Sen. Cory Booker repeatedly talked about love and its political importance during a campaign stop at the Center for Workers Justice of Eastern Iowa (CWJ) on Saturday morning.
“Love is not sentimentality, it’s not kumbaya,” Booker explained. “Love says that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Love says that we welcome the stranger.”
It’s a concept that’s informed his 20-year career in public service — going from a tenant’s rights lawyer in Newark, New Jersey to a city council member and mayor, and then to United States Senate — and informs his 2020 presidential campaign, he told the people tightly packed into the CWJ meeting room and lining the hallway outside.
Booker said the importance of this type of love was impressed upon him by his parents while he was growing up. His father would tell him, “Boy, you’re the physical manifestation of a conspiracy of love.”
Booker’s father was born in 1936 “in the mountains of North Carolina,” the senator recounted.
His father grew up in poverty under Jim Crow laws. “But he saw the truth of America,” Booker said.
“It wasn’t the wretchedness or the bigotry, or the violence and discrimination. No, the truth he saw — and I’m using this word very purposefully — he saw love.”
Booker’s father was taken in and raised by another family, when his own family couldn’t care for him. That family treated the young Cary Booker as their own, and even though no one in the community had ever attended college, they were determined that he would be the first. And when he didn’t have the money for tuition, his church collected money so he could enroll.
“It was again, a conspiracy of love,” Cory Booker said.
His father’s college days coincided with the growth of the civil rights movement in the South.
“Suddenly, my dad, who grew up in a segregated town, sees black folks and white folks, Christians and Jews, sitting-in at lunch counters, marching for his rights,” the 2020 candidate said.
For his father, Booker explained, it was the confirmation of a favorite saying of Martin Luther King Jr., “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But it was also a demonstration that the arc “didn’t bend automatically. We had to have arc-benders.”
That was something both his parents understood, according to Booker. Both had successful careers, he told the audience; they “worked hard every day of their lives, but they didn’t make the mistake of thinking that all that they were enjoying was because of them.”
“They knew it was because of justice advocates who fought for them. They may not have prayed like them or looked like them, but they knew that we were all in this together.”
Booker added, “My whole life is about not forgetting where we came from and how we got here.”
He said that’s why, after attending Stanford University, the University of Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar) and Yale Law School, he moved to Newark to work as an attorney for people in low-income housing.
“I went to an inner-city community, below the poverty line, struggling with violence, struggling with poverty,” Booker said. “But we don’t mistake, in my community, wealth with worth. We know that dignity and divinity exists in all of us.”
Booker continued to live in that neighborhood, even after he was elected mayor and later senator. He still lives there.
“The issues that we are discussing in this campaign are my lived experience,” Booker said.
And CWJ deals with many of those issues on a daily basis.
Founded in 2012, the center focuses on educating and empowering workers, and helps immigrants adjust to life in Iowa. Recently the center has seen an increase in cases of wage theft, Mazahir Salih told Booker during the hour-long event on Saturday. These cases can involve not paying workers for all the hours they’ve worked, classifying workers who are managers as management, so they don’t receive overtime pay, or simply withholding entire paychecks.
“Every day, people come and tell us they’ve worked somewhere and never got paid,” said Salih, an Iowa City Councilmember and one of the founders of the CWJ. According to Salih, the center has helped workers recover $80,000 in unpaid wages so far this year.
She asked Booker what he would do as president to address the problem.
“Any presidential candidate can tell you what they’re going to do,” he replied. What people should look at is what the candidates have done. “All of us have been in public life for a long time.”
Booker recalled learning workers in the cafeteria of the U.S. Senate weren’t being fully paid for all the hours they worked, because they had been misclassified. In collaboration with his fellow Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Booker made sure the workers were properly classified according to the actual jobs they performed, and were paid for all the hours they worked.
“This is a bigger problem in America than people know,” he said. According to Booker, there are already laws to address the problems of wage theft, but they “are not being enforced, and we have an understaffed enforcement arm of the Department of Labor.”
But other issues Booker discussed at CWJ — including affordable housing, reforming the immigration system and ending child poverty — would require legislative action, which means the Democrats need to take back the Senate, he said.
“The only pathway to get to 50 votes [in the Senate] is to have whoever’s at the top of our ticket … be able to energize record African-American turnouts,” Booker said. “The last time we had a record African-American turnout was 2012. And by the way, if the turnout in 2016 amongst blacks only was the same as it was in 2012 — think about this — we would have won Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, states we lost collectively by 77,000 votes.”
Although Booker didn’t directly say he was the candidate who could provide that energy, no one in the room doubted that’s what he meant. But that’s not currently reflected in the polls, either at the national or state level. And Booker hasn’t yet qualified for the Democratic candidates’ debate in December, and he’s unlikely to. (The deadline for qualifying is Thursday.)
As Booker has pointed out, that means there will be more billionaires — Tom Steyer has qualified — than black people on the debate stage.
But the candidate said the low polling numbers don’t reflect the activity on the ground in Iowa, and the strength of his campaign.
“We now lead the field with local leaders who are elected and activists endorsing my campaign,” he said.
At CWJ, Royceann Porter, a longtime leader of area progressives and the first black member of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, announced her endorsement of Booker. Scott and Leslie Carpenter, leading Democratic activists and founders of Iowa Mental Health Advocacy, also endorsed him on Saturday. And Mazahir Salih told the crowd at CWJ, “I’m a proud supporter of [Booker]. Committed, 100 percent.”
It’s become a standard part of Iowa campaign reporting during this election cycle to note how fully engaged audiences are at Booker events, and that connection between the candidate and the audience was evident again on Saturday. In fact, it wasn’t until Booker asked his girlfriend Rosario Dawson a question that most people even noticed there was a famous actor in the room.
Booker asked Dawson if she had his wallet. (She didn’t.) The question came after CWJ Executive Director Rafael Morataya reminded the audience that the nonprofit relies on donations as well as grants.
“I need to teach you about donations,” Booker told Morataya. The senator started by offering to donate $100, if 20 people in the room would donate at least a dollar. That’s when he asked about his wallet.
Then Booker upped the offer.
“I will give $500 to this organization if I can get 30 people in this room to raise their hand and say they will give something to this organization,” he said.
Hands shot up across the room. Salih found an empty coffee can to pass around. By the time the can returned to the front of the room, it was stuffed with donations.