By Taylor Crumpton
Allow New Jersey Senator Cory Booker to reintroduce himself: on the first day of the third Black History Month under President Trump (a day that’s not going too well for him), the politician shared his origin story with the American public in hopes to shift the electorate towards his favor in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. His announcement came in the form of a campaign video set in his adopted hometown of Newark, New Jersey, where his political legacy started twenty years ago. In the visual, Booker traverses one of the city’s low-income neighborhoods, capturing the attention of potential voters while defining his vision of a united nation, one where communities are granted the principles of the American Dream under the collective will of the American people.
Booker’s belief system in the power of community organization to enact social change originated from his lived experiences of housing discrimination: in 1969, one year after the passing of the Fair Housing Act, his parents’ attempts to move into a predominantly white suburban neighborhood of New Jersey were met with discrimination. Featured in his presidential campaign video, their struggle for equal access to housing was advocated by a team of white lawyers inspired by civil rights leaders to empower Black families in their community. The presidential hopeful credited them in his announcement, stating that they “changed the course of my life”; their intervention allowed Booker to attend well-funded schools as a youth. Educated at some of the nation’s most elite institutions, including Stanford University and Yale Law, the young politician began his advocacy career in Newark, where his seven-year tenure as mayor transformed the city’s culture and cemented his legacy as one of the nation’s emergent Black politicians.
Booker has long been a rising star in the Democratic Party, and has worked to implement progressive legislation in the Senate focused on criminal justice reform, legalization of marijuana, and closure in the income inequality gap for the American people. His early utilization of social media removed the barrier between constituents and their elected representative. He is unafraid to garner public awareness through staged demonstrations, whether it’s a sit-in with Congressman John Lewis for healthcare or hunger strikes to raise awareness about the nation’s underfunded social welfare programs.
While his enlightened upbringing and policy efforts have had many positive effects on some constituents, there has also been damage done to others. His political platform as mayor of Newark ushered in an era of urban renewal that attracted elusive corporate partnerships, resulting in massive gentrification and concentration of local resources for new residents. Formerly known as one of the murder capitals in the United States, Booker campaigned on tough-on-crime platform, promising to construct one of the premier police departments in the nation. His increased funding for law enforcement, and support for the implementation of charter schools and school choice movements in Newark contributed to regional backlash during his senatorial campaign.
A frequent recipient of financial donations from venture capitalists in Silicon Valley and financial executives, critics have questioned his political alliances due to his affiliations with investors. His presidential campaign has pledged to deny contributions from corporate political action committees and federal lobbyists, even though he voted for legislation in the Senate that financially supported major pharmaceutical industries and halted Americans from accessing cheaper medication. Heading into 2020, Booker will have to answer for his murky voting history, which critics say have often favored the interests of corporations and moderates over the disenfranchised communities of New Jersey he represented during his term.
Similar to fellow Democratic nominee hopeful Senator Kamala Harris, who gained 2020 presidential attention during her passionate rebuttals against Trump’s nominees in several confirmation hearings, Booker made political history as the first sitting senator to testify against his peer, Jeff Sessions for attorney general. Both members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Harris is determined to take the lead for the party’s nomination: since her announcement, she has established a new record in campaign fundraising and received record ratings during her televised town hall on CNN. Despite her forecomings, Harris has yet to acknowledge her more controversial choices as San Francisco district attorney.
Earning the trust of the Black community—a consistently critical group for whomever winds up the Democratic nominee—will be a key priority for all candidates. As the party strategizes on how to regain political control of the White House, the voting electorate will ultimately decide the face and voice of that new agenda. As the landscape of hopefuls continues its expansion—with Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders also still in consideration—Harris’ announcement on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Booker’s entry into the field on the first day of Black History Month are clear tactics to separate themselves from their peers as well as openly play into identity politics. But voters of all backgrounds will have options, and many are aware that a shared identity does not always turn into the actions desired. Given the ongoing conversations around where his loyalties lie, the coming months will be a significant test of Booker’s true allegiance.