“Right now our country’s greatest threat is ourselves,” Booker said at a Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey breakfast in Mount Laurel this week. “A Democracy cannot thrive when its people have contempt for each other.”
It’s a philosophy that a lot of politicians try to espouse but that Booker delivers convincingly, even amid a backdrop of ugly partisan divides. And he’s had practice, running on a joyful warrior platform for president four years ago. Now he’s watching a slate of Republicancandidates — several of whom he knows — duke it out on the campaign trail. As Booker spent his Senate recess on a 21-county swing through the state, he showed signs of why he could be key to the party’s messaging in 2024 and didn’t rule out the possibility he’d run for president in 2028.
“I’d do it again,” he told The Inquirer, of running for president. “I’m not sure if I will but I’d do it again. And the reason I ran last time I think is still urgent now: the divisions in our country.”
Now he’s giving a version of the same stump speech in a Westin ballroom off Route 73 in South Jersey.
“We have to have a larger moral imagination for who we are as a larger people,” Booker told members of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey as he worked the room, mic in hand. “I think one of the best ways to spread good is not by condemning bad. Don’t tell me your activism is measured by how much you hate the other side. That’s not activism.”
Booker spoke for about an hour, then took questions and about 200 selfies before loading into an SUV, 45 minutes behind schedule for the next stop. The whole moment felt a lot like the 2020 campaign.
For now, though — Booker is giving tips to his friends, such as RepublicanSouth Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. He said he warned Scottto pace himself, recalling the nasty colds he got from constant campaigning.
“You’re shaking tons of hands, grabbing tons of phones,” Booker said.
Practicing the nice-guy attitude he preaches, he’s not criticizing anyone on the GOP stage, calling all eight candidates who appeared in the first debate “really quality people.” Asked why former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign hasn’t taken off, Booker instead commended himfor an answer he gave on a Sunday talk show about transgender kids in school sports. Christie noted that the issue impacted a small number of children compared with more pressing topics, such as childhood poverty. “He put it into perspective in a way that I thought was, was statesman like,” Booker said.
The GOP kudos may not last long. Booker will likely be spending a lot of time helping President Joe Biden and fellow Democrats in 2024, including Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey.
“He’s not a partisan warrior, he’s just a good person,” Booker said of Casey.
Democrats could face a tough year, though. Biden’s approval ratings remain low and 2022 had some worrisome signs for voter turnout, particularly among Black and Latino voters in cities such as Philadelphia.
“I found the numbers in the last cycle concerning,” Booker said. Democrats, he argued, need to better communicate how their policies are benefitting Black voters.
“As one of the few African American senators, not just now, but ever, this is the best president I’ve seen on African American issues, period, in terms of accomplishments for our communities.”
Potatoes pass on a conveyor belt as John Coombs Sr. (right) gives U.S. Sen. Cory Booker a tour of his potato farm in Elmer, Salem County, on Tuesday. Coombs’ grandchildren inspect potatoes and toss rejects into a bin.. … Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer
Keeping it local
During his South Jersey swing to several more Republican parts of the state, Booker doesn’t mention the president, but he’s quick to point out how he can help constituents.
At a stop at Coombs Sod farm in Elmer, Salem County, where the potatoes stock Campbell’s soups and Cape Cod potato chips, Booker asked how the upcoming Farm Bill can help business. Over the screech of a mechanical potato sorter, they discussed the importance of irrigation subsidies and other programs that help the farm stay profitable. “Keep the money flowing,” John Coombs Sr. told Booker as he left.
Booker, who is vegan, has a unique perspective as a member of the agriculture committee drafting the Farm Bill. He speaks passionately about how food is at the center of health problems, and yet fruits and vegetables get only 7% of all government food subsidies. He’s not preaching that everyone follow his dietary decisions, though.
“My diet is not in line with New Jersey but what I’m trying to find out is what is our shared value? We shouldn’t torture animals … we should protect our soil, and water and our air.”
Booker, a former Newark mayor, told people he met Tuesday that he’s trying to be the South Jersey senator (despite rooting for the Giants and still living in Newark). He’s big on Jersey pride and history, currently exploring a mission to bring a statue of suffragette and Mount Laurel native Alice Paul to Washington, D.C.
“I’m tired of getting on planes and hearing ‘I’m from the Philadelphia area,’” he said at the Chamber breakfast. “No, you’re not. Don’t say that. You’re a great state with innovation going on that’s extraordinary.”
As Democrats look to expand their base in more swing areas, they’ll need to lean into bipartisan messaging, Booker says.
At a fire station in Clayton Borough, a town of about 8,000 that split its vote between Trump and Biden in 2020, Booker met firefighters who received a grant to replace a truckthat dates to the 1990s.
“You saved jobs.” Fire Chief Dave Rehm told Booker.
Smaller fire companies such as Clayton’s rely on help from neighboring towns and vice versa, Rehm said. “The typical days of the sandbox where everybody’s saying ‘I’m only helping my town,’ we’ve all gotten rid of that. Everyone’s working together.”
Booker seized on that topic to preach his unity message before he headed to his next stop.
“There’s a lot of forces trying to tear Americans apart,” he said. “We need each other. We’re one people here.”
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker leaves after a visit to the Coombs Sod Farm in Elmer, N.J., in Salem County on Tuesday.. … Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer