Fresh off his fifth national debate just the night before, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) centered his Nov. 22 rally at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) around a life story complete with personal encounters with the same inequalities he has persistently promised to fight through his candidacy, all as he told his political story and tackled multiple topics with the audience in a subsequent town hall format in an effort to rack up a stronger student vote.
The encounters started at a young age as Booker, then a tenant organizer in a Newark basement tasked with filing local complaints against a slum lord, learned from his mentor and fellow organizer Frank Hutchins that the first step in beating the slum lord and improving the quality of life was to first repair and unite their own community.
“Everybody that spoke deserved to be heard and listened to; this was one of their chances to talk about the horrible conditions,” he told a packed crowd of supporters at Huddleston Hall, “and I ended up learning from him this incredible understanding that we are who we are as a nation when we come together, when we stand together, when we revive this belief that I have that the lines that divide us are nowhere near as strong as the ties that bind us.”
Booker pointed to the biases held by the Founding Fathers and the authors of the Constitution as partly responsible for those “lines,” citing how the document reportedly, per the senator, viewed Native Americans as “savages,” women as “second-class citizens,” and African Americans as “fractions of human beings.” Of the Declaration of Independence, however, Booker said that the colonies’ desire to create a nation based on the “highest ideals of humanity,” such as equality and justice, was one of its primary inspirations, stressing how it ended with a call for national “interdependence” and for all Americans to mutually pledge their lives, fortunes and “sacred bond.”
Booker stressed how a pledge of patriotism to the country is impossible if one does not show support for others regardless of background or status, and how a detriment to one family or population, such as poor access to public education, could cause a negative ripple effect on the entire community.
The senator pointed when he said he strived to prevent such detriments in his community, such as guiding the city of Newark through the Great Recession as its two-term mayor, and his efforts to tackle prison reform as he entered the Senate in 2013, even as a friend warned him that, per Booker, “we have a country that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.”
“Love says, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” he said, followed by a call for more “indivisibility” in “one nation under god.”
In speaking of the heated 2020 race itself, Booker – the sole African American candidate left in the Democratic field following Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) suspension of her campaign on Dec. 4 – told attendees that the key to beating incumbent Republican President Donald Trump is not to imitate his playbook, turn Democrats against one another on policy issues, or stress goals of merely defeating Republican candidates.
Rather, he said, the key is to home in on uniting Americans around common causes, arguing that it was such a sense of unity that ended movements like McCarthyism in the 1950s and racial segregation in 1960s’ Birmingham.
“And, yes, [for] this generation of Americans, this is a moral moment we have real…existential crises from climate change to just delivering pre-natal care in a nation that leads the planet Earth’s industrial nations in infant mortality and paternal mortality,” Booker said. “But to solve those problems like this, we do not show the worst of who we are but the best of who we are.”
The candidate addressed many of those problems in the following town-hall segment, where he was asked about subjects ranging from climate change and gun violence to income inequality and immigration, among others.
When asked by The New Hampshire during a press gaggle how he would tackle student debt compared to his rivals, Booker said he supports “debt-free college,” forgiving debt for students going into public service professions such as public defenders or school nurses, granting “baby bonds” that would grant $50,000 to potential college students by the time they were 18 in interest-bearing accounts, and an option for students to “refinance” their debt such as discharging it in bankruptcy.
One of Booker’s questions came from New Jersey native named “Mary Lou,” who asked him how he would address child poverty, a topic the candidate said has not been sufficiently mentioned in past debates and costs the nation nearly $1 trillion a year. He told her that, if elected, he would work, for instance, to grant a refundable “income tax credit” for Americans renting homes, which would affect those paying more than a third of their income on rent. He said the credit would take 10 million Americans out of poverty if implemented.
The topic of nuclear weapons, meanwhile, arose when UNH senior environmental conservation major Samuel Tardiff asked Booker on his stance concerning America’s “first-use” policy, which permits a country to attack another country with nuclear weapons in retaliation even if the other country did not attack the first entity with nuclear weapons. The senator replied that although he fears the U.S. is “slipping” into a “militarist” pro-war stance due to corruption fueled by the “military industrial complex,” he expressed support for the “first-use” policy, saying that he did not want to “take a deterrence off the table.”
Speaking with The New Hampshire following the rally, Tardiff expressed concern that Booker’s themes of “love, compassion, unity, [and] justice” did not match the senator’s true standing on the issue, and should show support for a “no-first-use” bill currently being deliberated in the Senate.
Booker also received an inquiry from Durham Town Councilor Kenny Rotner, who asked about the candidate’s solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as settlements in the West Bank affected by the skirmish. He responded that America is “undermining” Jewish values by not enacting a two-state solution, and by calling the president’s relationships with nations like Saudi Arabia “transactional” due to Trump’s efforts to pull out of multiple international trade treaties during his presidency.
On the subject of gun violence, a high school student in attendance expressed to Booker her personal fear that she might be targeted by a gunman at any time due to the state of gun violence in the country, forcing her fellow students to use music stands as a means of self-defense. The student asked Booker how he would response and to prove that the lives of school children “matter.”
“We tell our children we can’t protect you, so we send you to school to teach you how to hide,” Booker said as he called the nationwide feat of daily shootings a “cancer.” He also called the overall issue a “primary” component of his presidency, leading him to pledge that he would legislators supportive of the National Rifle Association (NRA) “more afraid of us than they are afraid of them.”
Booker’s final question concerned immigration, in which an immigrant attendee questioned the senator how he would tackle immigration a president, to which Booker said, “a lot of work remains” and “a lot of amends to make” to immigrant communities. He criticized family separation and immigrant camp treatment under the current administration – a situation he said is being “replicated” beyond the Southern border – warning the room that a country that sacrifices values in exchange for added security “loses both.”
And as the crowds faded from the Huddleston Hall ballroom, Booker told The New Hampshire that, throughout the race, he has gained new insight on his own positions from visiting different populations on the campaign trail, whether it be college students or mental health patients, experiences he said have helped him evolve and adapt in an ever-changing race.
“I really think that one of the best things about having to run for president is town halls like this and interactions with people, because you do learn, you do grow, you do have a deeper understanding and empathy for the issues of our nation, ” he said. “So, I’m a much better candidate for president having spent 10-11 months already on the campaign trail.”