Booker explains mistakes he made running Newark, other lessons he has learned

By Jonathan D. Salant | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on February 15, 2016

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, right, and Camden County Freeholder Bill Moen, left, in Camden on Jan. 26, 2016.

 

WASHINGTON — Here's what makes U.S. Sen. Cory Booker tick.

Lone Rangers don't accomplish much.

Everyone deserves a second chance.

The current generation of black leaders owe a debt to the civil rights icons who paved the way, and need to try to pay it back.

Those are some of the lessons Booker learned in his career as a community activist, Newark mayor and now U.S. senator, the first black elected to that post in New Jersey.

He wrote about them in his first book, "United," which is being released this week. Booker has a 12-city tour planned beginning Tuesday to promote the tome.

Following a trend set by many presidential candidates, Booker's writings were released in the midst of a campaign. Booker, however, is not running for president, though he has been mentioned as a potential running mate for former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose candidacy he has endorsed.

"I didn't write this to speak towards an election," Booker said in an interview to discuss the book. "I wrote this to talk about us as a country. The best of our culture has been seen when we as a nation recognize that we have more in common than divides us and do the very difficult work of reaching out, going beyond our comfort zone to work with other people."

Booker wrote that he learned that lesson when he first was elected to the Newark City Council and immediately criticized the taxpayer-financed perks that accrued to the lawmakers.

"Legislating demands that you have a working relationship with your colleagues," Booker wrote. "No matter how much you disagree with them, there must be common ground or you render yourself ineffective."

In the interview, Booker said he still believed he was right but his tactics were wrong.

"My city council days really prepped me for what I'm doing now because I got it so wrong on the city council," Booker said. "My posture in that legislative body did not serve my constituents as well as if I had approached it with an attitude of being a bridge-builder and not a barn-burner."

In the Senate, Booker has reached out to Tea Party-backed Republicans such as Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah as he sought bipartisan backing for legislation to provide alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent criminals and to make it easier for ex-prisoners to find work.

President Barack Obama, who Booker supported in 2008 when most prominent New Jersey Democrats were lining up behind Clinton, has embraced the cause of overhauling the criminal justice system, traveling to Newark in November to highlight the issue.

Booker explained in the book why criminal justice was such a passion of his. His parents integrated the Bergen County community of Harrington Park with the help of a fair housing lawyer, and kids in that community were offered "a wide margin for error, with second, third and fourth chances" when they had minor brushes with the law. "At their worst, our run-ins with police would mark not an end to our opportunity but the beginning of an intervention," he wrote.

He went to Stanford University and Yale Law School, where he said in the interview that "it was very jarring to me to see the widespread use of drugs in college" with "very little consequences."

When he lived in inner-city communities like New Haven, Conn., and then Newark, where he moved after law school, the "criminal justice system was coming down on these folks for the same crimes with a fury, incarcerating at rates never before seen in humanity."

After these nonviolent offenders were released, Booker said, "they were trying to compete for jobs with those same drug users who never went to jail and had no shot of competing in this economy because they were from communities where the criminal justice system operated in a much different way."

En route to Washington, Booker found mentors and allies such as Virginia Jones and Frank Hutchins as he won election to the Newark City Council, the mayor's office and the U.S. Senate.

He also never forgot those who made it possible for a black man to have those opportunities — he was only the fourth black in U.S. history ever to be elected by the voters to the Senate, following Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Obama — and he said that his decision to go into public service was a way to pay them back.

"It would be almost offensive for me not to recognize that I stand on the shoulders of giants," Booker said. "Everything that I enjoy, everything that my generation enjoys, came through struggle and sacrifice and labor and often blood and death.

"The only way I know how to honor our history is not just by remembering it but by paying it forward is with our own sacrifice. Doing something to address poverty, doing something to address bigotry. That is an American obligation."

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