Booker on the stump

Sen. Cory Booker was the latest presidential candidate to visit Claremont. He spoke to a group gathered at Buckley and Zopf law offices on Broad Street.

CLAREMONT – New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker swung by Claremont Friday, talking to a packed crowd in a small space at the Buckley and Zopf law offices on Broad Street. The presidential candidate  called the 2020 election “a referendum election. We are at a moral moment in America,” he said. 

 He was introduced by local resident and film director Samantha Davidson Green, as the two of them are friends from their days at Stanford University. 

“I knew Samantha before she was green,” Booker quipped. 

Green said, “He has always had this special energy and spark. [In college] he accomplished in a day what it would take five of us to do. If someone had told me, 30 years from now I'd be introducing him as a candidate for president, I wouldn't have been surprised. 

“Above all he was always a devoted friend and a super-fun human being,” said Green. 

Booker said the choice of a law office for his appearance was deliberate: “My heroes have been lawyers.” 

He told a story of how his parents bought their home in Bergen, New Jersey. As a black couple, they were told the house they wanted was not for sale, but a woman who organized people for housing fairness, Lee Porter, got white couples involved. When a realtor would tell the African-American couple the house wasn't for sale, the white couple would come after and get a different answer. The white couple who followed the Bookers went almost all the way through with the purchase, then didn't show up for the closing: Booker's father and his lawyer did. 

“The realtor was so angry he punched my father's lawyer in the face,” said Booker, “and sicced his dog on my father. 

“Every time my dad told that story, the dog got bigger,” he said. Booker's father made sure he grew up with a sense of obligation; “He'd say, 'Boy, don't walk around this house like you hit a triple, you were born on third base.” 

The elder Booker passed away before Cory was elected to the Senate, but after Booker became mayor of Newark. 

“People told me we couldn't turn around one of America's most maligned cities,” said Booker, “but we did. We brought hundreds of thousands of new jobs because we created uncommon coalitions.”

Booker repeatedly returned to a theme of unity: “Fighting fire with fire is not a good strategy,” he said. “We have to be defined by what we are for, not what we are against. 

“We're at a time in America where we're in a bit of an existential crisis. There are real issues facing our country ... we could be the first generation whose life expectancy is decreasing. We are a nation where people are hurting and are beginning to lose faith in us. I believe in us,” he said, putting his hand on his heart. “I believe we need a more courageous empathy in this nation. We need to commit ourselves to creating a more beloved community.” 

Booker touched on several issues important to him: criminal justice reform, housing rights, improving public schools and health care, including legislation to give economic breaks to caregivers. Considered a left-leaning Democrat, Booker has also had his hand in notable bipartisan bills like the First Step Act addressing criminal justice reform. 

“We should not be treating mental illness in jails,” he said. 

However, “If you elect me as president I'm going to ask for more from you,” he said. “We've got to lean into this democracy more because it does not reflect our values.” 

During the question and answer period a woman asked him about prescription drug prices. “My son has an invisible disability,” she said. “In addition to survival with medication, a lot of people with disabilities struggle for inclusion.” 

She then cited an earlier speech by Booker, when he promised an audience member he would find out how many people with disabilities were on his staff and working for other senators. 

Booker addressed prescription drug prices first, saying he has sponsored legislation that will penalize drug companies for excessive price-raising by taking away their patents and opening up their products to makers of generic drugs. The second question, he said, he had looked into and his office has “hired people with disabilities and will continue to do so.” 

He is pushing Democrats to report diversity on their staffs, he said, and apologized for not having more final answers. “I have women in every one of my top positions,” he added. 

“I promise to invigorate the civil rights programs in the justice department,” he said. He also promised to reverse the ban on LGBTQ people in the military. 

One man asked him about his vote against the re-importation of drugs in 2017. Booker responded that he's always supported re-importation of drugs, but that he had sided with the Wyden amendment on that bill, rather than the Sanders amendment, because he thought the Sanders amendment needed more details. 

He was also asked about some gun safety legislation. Booker said this pertained to shutting down “the Iron Pipeline,” which described gun dealers buying guns in Southern states and bringing them up the East Coast to sell them out of their trunks and circumvent the laws. “We need to close these gun show loopholes,” he said. “Eighty-six percent of NRA members agreed [with this legislation].” 

On immigration reform, he said, “It's not as complicated as people think it is. Immigration enforcement is undermining our safety, our economy — this is insane.” 

When immigration officers arrest and detain people arbitrarily, the immigrants become less likely to cooperate with law enforcement and neighborhoods become less safe, he said. “Canada is out-Americaning us with their acceptance of refugees. We're about to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. How can we turn our backs on what made this country great?” 

A man named Ed asked about the $750 billion defense budget. Booker said in his opinion, the president's powers to wage war have been extended too far. “I want to go back to a balance of power in our government.” 

He cited the war in Yemen as an instance where American arms are being used and Congress has had no say in whether the U.S. should be involved in that war. 

The final two questions from the audience were on plant-based diets and Brexit. 

“I think it's a free country and people should be able to eat what they want,” said Booker, who admitted he's a “plant-based eater” himself. He went on to criticize farm subsidies that make it cheaper to buy a Twinkie than an apple. “What are we subsidizing and what are we not? The corporatization of American farms is not only driving farmers out of business, but poisoning our planet.” 

“That's my first Brexit question,” he finished. “I think it's a mistake and an example of people voting against their self-interest. But you can't deal with the anger people feel about globalization by ignoring it. Before we start talking down to people who voted for Brexit or voted for our current president, we have to understand their anger. They don't feel this democracy works for them.” 

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