Volunteers carried stacks of chairs into The Tap Room in Council Bluffs when about 20 more voters than they had anticipated turned out to see New Jersey Senator and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker. Around 100 people claimed their seats at the July 26 event to hear Booker’s early-morning pitch.
Booker, who served as mayor of Newark for seven years and was then elected as the first African-American Senator of New Jersey, announced his campaign in February but has been unable to break out of the bottom bracket of candidates. A New York Times poll shows him with 2% of the national vote, placing him far behind his colleagues, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, who are all polling above 10%.
Although Booker has not earned enough attention to obtain front-runner status, he continues on the campaign trail, hoping to energize voters, such as the members of the quiet, morning crowd in Council Bluffs, and encourage them to consider him a serious contender.
Booker acknowledged his single-digit polling but argued a lot could change in the 188 days before the Iowa Caucus.
“Every person we’ve sent to the presidency was not polling well right now,” he said. “Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, some guy who was very skinny, had great hair, what was his name again? Obama, that’s right.”
Booker skimmed through some of his policy proposals but spent the majority of his speech explaining what motivated him to run for president.
He used his accomplishments as mayor of Newark to justify the lack of policy depth. “What helped us change it [Newark] wasn’t just that we had smart policy ideas,” he said. “What really changed it was the spirit that we brought out, the ability for us to rally around common values and common aspirations.”
The story Booker believes will inspire people around those same common values is his parents’ struggle to buy a home as two African Americans in an all-white Newark neighborhood in 1969. Booker said his parents tried to buy near the best public schools but were turned away by realtors who claimed the homes had been sold.
After being turned away multiple times, Booker’s parents formed what he calls a “conspiracy of love” with a small group of citizens upset at the injustice occurring in their city. They came up with a plan to have a white couple prepare to buy a home for which the Bookers had been turned away. When the realtor showed up to turn the home over to its new owners, Booker’s father arrived with a lawyer to sign for the home he had just bought. Booker says the outraged realtor punched the lawyer and sicced his dog on Booker’s father. (Booker joked that the dog got bigger with every retelling of the story.) When his parents shared the story with Booker, he said they never overlooked the bigotry they had faced, but they focused on those who helped them stand up to the hatred.
“What they celebrated around that kitchen table,” he said, “was the goodness of Americans who, in times of moral crisis, didn’t fall into the divisions that demagogues were trying to separate, but united as a nation.”
Booker then urged the crowd to take action. “I am here because of us,” he said, “because of ordinary Americans who, in times of moral crisis, did extraordinary things for the cause of our country.”
Throughout the entire almost-hour-long town hall, Booker held the microphone tightly in his right hand and furiously gestured with his left. He did not waste a second waiting for applause and steamrolled through the crowd’s laughter, passionately moving on to his next point. With another engagement in Des Moines later that day, Booker had a short window to inspire the crowd to view him as a candidate who could win against President Trump.
But Booker made it clear that defeating Trump was far from his only goal.
“I kind of have bigger aspirations than just beating one guy,” he said. “Beating Donald Trump is the floor. It is not the ceiling.”
Without making it the center of his speech, Booker offered insight into the approach he would take if selected as the nominee. “We are not going to beat Donald Trump by always talking about what we’re against,” he said. “We’ve got to be a party that talks about what we are for.”
Booker took questions from the audience after his speech, joking about the “tough” ones he’d received. “Like, ‘Cory could you please calculate how much money you save on hair products every year.’”
The jokes continued when he took a question from a man named Matt.
“With a name like Matt, I wonder if all your life people have been walking all over you.” He quickly followed up with, “I’m sorry. That was a terrible dad joke. I have to get one in per town hall.”
Booker turned more serious when he told the crowd what he would require of all Americans who want to see change in the country.
“Change does not come from Washington. It comes to Washington,” he said. Referring back to the story of his parents’ struggle to buy a home, he said with emotion: “This is that moral moment,” he said. “Every generation, demagogues try rise try to pervert the culture of this country. But, now, the question is, what will we do?”
Whether or not the people in the crowd decided to pledge their support to Booker as their action to preserve the country is unclear. However, the once-quiet crowd was energized enough by Booker’s message to jump into a standing ovation the second he loosened his tight grip on the mic.