Every progressive person in America should support Cory Booker’s campaign for U.S. Senate. Lest there be any confusion on the Left, allow me to make the case for why this needs to be a priority for all progressive-minded people.
First, let me make clear that I come out of the Left. I've studied Marx, Mao, and Lenin. In college, I organized solidarity efforts for freedom struggles in South Africa and Nicaragua, and I palled around with folks who considered themselves communists and revolutionaries (the non-violent type), and I did my research paper on the Black Panther Party (just so we’re clear, I also had Republican friends -- I’m talking about you, Hank LaBrun). My political baptism was the Jesse Jackson 1984 Presidential campaign, and I've drawn my inspiration from Malcolm, Martin, and Mandela rather than Democratic Party triumvarite of Kennedy, Carter and Clinton.
So it is with that background and perspective that I consider the candidacy of Cory Booker. And I believe every progressive in America should enthusiastically support Cory for the following reasons:
He is one of America’s most eloquent champions of the poor
At a time when mainstream politicians shy away from talking about poverty and poor people (e.g. we’ve gone from a War on Poverty in the ‘60s to a Middle Class Task Force today), Cory is a passionate, unapologetic and forceful champion of the plight of poor people. And he has led by example. While others may occassionally visit people living in public housing, Cory moved into the housing projects for seven years. When a Twitter follower disparaged folks who have to get by on food stamps, he challenged the person to a contest to try living on food stamps for a week, and, in the process, brought national attention to the reality of how poorly we treat the poor. At a speech he gave during the 2008 Democratic Convention, he recounted an elderly woman in Newark telling him, “until you look in this community and see the face of God, you can’t help us.” That experience helped transform his vision from seeing only problems in urban areas to envisioning potential and opportunities.
He is using his privilege to help those most in need
Having graduated from Stanford undergrad, Yale Law School, and being selected as a Rhodes Scholar, Cory could have pretty much done anything he wanted professionally. Instead of pursuing a lucrative law career, he moved to Newark, New Jersey and chose to direct his energy and efforts to tackling some of the most intractable problems in America. While he moves comfortably in circles of high tech tycoons, he has used those relationships to bring $400 million to help improve the education of 38,000 mainly low-income children of color in Newark.
He is addressing the issues and engaging the people others won’t touch
There is very little public appetite in America for effectively addressing crime and violence in America beyond calling for increased police presence and longer prison sentences. Despite thirty years of those policies, the problems persist, and Cory is one of the few political leaders in the country who directly engages with -- and challenges -- young people on the street engaged in destructive behavior. He has supported a program that helps young men coming out of prison find gainful employment, turn their lives around and become contributing members to society. This track record has made him a key spokesperson for gun control in the wake of the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook school.. There has historically been very little political upside to addressing criminal justice reform and urban violence, but Cory works on those issues because it’s the right thing to do.
He was an early and vocal champion of marriage equality
Before the national tide began to turn and marriage equality became a safer cause to back, Cory was a staunch ally of the LGBT community. And he has again led by example by refusing to perform any marriage ceremonies until everyone is free to marry. That is a position far ahead of the curve of even most Democrats.
He possesses rare moral courage
Media coverage of his exploits rescuing a neighbor from a burning home have kind of caricatured the act by calling him “Superman.” I’m guilty of this myself, as it’s just so hard to wrap one’s mind around that act of bravery. Less appreciated is what it must have taken to make the decision to go into a burning building. He feared his neighbor would die if he didn’t act, and he literally put his own life on the line. Who among us would do such a thing? And what politicians would take such an act (there was no time to conduct a poll). That same sense of moral courage led him to challenge drug dealers by conducting a hunger strike right in the areas where there was heavy drug-dealing and to live in a motor home for five months right alongside dangerous areas of drug trafficking.
He is the embodiment of “public servant”
In an age when unresponsive bureaucracies -- in government and the private sector - frustrate citizens seeking services, Cory is incredibly accessible and responsive. Showing up to personally shovel the snow of a resident’s driveway, setting up hotlines to respond to complaints of malfunctioning traffic lights, and opening up his home to residents displaced by Hurricane Sandy are just a few examples of his work in this regard. By being so responsive and attuned to his constituent’s needs, he is making the case for the importance of government and effectively refuting the arguments of conservatives who seek to gut vital government services.
He is a master of social media
Progressives will never be able to compete directly with the money and power that flows from the beneficiaries and protectors of the current capitalist system. But whereas they have concentrated capital, we have the power of numbers in that economic, political, and social change is in the best interest of the vast majority of the American people (99% anyone?). Historically, however, it’s been prohibitively expensive to physically connect and organize similarly-situated, but geographically dispersed, people. Social media ha the potential to change that and level the playing field, and the power of technological tools is one of the best hopes for advancing small “d” democracy. With his 1.3 million Twitter followers, and his savvy integration of new and old media, Cory is one of the most sophisticated political leaders using cutting edge technology tools. All progressives can learn from his example and join his cause to build our collective network for change.
There are no African Americans in the U.S. Senate
It’s hard to believe we have a Black President, but not a single Black Senator in the highest legislative body in the country. That’s a travesty for a democracy, and now South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley plans to make a mockery of democracy and affirmative action by appointing the inexperienced and underqualified Tea Party nut job Tim Scott to the Senate. Cory’s election would will be key to giving African Americans across the country greater ownership of our government by electing a champion of our interests to the highest deliberative body in the land.
No, he is not perfect
Some progressives have criticized Cory for being too cozy with the hedge fund crowd and too tepid in supporting organized labor. He has clearly cast a wide ideological net in seeking solutions and welcoming allies, and I have had my own discomfort about some of his friends in the education reform arena (my wife and I have raised those concerns to him). A couple observations in that regard. First, having served on an urban school board for eight years (in San Francisco), I know firsthand the political complexity of trying to look out for the interests of low-income children of color when those children have little political power. I had to make some decisions that my friends in labor didn’t approve of, but I believe I did the right thing for the children, and that doesn’t make one “anti-union.” Second, although Cory is friends with some deep-pocketed business leaders, he has used those relationships to try to help low-income children. No one else has inspired Mark Zuckerberg to drop $100 million, and for Zuck’s first large grant to be to help the children of Newark speaks volumes about Cory’s persuasiveness.
At the end of the day, though, Cory’s network does span a broader ideological spectrum than many of us have historically been comfortable, and I’d just say that that’s all the more reason to create a strong left flank in Cory World so that the Wall Street crowd doesn’t exert disproportionate influence. We should do for Cory what’s been hard to do for Obama -- create a strong left pole that both provides accountability and room to operate effectively.
Hope and Change 2.0
As frequently happens with successful movements for change, the standard bearer has a hard time remaining the crusader once he or she wins office. Obama is now the President (thank God), but he is no longer the principal embodiment of a grassroots movement for change. Obama is the establishment, and that’s good thing. But now we need new vehicles to champion change over the next several years, and Cory Booker’s campaign is one of the best vehicles for that kind of movement that I have seen in many years. Progressives from coast to coast should enthusiastically embrace and back his candidacy.