With love, Cory Booker. Inside one long-shot bid for the White House.

Elise Amendola/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker takes a selfie with people at a campaign event Aug. 17, 2019, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
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Can Sen. Cory Booker win the White House with exhortations to love one another, especially as the nation heads into a divisive impeachment inquiry?

While the African American senator generates impressive enthusiasm from crowds, he’s still polling in the low single digits. At a time when many Democrats are furious with President Donald Trump and looking for a different kind of fighter, the son of civil rights activists is trying to convince them that love is in fact the mightiest weapon with which to combat the nation’s challenges.

“I was raised by parents who did not flinch in telling me about the wretchedness of life, about the bigotry, and hate, and violence,” he says in a phone interview. “But they taught me that you don’t combat that by abandoning your virtues, but by doubling down on them, and that that is in fact a harder way. ... It takes a toughness and a strength. But ultimately it’s the best way to heal, to empower, to strengthen, to overcome.”

Why We Wrote This

Senator Booker’s message of love and unity has been dismissed by some as too soft. But it’s an approach he honed over nearly two decades of living and working in Newark’s toughest neighborhoods.

The first time New Hampshire state Sen. Martha Hennessey heard Sen. Cory Booker speak, he reminded her of a Baptist preacher. “He was so ‘love and hope,’” she says. “Frankly, I was almost in tears.”

At the same time, she thought to herself, I’m not sure America is going to like this. This might be a little touchy-feely.

Senator Hennessey and her husband hosted the presidential candidate overnight in early summertime, as part of his circuit of homestays to get to know the state. When he arrived at their home in Hanover, she was still driving back from a late session at the statehouse. It was up to her husband to figure out what to feed an ex-football star turned vegan. The verdict? Rice cakes with freshly ground almond butter. 

Why We Wrote This

Senator Booker’s message of love and unity has been dismissed by some as too soft. But it’s an approach he honed over nearly two decades of living and working in Newark’s toughest neighborhoods.

The next morning, as the couple’s Maltese-poodle mixes climbed into Senator Booker’s lap, the 50-year-old bachelor chatted with them and, at his staff’s urging, told them about his new girlfriend, actress and activist Rosario Dawson. “It’s like he was a friend that was visiting us from college,” says Senator Hennessey. But while she enjoyed the visit, the New Hampshire Democrat – who’d been hoping to endorse a female nominee – wasn’t ready to commit. 

In this season of political courtship, many voters so far seem to see Senator Booker as “friend” material. “He’s not the one that they have a romantic interest in,” says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey, who has been following the senator since he first ran for mayor of Newark in 2002. The latest Monmouth poll shows Senator Booker in a five-way tie for 8th  place among Democratic candidates, with 1% of the vote.

Many Democrats are furious with President Donald Trump, and looking for a fighter to lead them; one voter even asked the athletic New Jersey senator to punch the president in the face. But Senator Booker is trying to convince them to take a different approach. Over and over, the son of civil rights activists, who for nearly two decades tested his ideals in Newark’s grittiest neighborhoods, insists that love is the mightiest weapon with which to combat the nation’s challenges.

“I was raised by parents who did not flinch in telling me about the wretchedness of life, about the bigotry, and hate, and violence,” he says in a phone interview. “But they taught me that you don’t combat that by abandoning your virtues, but by doubling down on them, and that that is in fact a harder way. ... It takes a toughness and a strength. But ultimately it’s the best way to heal, to empower, to strengthen, to overcome.”

“The best proving ground”

If it weren’t for a white New Jersey lawyer moved by the 1965 showdown between civil rights protesters and police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Senator Booker may have never become the nation’s ninth African American senator.

That lawyer, who couldn’t afford a ticket to join the protesters in Alabama, decided instead to offer pro bono legal work for the Fair Housing Council. Several years later, he played a role in helping Cory Booker’s parents buy a home in predominantly white Harrington Park despite the virulent opposition of the real estate agent involved.

From that community of relative privilege, young Cory was able to springboard to Stanford on a football scholarship, then on to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and finally to Yale Law School. But it was in Newark that he found – and honed – his sense of mission. He moved into Brick Towers, an apartment complex in the inner city that had fallen into disrepair and was turned over to Newark’s housing authority several years later. The elevators were often broken and the stairwells littered with drug paraphernalia and feces.

It was a neighbor, Virginia Jones, who helped him see the potential of the city and its residents. And it was she who held him when he emerged one morning, devastated by the murder of a young man whom he had tried in vain to save the previous night.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Chloe Armstrong (center), of North Conway, New Hampshire, cheers during a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey before the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention, Sept. 7, 2019, in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Ms. Jones, who years before had lost her own son to a shooting, urged him through his tears: Stay faithful.

“For me, Newark was the best proving ground because I ... saw just awful, awful realities,” says Senator Booker. The experience, he says, made him understand the impulse to hate or the desire to lash out. “But what I also realized was that in the times where the most challenging, hurtful, painful things come forward, you actually see the greatest of human spirit, the greatest of human potential. I saw people who were able to ignite the best in others. And that’s the model of leadership that I think we need at this time in America.”

Ugly realities

While Cory Booker may talk about love, he harbors no illusions about the ugly realities of life – or politics. He knows what it’s like to have a dirty diaper thrown at him as when, as city councilman, he was leading a 10-day hunger strike to protest inadequate policing of drug dealers. Or to be called a Republican and a “[gay slur] white boy” by Newark’s five-term incumbent Mayor Sharpe James, who also alleged that his challenger was taking money from the Ku Klux Klan.

