Politics & Policy

Twenty Things You Didn’t Know about Cory Booker

Sen. Cory Booker speaks to volunteer campaign canvassers for Democratic congressional candidate Chris Pappas ahead of the midterm elections in Portsmouth, N.H., October 28, 2018. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Once recruited by Gerald Ford, cheered by Betsy DeVos, and determined to ‘love Donald Trump,’ the New Jersey senator has led an interesting life.

1. Henry Louis Gates tested Senator Booker’s DNA for an episode of his ancestry-research program Finding Your Roots and found that Booker’s ancestry was 47 percent African, 45 percent European, and 7 percent Native American. (Yes, this means Booker has significantly more Native American ancestry than fellow senator Elizabeth Warren.) As Booker wrote in his 2016 book, United, “I am descended from slaves and slave owners. I have Native American blood and am also the great-great-great grandson of a white man who fought in the Creek War of 1836, in which Native Americans were forcibly removed from their land. I am the great-great-grandson of many slaves, and I am also the great-great-grandson of a corporal who fought in the Confederate Army and was captured by Union troops.”

2. If elected president, Booker would be the best football player in the Oval Office since Gerald Ford. In fact, former president Ford called to urge Booker to play for his alma mater, the University of Michigan, when the future senator was in high school.

A New York Times report from 1985 noted that Old Tappan beat Wayne Valley, 7-0 in the North Jersey Section 1 Group 3 High School Football Final, helped by “a 38-yard pass to Cory Booker [that] fueled the 55-yard, six-play drive.” Booker was 16 years old at the time. He eventually chose to ignore President Ford’s pleas and attend Stanford University.

At Stanford, Booker spent his first two years on the bench. In his junior and senior years, he had 20 catches for 199 yards and a touchdown. On October 6, 1990, he caught four passes for 47 yards as Stanford upset then-top-ranked Notre Dame 36–31. But though he was eligible to play for another year as a fifth-year senior, the coaching staff chose to not bring him back, an experience he called “a gut punch.” He instead applied for and won a Rhodes scholarship, studying in Oxford for a year before moving on to Yale Law School.

3. Booker’s first run for public office came in 1998, when he sought a seat on the Newark City Council, challenging an entrenched incumbent Democrat in a vicious race that he later recalled during a speech:

I ran for office in an environment that was so hostile. I had windows on my cars smashed, I had threats to my person, there was literature spread about me throughout the city that I was a tool of the Jews, that I was a CIA plant in the city, that I was a KKK member — all wonderful, creative things. My opponent literally would refer to me in debates, and I used to joke about this, as the fa**ot white boy running against him.

4. In 2000, as a city councilman, Booker gave a speech at the pro-free-market Manhattan Institute that would thrill today’s conservatives and shock today’s Democrats. He denounced the Democratic elected leaders of Newark as failures who did not seem to care about their constituents. In one passage, he offered a vivid portrait of exploitation and dysfunction in the city’s public housing:

There [were] about three different slums controlled by some very nefarious individuals who pocketed many, many millions of dollars from federal programs and put little into the building. Even worse than that, I started to have a lot of aggression and animosity toward the city because it was doing nothing about one of the boldest drug trades I had ever seen, and nothing about code violations that were so obvious that you could walk into people’s homes and look at holes through their floors. No one seemed to be doing anything about it.

It was in the midst of all this, of working with different residents, that I began to become very political. The government that I had heard was a force for good in so many ways I began to see in many ways as a force that, at best, tolerated such circumstances and, at worst, was complicit and active in them. So I began to get involved in the political process.

In another, he described a deeply corrupt philosophy of government that Democrats rarely ever acknowledge exists, with passages that would bring a CPAC crowd to its feet:

I began to feel that the main theme of City Council life was really to do the following things: First, it was, by every means necessary, protect your turf. Second, resist change. Third, expand one’s sphere of control, always hoping to control more and more resources and authority. Fourth, enlarge the number of subordinates underneath you because having subordinates means having power, having election workers, and keeping yourself in office. Next, protect programs and projects regardless of whether they are effective or not. Finally, maintain the ability to distribute the greatest amounts of wealth from taxpayers to people and organizations of your own choosing.

