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NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. — “So, is this election going to be about what we’re against, or what we’re for?” Sen. Cory Booker asked a crowd of approximately 500 people who had come to see him speak Sunday at his first presidential rally in the state much of his family has called home for decades.
With his mother seated in the front row and his uncle just behind her, the former Newark mayor turned New Jersey senator, just 23 days into his presidential campaign, delivered the sure-footed, polished stump speech he has honed in that time.
“We’ve got to get back to saying it’s not about one person or one office, it’s about the cause of our country. We cannot do great things if we’re ripping each other apart, if we fail to see the dignity of all Americans,” Booker exclaimed to hearty applause.
With a crowded field of Democratic candidates eyeing the chance to challenge President Trump in the 2020 general election, the central question for many of the voters who oppose him is which one has the best strategy for taking him down.
“I’m very much against the current administration, so I’m listening to everyone who’s running against him,” said retired public school teacher Dianne Lombardi, 59. Last week she turned out to hear Sen. Elizabeth Warren speak. On Sunday it was Booker. On Friday she’ll go to see Sen. Kamala Harris.
That cavalcade of candidates hitting Vegas is a result of the fact that Nevada’s Feb. 22 caucuses will be the third contest on the primary calendar in 2020, just after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
Booker is betting that an Obama-like, uplifting message will resonate with voters after four years of Trump.
“I really like Cory Booker and his message of unity,” Taylor Johns, a 28-year-old casino worker, told Yahoo News. “In this time, after so much division, Booker is so empathetic and is delivering a really positive message of showing people love even if you disagree with them. That’s going to be something that’s going to be necessary after this administration.”
Like Harris’s stump speech, Booker’s is designed to introduce himself to voters who may not know much about him. Unlike Harris, who has sometimes left voters questioning the specifics of her former career in law enforcement as well as her platform, Booker’s story flows more evenly.
Booker recounted the systematic discrimination his African-American parents, both executives at IBM, faced when they attempted to buy a home in New Jersey in 1969.
“They found this great group of lawyers and they set up a sting operation,” Booker said, recounting how his “parents would go look at a house” only to be told by a real estate agent it had already been sold. Then his lawyers sent in a “volunteer white couple,” who were encouraged to make offer on the property. When the agent was later confronted with the fact that he had discriminated against Booker’s parents, he punched the lawyer representing the Bookers and set a dog on Booker’s father. In the end, however, his parents prevailed and, under threat of legal action, were allowed to purchase the house.
Having grown up hearing his father recount that story throughout his childhood —“the dog got a little bigger with each retelling”— informed Booker’s desire to want to rid the world of injustice.
It’s those personal connections that make the policy sections of his speech feel authentic. Like Warren, Booker pushed universal pre-K education and universal health care in his Sunday speech, and spoke in favor of aggressively combating climate change with the “Green New Deal” pushed by progressive activists.
But Booker knows how to keep his crowd from slipping into a policy coma, deftly inserting memorable applause lines into a 35-minute speech, as when he described America as “a nation that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” or when he said the country’s hard-working citizens “find themselves with more month at the end of their money than more money at the end of their month.”
A graduate of Stanford University, Yale Law School and a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Booker, 49, is one of the better public speakers in the Democratic field. Taking questions from roughly a dozen audience members, he seemed to thrive on the opportunity to discuss the concerns of voters.
When asked what can be done to end the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Booker circled back to his proudest legislative achievement to date: helping shepherd criminal justice reform into law.
“We lock up the most vulnerable in our society,” Booker said before broadening the discussion to include women. “Eighty-six percent of the women we incarcerate are survivors of sexual assault,” he added.
Asked about the Trump administration of separating migrant parents attempting to enter the country illegally from their children, Booker called the practice “moral vandalism,” and vowed to end it if elected president.
When greeted by the father of a woman serving in the U.S. Navy who described himself as unhappy with the current commander in chief, Booker approached the man and asked if he could film a message on his phone for his child. “Hi, Gina, it’s Cory Booker,” the senator said as he stood beside the man. “I’m sitting here in a meeting with some friends and all of us wanted to thank you for the service you’re doing for this country.”
Despite the frustrations expressed by those in the room and the enormity of the challenges that issues like climate change represent, Booker’s takeaway message was to tell them to remain positive about the country’s future, and he closed his remarks by urging them not to give up on a word whose significance wasn’t lost on the room.
“Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word,” he said.
When the ovation he received finally died down, Booker continued to take questions and pose for selfies with fans.
Sitting nearby, his mother reflected on her son’s performance.
“I’m very pleased with him today. I’m very pleased he’s running for this high office because I believe this is a time in our history when we really need positive leadership,” she said before adding, “I just wish his father was here.”
At a press gaggle following his speech, Yahoo News asked Booker how he planned to pay for things like universal health care and universal preschool.
“Bringing the corporate tax rate back up to 25, 26 percent brings in a lot more revenue. Getting rid of loopholes, like carried interest, brings in a lot of revenue,” Booker replied. “Raising the marginal tax rates that were reduced in this tax bill under President Trump, raising them just to what they were in the Obama administration raises tremendous revenue, and they wouldn’t touch 98 percent of Americans.”
But it’s not just a return to Obama-era tax rates that Booker foresees; his campaign itself is built on bridging the partisan divide. While that goal proved short-lived for the 44th president, Booker says that’s no reason to give up hope.
“I think it’s a question for anybody that’s running for president on either side of the aisle, you have a politics that doesn’t reflect who we are as a country,” Booker said. “We agree broadly on things like 86 percent of NRA members agree that we should have universal background checks. The way I talk is the way I talked when I was running for city council — when I ran for mayor, when I ran for Senate — is that if you elect me for president of the United States, I am going to ask for more engagement from American citizens.”
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