Politics

Booker Tacks Toward Democratic Party’s Base

Liberals eye New Jersey senator warily over ties to Wall Street and drug companies

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker speaks Wednesday during Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ event to introduce the so-called Medicare for All Act of 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker worked on burnishing his liberal credentials on economic and health care policy this week, which could appeal to his Democratic Party’s skeptical base. 

The first-term senator is considered among the many potential Democrats in the chamber who could run for president in 2020. But liberals are wary of him because of what they see as his ties to financial industries.

Booker on Wednesday joined other party colleagues — including potential Democratic presidential contenders such as Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachussetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — at the roll-out of Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for all” single-payer health care bill.

“I cannot sit when Australia, Canada or England takes care of every one of their children better than the United States of America,” said Booker, a co-sponsor of the legislation. 

Last year, Booker was a vigorous campaigner — and was once considered a potential running mate — for Hillary Clinton, who criticized Sanders during the campaign by saying that single-payer “will never, ever come to pass.”

Jonathan Tasini, a national surrogate for Sanders, said liberals are pleased with Booker’s support for Sanders’ proposal, but they are also cautious about him, considering the former Newark, New Jersey, mayor received large amounts of campaign contributions from Wall Street.

Cory Booker should be applauded for supporting this piece of legislation, but we are going to hold him accountable and be aware of where he gets his money and what his donor base demands,” Tasini said.

Records from Opensecrets.org showed Booker received $2.4 million in campaign contributions from securities and investment industries during his political career and $1.2 million from the real estate industry — including from a 2013 fundraiser hosted by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.

Asked why he was shifting to support a single-payer system, Booker said in an interview the day before Sanders’ bill was introduced that he had been talking about increasing access to health care for some time.

“Every generation has expanded equal access, whether it was access to the ballot, whether it was equal access to civil rights,” he said. “And it’s time we start talking about equal access to health care.”

Booker raised the ire of many liberals in January when he voted against an amendment proposed by Sanders and Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar that would have allowed Americans to buy cheaper drugs from Canada.

He said at the time that while he supported importing drugs, Sanders and Klobuchar’s proposal did not include sufficient consumer protections to make sure those drugs met American safety standards.

After Booker’s vote in January, a Twitter follower told him that she “liked him as a person,” but “you let the drug companies win.” To which Booker responded, “There’s more we must do to lower costs that Pharma won’t like. We need much more action than this. I will fight for this.”

Booker later teamed up with Sanders on another prescription drug bill and he told NPR in June that he had “put a pause on even receiving contributions” from the pharmaceutical industry.

Ilya Sheyman, executive director of the liberal group MoveOn.org, said it was important to both praise Booker and hold him accountable.

“It’s an example of the senator showing important and much-needed leadership on behalf of his constituents,” Sheyman said. “That said — and this comment isn’t specific to any senator or elected official, but is true for all of them — no one issue or position is enough to establish progressive credentials.”

While Booker’s record on economic policy worries some on the left, he has made himself visible in fixing what he sees as gaps in the criminal justice system that disproportionately hurt racial minorities. This was the case when he testified in January against his Senate GOP colleague Jeff Sessions’ confirmation as attorney general.

Booker, at the same time, has also made inroads with Republicans such as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, and Tim Scott of South Carolina on criminal justice issues. He’s also worked with liberal favorite Warren to introduce legislation on women in prison.

And as a senator who was elected to his first full term in 2014, Booker still has time to shape his record on economic policy before potentially launching a presidential campaign. 

On Tuesday, Booker gave remarks at an event promoting the Federal Reserve’s full employment mandate.

“This idea that we have a free market is such a delusion, because my city is a testament to a broken free market where company after company outsourced their costs on communities like mine,” Booker said of Newark in his speech.

Speaking out about large corporations in this manner contrasts to the past, for instance, in June, when Booker tweeted to a questioner that he was “concerned” about the merging of Amazon and Whole Foods, but he added, “I love my local Newark Whole Foods and believe it will only get better.”

Sanders opened the Medicare for all event Wednesday by talking about how Washington focuses too much on who is supporting the legislation.

But Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ former presidential campaign manager, praised Booker for joining Sanders after his earlier “no” vote on prescription drugs this year.

“I think it says that he looked at the issue and he saw the light,” Weaver said. “I think it’s great. People want to do the right thing, I think they should be complimented, not criticized.”

Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, said Booker’s sponsorship is a sign of how Democrats are listening to their base.

“Frankly, among a large number of Democrats there is a growing realization that you win by supporting and fighting for issues that most Americans support,” Sroka said.

Booker said he was not sure if other Democrats would join in co-sponsoring the legislation, but he was optimistic.

“We are going to continue to advance steps towards greater access,” he said. “We are going to continue this march until every American has access to affordable quality health care.”

As far as his presidential aspirations go, Booker is keeping his cards close to his vest.

Asked in July by a CNN podcast about his future, the senator replied, “I don’t know what the future’s going to bring.”

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