We now have a system in government where people are more loyal to the bureaucracy than they are to the outcome. We must be loyal to outcomes first and bureaucracies and systems last. If you are outcomes-focused, you start to realize often that you don’t need these controlling and all-consuming bureaucracies. . . .You empower citizens by asking more from them, not less. We need to start asking more from our citizens and start making our citizens more responsible and giving them more control and authority over their own lives.

5. Booker ran for mayor of Newark in 2002 in another blisteringly tough race, this one against longtime incumbent Sharpe James, that became the subject of the documentary Street Fight. Booker would later tell Esquire that former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey attempted to deter him from challenging James:

“Before they came after me in 2002,” he says, “they offered me every job imaginable. McGreevey” — that’d be disgraced former New Jersey governor and self-described “gay American” Jim McGreevey, a Sharpe James ally — “offered me Secretary of State, Secretary of Commerce, or Secretary of Labor. They said, ‘The county bosses will give you the line for the Essex County Executive — you’ll be the first black county executive’ — all that kind of stuff.”

During the campaign, Mayor James admitted that he had visited a strip club that police investigators said was home to a brothel where, allegedly, underage prostitutes worked. James claimed he had done so only in an official capacity to see that the club would be shut down. He narrowly won reelection against Booker.

6. For most of his early career, Booker strongly endorsed school choice and vouchers. From the Manhattan Institute speech:

I have always been, up until maybe four or five years ago, a strong advocate for the old-fashioned way of educating children. I supported public schools only. Even charter schools made me a little uncomfortable when I first heard about them. But after four or five years of working in inner-city Newark, I began to rethink my situation, rethink my philosophy, rethink my views on public education, simply because of the realities I saw around me. Being outcome-focused started to change my view in favor of options like charter schools, contract schools, and, yes, vouchers.

He added that “the implementation of vouchers is not a panacea. If it is used as a guise for disinvesting in education as a whole, then I will never be in favor of it. But I will support it if it is part of a larger system of education for our children.”

7. As recently as 2016, Booker spoke to the American Federation for Children, a pro-school-choice group headed up by current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Then, he bragged that Newark was ranked the fourth-most choice-friendly city in the country and declared to the organization, “There are some people in this room who really were the difference makers as I was climbing the ladder in Newark, N.J. with a vision for transforming that city.”

In 2017, after President Trump nominated DeVos to run the Department of Education, Booker voted against her, saying that “there are a number of departures between Mrs. DeVos policy beliefs and mine that prevent me from supporting her.” After Booker’s dramatic about-face, one voucher advocate concluded, “It’s pretty safe to say that, regardless of the outcome, tomorrow there won’t be an ed reform ‘left’ as we know it anymore.”

8. Before abandoning his support for the school-choice movement, Booker noted that Al Gore once admitted he would not send his children to D.C. public schools, and he echoed a common argument of choice advocates on the right: “These people would never ever send their children into public education, but they are going to tell my friends in the central ward of Newark that their children have to go there.”

9. From 2007 to 2012, he made $689,500 from his old law firm in exchange for selling his share of the firm. During this time, the firm collected more than $2 million in fees from independent authorities, some of whose board members are appointed by the mayor.

10. Booker has always been a charismatic speaker. In 2013, while running for Senate, his campaign disclosed that he had been paid $1,327,190 for 96 speeches since 2008, for an average of a bit less than $14,000 per speech. (It is worth noting that during that time period, he gave $620,000 to charity.)

