BY BASIL SMIKLE
Cory Anthony Booker is an American politician serving as the junior United States Senator from New Jersey since 2013 and a member of the Democratic Party. The first African-American U.S. Senator from New Jersey, he was previously the 36th Mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013. Before that Booker served on the Newark City Council for the Central Ward from 1998 to 2002.
Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns for president sparked a tidal wave of diverse candidates across the country who sought, and won, elected office at every level of government. In many ways, Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 and the backlash to the Trump presidency could be viewed as the stimuli for the current diverse field of 2018 contenders, including the Democratic nominees for governor in Florida, Georgia and Maryland, who are African American. But a closer look at Sen. Cory Booker’s seemingly quixotic 2002 campaign for mayor of Newark shows that he may have shaped a nascent coalition of Democrats that, once nationalized, ultimately elected Barack Obama and could help him and Democrats retake the White House in 2020.
In the 1990s, crestfallen Dems began winning races by relying on a coalition of working-class white males, black and Latino voters, and so-called latte liberals—high-income, mostly white liberals and progressives. Embedded within these constituencies was a group of young professionals, mostly of color, who were highly educated, earning middle-class or higher incomes, and rejected the Party machine in favor of more candidate-specific and issue-driven political mobilization. Obama tapped into this long-neglected group, which proved instrumental in catapulting him through a rigorous primary contest.
But two years before Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, a young Cory Booker ran against a political dynasty forged in the civil rights and black-power movements of the ’60s and ’70s. Although initially chastised for being disconnected from it, Booker quickly showed that he sincerely represented its promise. A Stanford and Yale Law graduate, Booker was a Rhodes scholar and embodied a new cohort of African American leaders who embraced the egalitarianism of the civil rights movement and deftly espoused its idealism. As mayor, he could negotiate the intricate spaces within the business and philanthropic communities and marry those efforts to local politics in an effort to revitalize Newark.
Booker’s national profile was tempered only by insistence that much of the interest in him be channeled toward Newark’s physical, economic and educational future. Strong investment eventually attracted new residents, smart development and an improvement in student achievement.
Whether thundering away during Judiciary Committee hearings or crisscrossing the country on behalf of Democrats looking to retake the House and Senate, Booker’s presidential prospects are rising in key early states like Nevada, New Hampshire and Iowa, where his speeches were greeted with multiple standing ovations.
There are strong headwinds. One of his potential primary opponents is the avuncular Joe Biden, who some feel has the right mix of temperament and experience to go after Donald Trump. There’s also the possibility that his judiciary colleague, Kamala Harris from California, may get into the race. Recently another former mayor, New York’s Michael Bloomberg, suggested he would throw his hat in as well. But the biggest challenge for anyone looking for the Democratic Party’s nod in 2020 will be to reform and reinvigorate the Obama-led coalition from 2008, which is currently divided over its future course.
Cory Booker may be the best candidate to engage in the reunification due to early experiences assembling interracial and intergenerational alliances. He’ll also have to convince working-class voters—who bought in to the promise of stronger economic opportunity under the current president—that he’s a better builder than Trump ever was. We hope they’ll visit Newark to see for themselves.
Basil Smikle Jr. is a Distinguished Lecturer in Politics and Public Policy at the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute, Political Strategist and former Executive Director of the New York State Democratic Party.