When Cory Booker was mayor of Newark, the New Jersey Democrat was constantly in the spotlight, but that hasn’t been nearly the case since his election to the Senate in 2013.
“I’m a very purpose-driven person. As a mayor of Newark, in a city that was too often ignored by developers, by philanthropists, that was desperately in need of investment of all types, I wanted to attract a lot of attention to Newark,” Booker told Roll Call in a sit-down interview last week near the Capitol. “I wanted to be the best salesman, and I wanted people to believe in me.”
But the Senate works differently, and Booker said that while fellow freshmen running for president might need constant attention, the same is not true for a new lawmaker trying to make incremental progress.
“Every minute matters, and what I’m trying to do right now is drive some really exciting stuff for my state,” Booker said. “And we’ve had a lot of singles and doubles, a couple triples, for New Jersey. None of them did I need to stand in front of the escalators [where the congressional press corps congregates] and say I’m ready now to talk to you all.”
Now, Booker is out with a new book that’s part memoir and part inspirational treatise, and he plans to be aggressive in getting his message of love of country and unity out to the huddled masses.
“This will be the first time I’m going back on national TV with this book, but I feel like I really have something to say,” Booker told Roll Call. “And it actually is fortuitous, as we didn’t plan it this way, that this is at a time of lots of … savage divisiveness that I can be someone that’s talking about what is the best of America.”
In United: Thoughts on Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good , which hits bookstores Tuesday, Booker opts to speak through stories and vignettes from his upbringing, his time as an activist for better housing and overhauling the criminal justice system, and more profoundly, the folks he met along the way — be that an IHOP waitress working for a menial tip wage or someone with a long past criminal conviction.
In speaking with Booker, it’s clear that the stories resonate in his work today, including the time when, as a newly-elected city councilman at age 29, he held a meeting to help those with past convictions clear their records.
“The chapter starts off with me in the basement of this building, holding an expungement hearing, and sort of beating up on myself for not realizing I should have gotten a bigger room. We barely advertised, but the room was just packed. All black men, packed. Guys who had been out for five, 10, 15, 20, 25 years, who still couldn’t find jobs because as soon as they told people that they had a criminal record, they were being bounced,” Booker said.
“And so here I am, two decades later almost, and I get a bipartisan, bicameral bill to ban the box for the biggest employer in the country, which is government if you include government contractors,” Booker said. “Darrell Issa, Chairman [Ron] Johnson and Elijah Cummings and myself. Really in many ways remembering these experiences that I had, what people who have criminal convictions face in just trying to provide for their families. So, there’s a lot of parallels like that through the book.”
The “box,” for those unfamiliar, is the requirement to check-off past criminal history when submitting an application for employment.
Booker’s memoir is more candid than those of many politicians, highlighting personal and institutional failings. He says, for instance, that he was too concerned with the perks associated with the Newark City Council when he was first elected.
“My behavior when I first got on there, even though I felt that I was right, but being self-righteous about it wasn’t conducive to building bridges to getting actual things done,” he said.
Booker’s been spending much of his time away from the Senate lately advocating for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, making appearances from Iowa to New Hampshire to Nevada.
“The great thing about campaigns is you get into conversations with people,” Booker said. “You hear more stories from folks that are often in different corners of this country from the one you’re from, and so for me I delight in that.”
There’s more traveling ahead for Booker, whose book tour will take him from coast-to-coast.
“This book is a chance for me now to go around the country and really talk about what is really needed, not just out here in Washington, but in our country as a whole,” he said. “As I found out in Newark, even my city, we made some of our best leaps when we found out ways to make uncommon coalitions to get things done.”
“Love of country necessitates a love of country men and women. You can’t love America if you don’t love Americans,” Booker said in the interview. “That’s not a shallow word. Love takes work. It’s hard. It takes commitment to one another, and I feel like where that’s a step that we’ve got to make as a country.”
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