Newark, the largest city in New Jersey, the birthplace of Philip Roth and Amiri Baraka, with its history of race riots, white flight, corruption, and neglect, is where Cory Booker started his political career, as a crusading, outsider city-council member and mayor. It is also the setting for much of the story Booker will now tell to try to win the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination. Newark is the place where Booker’s record and self-mythology merge: where he opted—after attending Stanford, then Oxford, and then Yale Law School—to live for years in a housing project known as Brick Towers, and where, as mayor, he orchestrated a gigantic experiment in using billionaire philanthropy for education-system reform. It’s where he still lives when he’s not in Washington, attending to his duties as New Jersey’s junior senator, and it’s where, on Friday, he gave a press conference to discuss the launch of his Presidential campaign.
One premise of Booker’s campaign, at least at the start, appears to be that he can win the Presidency without saying a bad word about anybody. “I think that people are tired of the demeaning and are ready for some redeeming,” he said outside his house on Friday, shrugging off a question about the former Starbucks C.E.O. Howard Schultz’s potential Presidential run as an Independent. But what about Donald Trump? Was Booker prepared to say that the President is a racist? “I don’t know the heart of anybody. I’ll leave that to the Lord—I know there are a lot of people who profess the ideology of white supremacism that use his words,” he said. He added, “But I just want everybody to know I’m going to run a race about not who I’m against or what I’m against but who I’m for and what I’m for.”
Booker has spoken often of the political potential of love, but is it possible to run a modern political campaign without personal conflict entering into it? Booker is an effusive public speaker. He likes to cite his heroes—Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.—and makes corny jokes. He tries to preëmpt cynics by talking about how easy it is to be a cynic. “Love ain’t easy,” Booker said. “Some of the toughest, most heroic people that I admire, whose pictures hang in my office, whose statues are in the Capitol, they’re folks that took on armed hate—billy clubs, and dogs, and firehoses—with unarmed love, and they took down Jim Crow.”
Booker also appears to be friendly with several of the other Democrats already in the Presidential race; one of them, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, tweeted out her congratulations to him on Friday. During his press conference, Booker was interrupted by a neighbor, a middle-aged woman from Ecuador, who stepped out onto her balcony to shout her encouragement. “¡Á la victoria!” Booker responded, in his accented, earnest Spanish. Booker went back to the question he’d been asked—a reporter from HuffPost had asked him to comment on the teacher’s strike in L.A. and his current position on charter schools. “I’m proud of my record,” Booker said. “Local leaders should decide what’s best for them.” Some reporters, though, had broken away to try to get a quote from the neighbor. Booker spoke for a few more minutes, his hands in his jacket pockets, the edges of his ears turning red in the cold. After he’d gone back inside the house with his staff, a journalist next to me was muttering to himself. “Fucking waste of time,” he said.