With his resounding win in Tuesday’s Democratic Primary election, Cory Booker took a huge step towards becoming New Jersey’s next U.S. Senator. Even though PAC+ was the first national group to back Cory’s Senate run, and I’ve been a believer in his potential for years, I have to admit I was surprised at the media and national outpouring his victory unleashed. MSNBC went live to his victory speech, The New York Times lead photo on the front page was of Cory, and my Facebook feed blew up with excited, congratulatory comments. Something has shifted in our body politic, even quicker and deeper than I anticipated.
The Future is Now
The media has been talking about rising stars and the Democratic Party’s “bench” for years. Gwen Ifill's 2009 book, "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama" heralded Cory, Kamala Harris, Deval Patrick and others as the next wave of leadership. People who have known and followed Cory have long began their sentences with, "Someday. . ."
Well, "Someday" was Tuesday. With that election, Cory has gone from being a nationally-known mayor with lots of potential to being one step away from becoming the most prominent and visible leader in the highest elected body in the nation.
And although 2008 seems like it was just yesterday, Tuesday's election also marks the beginning of a three year journey to the post-Obama era. Talk of 2016 is already swirling in the air, and Cory is being included in polling of a short list of potential Democratic candidates for President.
And make no mistake about it. Cory deserves to be on that list. He proved his national bona fides by raising $9 million in short order from donors all across the country. And who else in national politics has Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah Winfrey each hosting fundraising events for them?
A New Model
People talk with amusement about the Twitter mayor who responds to tweets by showing up to shovel snow and fix potholes. But what is under-appreciated is how much Cory is transforming the model of governance in America. Conservatives love to criticize government as slow, bureaucratic, and unresponsive (and there is a lot of truth in that (which is not to say that many businesses aren’t also bureaucratic and unresponsive, as anyone who’s called customer service knows)). Cory’s utilization of technology and social media has illuminated a path to making government more efficient and responsive.
In his time as Mayor, Cory has reduced the wait for emergency repairs in public housing from six days to less than 24 hours, and employee absences have dropped dramatically now that Newark has the tech tools to properly track attendance. Lost amid the anecdotes of rescuing endangered dogs is the reality that Cory is shining a path on how to re-instill faith in government by using technology to empower ordinary people. If Democrats are able to demonstrate how government can be a force for good, it will help immensely in unleashing its power to foster greater justice and equality in America.
Civil Rights “Secret Sauce”
It’s notable that Cory’s victory comes as we’re commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and a couple months after the Supreme Court’s attack on the Voting Rights Act. One of the challenges many of us have wrestled with for years is how to modernize the Civil Rights Movement by bringing contemporary communications, strategy and tactics to the long-standing challenges of inequality, injustice, and discrimination. More than anyone in American politics today, Cory is showing how to make that happen.
Cory’s “secret sauce” consists of a combination of emphasizing problem-solving over ideology, casting a broad net for solutions and allies, utilizing innovative technological tools, and highlighting the moving stories of “salt of the earth” community members struggling to make a better life for their families. Cory’s critics like to point to his coziness with the rich and powerful as a cause for concern, but there is no denying the fact that he has used these relationships to help poor people. No other mayor in America has gotten a tech titan such as Zuckerberg to give $100 million to improve education for low-income kids of color. I have sat in small meetings with big and powerful people and watched as Cory talked to those corporate leaders about poverty and criminal justice reform when there was no political upside to doing so. And it is notable that Cory used the money raised in fancy fundraisers to put out a political platform that featured ending child poverty as its centerpiece.
If we are going to address the unfinished business of realizing Dr. King’s 1960s dream, we are going to need tools, tactics, and strategies that resonate in the 21st century. Cory is far ahead of the curve on this, and that makes his ascension to national leadership even more important.
A new day is dawning in American politics. From Obama’s re-election to the groundswell for Hillary Clinton to Wendy Davis’s galvanizing Texas filibuster (and potential run for Governor) to Cory Booker’s smashing victory this week, tectonic changes are underway. We are privileged to live in such an exciting time, and it is incumbent on all of us to make the most of this historic moment.