NEWARK, NJ - Cory Booker returned to the city where his political career was sparked, hoping that his presidential campaign catches fire with a progressive message steeped in terms of love and empathy at the start of a bruising primary battle.
"This community taught me all about not that feel-good, easy-going love. It is strong, courageous and defiant love. The kind of love that works through heartbreak and pain, the kind of love that is essential to achieving justice," said Booker, Newark's mayor from 2006 to 2013 and now New Jersey's junior U.S. Senator, before approximately 4,000 people in downtown Newark's Military Park on a sunny spring Saturday afternoon.
"I learned right here on these streets that you can't make progress by dividing people and stoking fear," Booker said. "I learned that the only way to overcome the really tough challenges is by extending grace, finding common ground, and working together."
Booker is extending this message as part of his "Justice For All" national campaign tour that will take him to Iowa, Georgia, and Nevada over the next two weeks as he tries to set himself apart from a Democratic presidential candidate field that is closing in on 20 potential contenders.
At a rally geared for a national audience, Booker underscored several policy themes that fit with his generally progressive platform - criminal justice reform, the need to "bring a fight" to the National Rifle Association "like they've never seen before" to press for gun control reform, full funding for public schools, and the creation of a federally funded savings account for every child born in America in order to narrow the socioeconomic and racial wealth gap.
But for local Newarkers, Booker's rhetoric is familiar, rooted in a political career that began when the then tenant rights lawyer was elected to the Central Ward council seat in 1998. Many local politicos and residents questioned Booker's intentions at the time, pointing to his Bergen County background as proof that his interest in Newark was not deep.
However, as Booker attacked President Donald Trump from the podium, stating that unlike the Republican incumbent he would not "ignore or give license to white supremacy," Newark residents in the crowd noted that the tenor of 2020 presidential politics helped to solidify their shift behind the former mayor.
"We don't want sentiment. We want action," said Tammy Hill, a resident of the Vailsburg section of Newark who is studying for her doctorate in social work at Rutgers-Newark. "I want to know that he's the person to reshape a better tomorrow for all of us. It's good that he came here and tried to make changes for the people. But where he's from doesn't matter the most to me. It's more important to me that he's qualified, competent, ethical, and has morals."
Other Newark residents pointed to the crucible of running a city that has experienced significant urban revitalization despite the ongoing challenges of poverty and crime as proof that Booker can run America.
"Newark is a difficult city, we know that. When he was mayor, Cory Booker succeeded in putting Newark on the mental agenda of America,"said Aboubacar Koyate, an immigrant from Cote d'Ivoire who noted how Booker's national profile encouraged economic development in the city. "Newark was discarded. Now Newark is back."
"Cory did a great job at shining a light on this city, and showing that Newark has the talent to lead this country," said Michael Hobbs, a South Ward resident. "The problems that this city has had for decades aren't going to be solved overnight. But Booker has positioned the city to succeed going forward. This is not only a great moment for our city, but for all cities like Newark."
Whether Booker will get the chance to position the nation to advance has yet to be seen. His 3.8 percent average support number in a recent Real Clear Politics poll put him at sixth place, while a recent Monmouth University survey of likely Iowa Democratic caucus goers registered him even lower, with 3 percent support at eighth place.
Although Booker has previously enjoyed strong support from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood donors, he lagged behind most of his Democratic primary rivals for the first quarter of this year.
Yet New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy noted that in what is the "way early" days of the 2020 campaign, Booker still has the chance to differentiate himself from the rest of the Democratic candidates.
"He has to make sure that people understand his personal life story. There are not many people who have done what he has done - councilman, mayor, U.S. Senator," Murphy told TAPinto Newark on the way to the stage. "He has been a chief executive, and that will matter, because that's the job you're running for."
Booker's campaign put forth all the familiar trappings of a national effort on Saturday, with a local twinge. Both the Malcolm X Shabazz High School Marching Band and the Newark Boys Chorus, brash and angelic, performed, a musical back-and-forth of two types of tones Booker used in his speech. But in the end, Booker was unapologetic about sticking to his social justice tone.
"We know the challenges. Critics are going to tell all of us that a campaign powered by grace and love and a deep faith in each another can't beat that. But I say it's the only way we win," said Booker from a stage ringed by budding spring trees. "The president wants a race to the gutter and to fight us in the gutter. But to win, we have to fight from higher ground in order to bring this country to higher ground.”
At the end of the speech, the crowd surged forward to take pictures with Booker, the selfie king of American politics, his supporters wishing him well before he left to face the nation.
Standing under a blooming cherry blossom tree, an iconic symbol of Newark in the spring, attorney Babatunde Odubekun assessed whether Booker's nascent national campaign was about to bloom, or die on the vine.
"Cory Booker showed people that he could take a hit in Newark. It's a crowded field, but he is the valedictorian of the class," said Odubekun, 27, who lives in downtown Newark. "Now we'll see if he's going to be the homecoming king."