Booker imparted a critical Newark lesson | Editorial

Posted Jan 15, 2020

There is an allegory that Cory Booker shares in his book about a woman named Virginia Jones, a brusque and intimidating 68-year-old tenant organizer in Newark’s Brick Towers, a nightmarish human warehouse across King Boulevard where Booker lived as a law student.

He had come to introduce himself and explain that he was starting a non-profit that would provide landlord-tenant legal help. After a few perfunctory questions, Jones dragged him out of her office, down five flights of stairs, through the lobby where her own son was murdered, through a courtyard, past the drug dealers on the front steps, and onto the street, which to a 27-year-old Booker “looked like a war zone.”

“Describe what you see,” said the woman, a former corrections officer, in a tone that did not invite debate.

The young man, voluble as he is today, recited what was in his line of vision. Projects. Drugs. Abandoned buildings. A city lost and beaten and filled with despair.

That’s when Jones told him to take a hike, and that the community had no use for him.

As she walked away, she said this: “You need to understand something. The world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you. If all you see are problems, darkness, and despair, then that is all there is ever going to be. But if you are one of those stubborn people who open their eyes and see hope, opportunity, and possibility — see love or the face of God — then you can help me.”

For Booker, it imparted a lifelong lesson on leadership: You cannot lead the people unless you love the people.

If you wonder what was behind the quixotic campaign for president that ended Monday morning — and future Booker campaigns, for that matter — that is the only meaningful answer. Not a day passes when New Jersey’s junior senator doesn’t carry that epiphany with him, and for ministers in search of homilies, he should be given the credit for clinging to his principles even if the political money didn’t exactly cling to his campaign wallet.

It was more than just having the courage to talk about love in the political space, and the gauzy poetry of campaigning to promote what Ezra Klein of Vox calls a “moral radicalism.”

Because beneath it all was an ambitious and compassionate policy vision. Booker is largely known for his leadership on criminal justice reform, but Americans also liked his imaginative way to close the racial wealth gap by giving a child a $1,000 “opportunity account” at birth, with further annual deposits based on the family’s income. They liked his tax incentives for teachers in urban districts, his sweeping gun reform proposals, his realistic attitude toward nuclear power.

He stood out in the debates he made, and in the end, he ran what Rep. Tom Malinowski called “one of the most principled, positive and unifying campaigns I’ve ever seen.”

Perhaps the only curiosity was the apathy among black voters; the latest Ipsos-Washington Post poll had him with only 4 percent of the African American vote nationally, which barely registered against the 48 percent support for Joe Biden.

Booker’s old Newark ally, Bishop Reginald Jackson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, described this yesterday as “just a matter of timing. I understand the affinity older blacks have for Joe — I worked on his first Senate campaign, and they just see him as having the best chance to win.

“I think Cory ran true to himself – it was not only principled, it was optimistic, calling for the nation to be its better self. It just wasn’t his time.”

Indeed, unlike those who practice the cynical political arithmetic of adding by subtracting and multiplying by dividing, Booker’s message holds great promise for those who share it. To deny that is to give up on the country itself. His time will come.

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