By Nancy Scola
Booker — a Yale Law School graduate and Rhodes scholar who became nationally known as the hands-on mayor of Newark, New Jersey — has made no secret of his White House ambitions. The 49-year-old Democrat has been setting the stage to run for more than a year, courting influential African-American surrogates and hiring campaign personnel in crucial early primary states.
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Booker will seek to set himself apart in a crowded field focusing on a message on love and unity, one that urges America to swing back from a bitter, divisive era under President Donald Trump.
He also intends to appeal to the better angels of the Democratic Party — if they’re willing to listen — that it’s possible for a Democrat to work across party lines, three advisers familiar with Booker’s strategy told POLITICO.
"The history of our nation is defined by collective action; by interwoven destinies of slaves and abolitionists; of those born here and those who chose America as home; of those who took up arms to defend our country, and those who linked arms to challenge and change it," Booker intends to say in an announcement video.
Booker will hold up as a signature accomplishment his work with Republicans late last year to push through a major criminal justice reform package that eased mandatory minimum federal prison sentences, reduced a disparity in prison terms for crack and powder cocaine and made other prison sentencing reforms. Booker is also expected to tout his work with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to create “Opportunity Zones” — a form of tax break in low-income neighborhoods — as part of the 2017 tax cut bill.
“Unlike everybody else in D.C., he would find good in everybody. He’d be about building relationships, getting things done,” a longtime Booker adviser said. “People fault him for that. To me, if you go a different route than everybody else, you never know where it might end up.”
While Booker is expected to challenge Donald Trump’s rhetoric, the senator won’t dwell on the president, one of his advisers said, describing the thinking as “you can’t fight darkness with darkness.”
Booker teased this message at NAACP rally in South Carolina last month honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
"King said we can never let someone pull us so low as to hate them. We need each other in this nation. We need people that are gonna put the indivisible back into this one nation under God. We need folks that are gonna mend up wounds and bind us back together,” Booker said. “We’re not going to be measured by how much we hate someone just because they vote differently than us or think differently than us. No, we will be measured by our defiant love and our ability to pull people together and help them to recognize that the lines that divide us are nowhere near as strong as the ties that bind us.”
Booker enters the race having forged relationships with elected officials and Democratic operatives in key early states but must contend with lower name ID than some of his competitors. The most recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll of 2020 contenders showed Booker at 3 percent, in sixth place behind former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas).
His campaign launch comes a full month after Warren’s initial exploratory announcement and after Harris drew drew 20,000 people to her campaign kickoff speech in Oakland, California.
A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Booker drew national attention — and ridicule — after his “I am Spartacus” moment during the confirmation hearing for then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
As one of two African-Americans in the field, Booker advisers say he will set himself apart in a crowded primary, betting he will build off a base of black support. Last month, Booker toured Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana and appeared at a major rally where Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) — the recent chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus — led students in a chant of “run, Cory, run.”
Booker also joined Civil Rights era icon Rep. John Lewis on a road trip to Plains, Georgia, which Booker documented on social media. The two visited former President Jimmy Carter. "I hope you run for president," Carter told him.