, then we should count that as another win for the Mad King.
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