In that 2002 contest, featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Street Fight,” Cory Booker lost to Mr. James by 6 percentage points. Four years later, he came back to win by the largest margin in Newark’s history. As mayor, he teamed up with Republican Gov. Chris Christie to secure a $100 million investment from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in the city’s schools, and raised $300 million more through other philanthropic efforts.

As much as he did to champion Newark, some saw his ambitions – for the city and himself – as eclipsing the less-glamorous parts of the job.

“It’s great to paint a house, but he didn’t care at all about the plumbing and the electric,” says a Democratic operative in New Jersey. “But honestly before him, nobody cared about anything in Newark.”

The city has continued to attract development since Senator Booker left for Capitol Hill in 2013, but it has also become engulfed in a lead water crisis due to corroding pipes. The Booker campaign has vociferously denied that he bears any responsibility, noting that city water tests two years after he left still bore no signs of elevated lead levels. 

In his book, “United,” Senator Booker admits he too often tried to solve things personally. He famously went into a burning building to rescue a woman, and shoveled residents’ driveways during a blizzard. Critics have accused him of staging such “stunts” for political gain. But whether he was moved by ambition, genuine care, or both, he has lived the problems of inner city America in a way that few presidential candidates have.

“There are a lot of places Cory Booker could have gone to be more powerful,” says Herb Jackson, a veteran New Jersey political reporter who covered his Senate campaigns. “He is motivated by these things, I think sincerely.”

Now, in what Senator Booker calls “a moral moment” for the country, he is highlighting that experience in an effort to persuade voters that he knows best how to unite the country around shared ideals.

“I am here right now because a white guy on a couch, at a time of moral trial in our nation, did not just sit there,” he tells a crowd in Bedford, New Hampshire, on a late September morning. “He did not even know that I would one day exist, but he stood up for the ideals of America. And why am I running for president? Because they’re in peril. Our dream is in trouble.”

A civic gospel

Over the plinking of forks at Politics & Eggs, a staple on the New Hampshire campaign circuit, Senator Booker preaches his civic gospel.

In thundering tones, he transports the crowd from the colonial charm of the Bedford Village Inn to a memorial in Memphis, Tennessee, erected at the assassination site of Martin Luther King Jr.

Elise Amendola/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey reacts as he is introduced at a campaign event, Aug. 17, 2019, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Behold, here cometh a dreamer ... let us slay him and see what becomes of his dream, reads the plaque, quoting from the biblical story of Joseph, who was thrown into a pit by his envious brothers. Senator Booker, a Baptist, sees it as a metaphor for the state of the nation.

“America, we are in a pit right now,” he tells the crowd. “We are in a pit right now when we hate each other just because we vote differently.”

Some might call Senator Booker himself a dreamer – and not in a good way. With 10 days left in September, his campaign told supporters he might quit the race if they couldn’t raise $1.7 million by the end of the month. He wound up exceeding that goal by nearly half a million dollars, bringing his total haul for the third quarter to $6 million. But that’s still less than a third of what Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, raised, and a fourth of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ total.

“A message of inclusiveness and cooperation isn’t something that either party wants to hear right now,” says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

Still, he adds, that could change before the New Hampshire primary, expected to be held Feb. 11. As the primary draws near and more voters start paying attention, he says, Senator Booker may see his support grow, “because then you’re getting away from the activists, and getting down to regular rank-and-file voters.”

Some 40% of the state’s voters are independents and are allowed to vote in the Democratic primary. Nationwide, only 9% of Democrats say they have made up their mind.

Jon Morgan was the first New Hampshire state senator to endorse Senator Booker. “We need more people like Cory Booker to be involved in rebuilding our country after the damage of the past several years under this current administration,” he says in a phone interview.

“Hold on one second, my 1-year-old is trying to kill himself,” he adds, as wailing can be heard in the background. “The 2020 results are incredibly important to me, but ... I’m more worried about the trajectory that we’re on for the next generation of Americans – my kids included,” he says, noting the increasing animosity between those with differing political opinions.

In mid-September, Senator Hennessey followed suit. In endorsing Senator Booker, she noted that he champions many of the same progressive ideals as his fellow Democratic presidential contenders – “Medicare for All,” gun licensing and an assault weapon ban, equality for LGBTQ people, and creating a White House Office of Reproductive Freedom for “advancing abortion rights.” But it was his different tone, she says, focusing on unifying the country rather than pouring fuel on the anti-Trump bonfire, that clinched her support.

“I would love to just talk about all the things I can’t stand about the current administration ... but I’m not finding it very productive,” says Senator Hennessey. “I need hope, I need myself to believe that not only can we get all the great progressive measures but also that we can learn to think about each other again and care for each other again and somehow put hatred aside.”

Back at Politics & Eggs, as Senator Booker is building to a crescendo, phones start buzzing as official Washington begins blowing up over the just-released whistleblower complaint that has prompted an impeachment inquiry against President Trump.

Undeterred, the senator goes on.

“What will become of our dream? ... Will it become divided against itself? Or will we stand up and say, not on my watch,” he asks. “This election will not be about one guy and one office, it will be about reclaiming the dream. And if we do that, watch out America, watch out the world, we will rise.”

And then the well-coiffed crowd of businessmen and state legislators does something that rarely happens at Politics & Eggs. They rise, one by one, and give their guest a standing ovation.

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