I am going to do everything I can to help elect Cory Booker the next President of the United States. Beyond his policy positions (which I largely support) and his electoral prospects against Trump (which are excellent), I am backing Booker because he is the best leader for this specific moment in U.S. history.
Supporting Cory does not mean I am opposing other Democratic candidates. I am a friend or fan of many of them and I will enthusiastically support the Democratic nominee in 2020. I just hope that Cory is that nominee. Here’s why:
America needs a leader who deeply understands this historical moment and has the ability to unite the country by inspiring people of all races to resume the work of building an inclusive, multiracial, economically just democracy.
Every period of significant racial progress in this country has been met with a ferocious and frequently bloody backlash. After the Civil War, the country embarked on Reconstruction to try to provide a financial foundation for millions of newly freed Black people. After just ten years, right-wing whites struck back through both political resistance and domestic terrorism, ultimately killing that brief period of progress. The Supreme Court gave the eulogy, with one justice writing, “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so … it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage.”
The modern Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s brought about transformative changes in this country, many of which, such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act and Immigration Acts, paved the way for the demographic revolution that defines this specific moment. But as Jesse Jackson has said, “Before the Voting Rights Act was signed in ink, it was written in blood.” Multiple members of that movement risked and lost their lives, and that violence went hand-in-hand with a political backlash that propelled the political careers of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace and Richard Nixon in their respective 1968 presidential campaigns. The New York Times noted that avowed segregationist Wallace’s “blend of color prejudice and economic grievance appealed to enough voters to win him more than 13 percent of the popular vote and five states in the 1968 Presidential election” (sound familiar?).
Which brings us to this moment. It is no coincidence that Trump was elected immediately after the administration of America’s first Black president. Trump was propelled to the White House by calling Mexicans rapists and promoting a ban on Muslims entering the country, and he continues to cling to power by repeatedly fanning the flames of racial resentment. What Trump understands better than most is that, as political scientist Hakeem Jefferson has noted, “Race is the central organizing feature of American politics. Nothing else comes close.”
More than anything, what we need now is political leadership that understands America’s history of racial oppression and has the capacity to inspire people of all races to return to the task of building a multiracial democracy that embraces and celebrates the full spectrum of racial and cultural diversity in this country.
Cory has been speaking out about the centrality of racism for decades. In 1992, after the four police officers who were accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted, Cory wrote an anguished column for The Stanford Daily (Cory and I were classmates at Stanford). In his column, he described an encounter with a Palo Alto police officer, concluding that, “I realized that to him and so many others I am and always may be a Nigger: guilty till proven innocent.” After the 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Cory read that column to his colleagues in the U.S. Senate to educate them about how African Americans experienced interactions with the police.
Cory has spoken unequivocally about the need for the kind of Truth and Reconciliation process that South Africa engaged in after the end of apartheid, and he has used his prominence and platform to advance that dialog in this country. After the 2017 white supremacist celebration of confederate monuments in Charleston, South Carolina that Trump defended, Cory called for removing the multiple confederate statues in the U.S. Capitol. Back in 2015, he hosted a Facebook Live conversation with leading criminal justice reform attorney Bryan Stevenson who went on to create the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a powerful and harrowing museum in Alabama dedicated to victims of white supremacy and lynching.
This understanding of the realities of racism and the movement to dismantle it uniquely equip Cory to inspire, challenge, and lead in this moment. Last fall, in his speech to an overwhelmingly white audience of Iowa Democrats immediately after the Kavanaugh vote, Cory embraced the legacy of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965. After first sharing Civil Rights legend Congressman John Lewis’ humble observation that “I shed a little blood on that bridge,” Cory then told his own story about how a white fair housing advocate in New Jersey who had helped Cory’s parents overcome opposition to a Black family buying a home in their New Jersey neighborhood in 1969 had gotten his start in racial justice activism after watching what happened in Selma and asking himself what he could do to make a difference. Cory’s words clearly connected with the Iowa crowd; more than a thousand people who were hungering for meaning and inspiration leapt to their feet (and, more importantly, took to the streets to knock on doors and turn out the vote, helping to flip two congressional seats that helped Democrats reclaim the House).
In addition to leadership, there are of course considerations of electoral politics and public policy entailed in selecting a president. These three dimensions are inter-related in that strong leadership can galvanize a social movement, and that movement can wield political power that elects people who then pass public policies.
In terms of electoral politics, few people know that Cory has long been a champion of overhauling and restructuring Democratic Party strategy and spending to properly invest in communities of color, which offer the highest return on investment for a Democratic dollar spent. After the 2016 election, many Democrats experienced an existential crisis, and all of the Democratic senators trooped to West Virginia to hear from conservative white voters about Trump’s appeal. Cory alone fought to include a panel at that retreat to challenge the senators to learn about, invest in, and connect with voters of color and progressive whites.
Under the national radar, Cory was on the ground in key states in 2018 backing such progressive champions of color as Stacey Abrams in Georgia, while others, including Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, waited until it was safer, after nominations were secured, to offer their endorsements.
In terms of public policy, while some on the left argue Cory isn’t “progressive,” it is time to take stock of what that word even means and who gets to define it. In a country whose wealth was initially built by Black hands and whose economic edifice sits on a foundation of the blood and tears of enslaved people, it is the people who continue to live with the modern-day legacy of that exploitation who should define what are progressive priorities. In that light, fighting poverty and advancing criminal justice reform should be cornerstones of the progressive agenda, and by those measures, Cory is perhaps the most progressive of all.
No national leader has done more than Cory to shine the spotlight on the plight of poor people over the past two decades. He has not just visited people living in low-income communities, he moved into public housing and lived there for 7 years. He has used his prominence to educate the public about poverty. In 2012, he documented his effort to get by with the money allocated to people living on food stamps. As a Newark paper noted, “The media-savvy mayor may have lived on a meager diet of beans and yams, but he created a feast of publicity…for the issue of government-assisted nutritional programs for the nation’s poor.”
As mayor of Newark, long before the more recent popularity of criminal justice reform issues, he prioritized and implemented a re-entry program for people coming out of prison and significantly reduced recidivism. And just last year he made major changes in the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that was passed into law.
America has a president who is fostering racial division and hostility to dismantle the progress of the past 50 years. We need a leader who can educate, inform, and inspire the nation to embrace and continue the legacy of those who have fought for racial and economic justice. Cory Booker is that leader.
Steve Phillips is a national political leader, civil rights lawyer, and author of the New York Times bestseller, Brown Is the New White: How a Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority. Phillips is the founder of Dream United, an independent expenditure effort to support the presidential candidacy of Cory Booker.