11. In 2013, Booker created his own Internet start-up, Waywire, with investors that included LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and Oprah Winfrey. Some questioned the ethics of the mayor of Newark raising money for an Internet start-up on the side. In September 2013, Booker announced that he would be stepping down from Waywire’s board and donating his ownership interest in the company to charity. In a financial disclosure statement filed with the Senate, he estimated that his interest in the company was worth $1 million to $5 million.

12. Booker brought a lot of new investment, energy, and optimism to Newark during his years as mayor, but almost all of his accomplishments in that office came with some less-discussed drawbacks. His record of increasing taxes tends to get glossed over. One of his first acts was an unprecedented 8.3 percent property-tax increase, and in 2010, he pushed through another 16 percent property-tax increase. He instituted a new tax on rental cars. And in 2013, the city reassessed property values shocking many Newark businesses that saw the assessed value of their property double or triple overnight. While raising taxes on ordinary citizens, Booker gave special deals to big companies willing to relocate to Newark: In 2011, he helped negotiate a deal giving Panasonic a $100 million tax credit for moving its headquarters into the city.

13. Severe budget shortfalls eventually drove Booker to cut the Newark police force by 15 percent. Crime initially declined, but bounced back up; by Booker’s last full year in office, Newark had 95 homicides and 3,220 violent crimes, both slight increases from a decade earlier.

14. Back in 2007, Steve Malanga wrote in City Journal that Booker “made reducing crime his Number One priority and installed a zero-tolerance policing strategy engineered by a veteran of New York’s drug wars.” But once Booker was in the Senate, he lamented that the United States “imprisons more people than any other country on earth and spends about a quarter of a trillion dollars each year on a bloated, backward criminal-justice system.” “Over the past 30 years, the federal prison population has grown by 800 percent, an increase largely due to overly punitive sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug crimes.”

15. For many years, Booker was good friends with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom he met at Oxford. Boteach and Booker are much less close now, having had a strong disagreement over Booker’s vote in support of the Obama administration’s Iran Deal.

16. As mayor, Booker found himself in dramatic situations that went viral on social media. During a 2010 snowstorm, city resident Barbara Byers wrote on Twitter that she was running out of diapers and snowed in. Booker showed up at her door with Pampers. In 2016, Politico caught up with Byers and she noted that the coverage of Booker’s personal delivery obscured the failures of the government he was running:

Byers laughed at the memory and thinks everyone missed the point: Booker, she said, focused on the individual heroics because the larger task of managing city services eluded him.

“The only reason he brought me Pampers was that it had been three days and our street hadn’t been plowed,” she said. “I have five kids and, trust me, I don’t just run out of Pampers. All we wanted was for him to plow our streets. It’s about knowing how to manage a city.”

17. In 2013, in an interview with the editorial board of The Record of Bergen County, Booker told reporters that he “opposes raising the retirement age for most people in the country — except, perhaps, for people in their 20s or younger.” Within a week, after outcry from liberal and progressive groups, Booker declared on Twitter that he did not support any cuts to Social Security or Medicare, and that, if anything, Social Security should be expanded.

18. When Donald Trump tweeted during the 2016 campaign, “If Cory Booker is the future of the Democratic Party, they have no future!” Booker turned the other cheek during a subsequent interview with CNN. “Let me tell you right now: I love Donald Trump. I don’t want to answer his hate with hate. I’m going to answer it with love. I’m not going to answer his darkness with darkness,” Booker said. “I love him. I know his kids, I know his family. They’re good — the children especially — good people.”

19. In 2017, Booker pushed back on the idea that Democrats lost in 2016 because they were too nice.

“I hear Democrats often say this, that ‘Republicans are so mean. . . . We’ve got to stop being so nice,’” he said in an interview with Politico. “I’m like, ‘That’s 100 percent opposite to what we need to be.’ We don’t need to take on the tactics that we find unacceptable in the Republican party. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to fight hard and make sacrifices and struggle and battle — but we do not need to take on the dark arts.”

20. Booker was the first mayor of Newark in 45 years not to leave office indicted or under the threat of indictment on criminal charges.

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