Now that Cory Booker has been elected to the United States on Senate, I would like to take this opportunity to urge all of my friends in the progressive movement to work with Cory to create the kind of country we all want to see.
IT’S BEEN LONELY OUT HERE
Our team at PAC+ has been excited about the possibilities and potential of Cory’s leadership for years. In 2012, Cory asked us to crunch numbers for him to assess a path to victory in a statewide race, and our data crunchers put together charts, graphs, and maps highlighting the critical counties to focus on in order to prevail. We followed that up with one of the first polls on the Senate race in January of this year. When he first said he was exploring the race, we emailed tens of thousands of progressives across the country urging them to join the cause. Before he was able to fully ramp up his campaign, we put together the first public piece highlighting his record as Mayor, and when the special election was called, we put together an independent expenditure campaign that contacted 120,000 voters. And we leveraged all of our relationships to help raise more than $100,000 for his campaign.
We were happy to do all that because that’s what you do when you say you’re going to stand with someone. You go all in. We just thought there’d be more of our friends and colleagues from the progressive movement joining us in seizing this critical moment.
Unfortunately, from the blogosphere to online activists to new and old media pundits, too often we heard crickets about the New Jersey Senate race (in an off-year, moreover, when the number of elections is much smaller than usual). Even worse, too often when progressives did weigh in, they did so to simply express doubt, skepticism or outright opposition to Cory’s candidacy.
I would respectfully suggest that taking a pass or taking potshots fails to properly assess the significance of this moment.
CORY IS NOT KARL MARX
To be clear, Cory Booker is not Karl Marx. Nobody is. Bernie Sanders, bless his heart, is the only avowed socialist in Congress, and his impact is limited at best. Cory is a different kind of political leader, and the progressive movement hasn’t known what to make of him. Unsure how to judge things such as his relationships with corporate leaders and his complex position on education reform, many have defaulted to wariness and skepticism. Whereas previous political leaders have sought a “third way” that looks far too much like a new face to conservative Democratic politics, I believe Cory is attempting to transcend traditional categories to build alliances that advance the progressive agenda. I have sat in small-group meetings with Cory and top corporate executives in America and listened to him talk to them about criminal justice reform, addressing poverty, and supporting teachers’ unions (yes, you heard that right; supporting teachers’ unions).
Even if you want to hold onto skepticism and suspicion, the fact is he is a U.S. Senator now, and everyone will have to adjust to that new reality. Just as he is open to conversation with Wall Street leaders, he is open to conversation with progressive activists, so I would strongly urge you to join in in order to help hold him accountable. At worst, you’ll be a counterweight to the more conservative forces in his orbit (like most national leaders, his supporters span a broad ideological spectrum). At best, you’ll help strengthen a movement that can solidify the progressive majority in America.
THE PROGRESSIVE OPPORTUNITY
Cory’s election comes at a pivotal moment in American politics. We are now closer to the end of the Obama era than the beginning. These next few years will be critical in shaping the agenda for the future and building the movement to make that agenda a reality. With his national platform and visibility, youth, and energy, Cory is one of the political leaders best positioned to help us continue to build and expand the coalition that elected and re-elected the first Black President, moved a trillion dollars to save the country from a depression and then passed comprehensive health care reform for the first time in U.S. history.
Often we speak broadly of “the progressive agenda” as if there is one commonly accepted set of issues we are all fighting for. Truth be told, however, our agenda is actually quite amorphous, sometimes to our detriment. Cory’s arrival in the country’s highest elected body allows him to place on the agenda issues that are core to America’s progressive tradition, but too often overlooked in recent decades.
- Poverty. There is no more eloquent spokesperson in American politics about the issues of poverty in our country. From living in public housing to subsisting on food stamps for a week, Cory is a champion of addressing poverty, and his first position paper was on ending child poverty.
- Criminal Justice Reform. America has the dubious distinction of leading the world in incarcerating our people, and, as Michelle Alexander has pointed out, this “New Jim Crow” is a form of continued oppression and segregation. Cory has found common ground with conservatives who see the negative economic impacts of the prison industrial complex, and this is an area where we could achieve meaningful bipartisan solutions that directly affect the lives of low-income communities (an under-appreciated aspect of mass incarceration is how it deprives families of fathers, husbands, sons, and productive workers).
- Housing. If we are honest, we have collectively failed to properly respond to the foreclosure crisis in the country, and Cory has identified this as an issue he wants to tackle in Congress.
- Equality. While many are now joining the bandwagon for marriage equality, Cory has refused to perform marriage ceremonies until everyone can marry. And his sense of solidarity during the campaign extended to him saying publicly, “so what if I was gay?” His visible leadership on this issue can help break down the last barriers in holdout states and also serve to undermine a potential Chris Christie Presidential bid.
There is a new, multi-racial, electoral majority in America. It first broke through in electing Obama in 2008, and it showed it is here to stay when it re-elected Obama in 2012. The demographic trends are such that this coalition will only grow in coming years, but it will need leadership and infrastructure to maximize its potential. More than any other leader in America right now, Cory is positioned to help lead the movement for at least three reasons:
- He can authentically connect with a movement comprised of large numbers of people of color. He grew up in a middle-class Black family and lived in public housing for seven years, so he knows firsthand the lives and challenges of African Americans. Plus, he is fully bilingual to the extent where his Spanish-language ads featured him speaking in Spanish for the entire ad.
- He has a national network and “brand” that speaks to millions of people from all walks of life. His Twitter following is larger than the viewership of any MSNBC television show. His social media prowess gives him direct access to millions of people.
- And, as is well-chronicled, he has cross-class appeal. Progressive movements for change have always had allies in the 1% (even Nelson Mandela partnered with business leaders while leading the fight to end apartheid in South Africa), and Cory’s credibility in those corners can be an asset and a strength.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE
The post-Obama era is on the horizon. The question is where will the Obama coalition go, and who will lead it? Cory is going to be a leader; there is no doubt about that. Where he and the coalition go will be determined by all of us joining in and helping him be the best, most progressive, leader he can be.