NEWARK, N.J. — New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has traversed the country for Hillary Clinton.
But days before the Garden State’s presidential primary, the freshman senator and former Newark mayor found himself at home.
New Jersey has the chance to give Clinton a big boost after a difficult campaign against Bernie Sanders. And Booker — one of her most loyal and charismatic surrogates — wants to make sure his state does its duty.
Clinton is widely expected to win here and add to her lead following an Associated Press report on Monday night showing her reaching the magic number of delegates needed to claim the nomination.
“Folks need to understand that this is a really important primary — not just in terms of the contest on the Democratic side, but to send Hillary into the convention with a lot of momentum behind her as we prepare to face Donald Trump,” Booker said in an interview outside his home church, in the neighborhood once leveled by the 1967 Newark race riots.
Get out the vote
Booker’s goal is to get those people out to vote.
Taking the microphone from his pastor at the Metropolitan Baptist Church, Booker told the Sunday congregation that it’s not enough to turn out to vote as individuals.
“Wake up that 18- or 19-year-old in your family and take them with you,” he said.
“Don’t be like 2009!” Booker said, referencing the off-year gubernatorial election in which turnout was low and Republican Chris Christie (who was knocked out of the presidential race) was elected governor. He rattled off a series of Christie administration policies that he said made his constituents worse off.
“The question is not ‘Why are they doing this to us?’” Booker said. “We did it to ourselves.”
“Let’s be like 2008,” he said. Turnout skyrocketed during that presidential year.
Intermittently quoting scripture and Winston Churchill, Booker sounded like a preacher. He fired up the crowd when he spoke at length about voting rights being under attack — especially from the disproportionate arrest of black people for drug offenses.
Students at Stanford, his alma mater, can get away with drug use that Newark residents cannot, Booker said.
One out of five blacks can’t vote in Florida because of felony disenfranchisement, Booker told the crowd.
“They lose voting rights for things the last two presidents have admitted doing,” he said.
Elected as Newark's mayor in 2006, the Rhodes Scholar succeeded three corrupt predecessors. His rise to national Democratic surrogate has been rapid.
He chose to live in a Newark housing project and gained national attention for rescuing people and animals in his city from danger as a kind of populist superman.
In 2013, he became New Jersey’s first black senator and only the fourth elected to the chamber.
Making the rounds for Clinton, Booker — or “CB” as his handlers call him — wasn’t alone. He brought along a high school student he mentors and has known since the student was five. That meant hitting up all the campaign stops with Booker, and yes, snapchat karaoke.
Booker has an undeniable ability to connect with people, an asset some of Clinton’s supporters would like to see her acknowledge in a more official way.
“She needs to take you everywhere she goes,” pastor David Jefferson joked before introducing his longtime parishioner.
Sources told the New York Times in April that Clinton advisers were discussing Booker as a possible vice presidential candidate. When Clinton was in his state last week, Booker joked that he’s already Clinton’s “VP,” or “vegan pal.”
Booker wouldn’t answer questions about his interest in the job. “I am so not focused there,” he said Sunday.
He acknowledged that picking a senator from a state with a Republican governor could imperil Democrats’ chances of winning Senate control.
But among Clinton supporters in his home state, there’s appetite to see him on the ticket, especially in a position where he could help connect with young voters.
“Oh, he’s dynamite. Are you kidding?” said Laurie Head-Melillo, 58, of Franklin, who volunteered at a phone bank for Clinton in Middlesex County over the weekend.
And she knows her candidate’s flaws.
“Hillary Clinton is not a natural politician. She’s well-rounded, but retail politics is kinda tough for her,” she said. “He brings that ability.”
But some Clinton supporters, despite wanting to see Booker in such a role, fear that he wouldn’t widen Clinton’s electoral appeal.
“I’m not sure how it balances the ticket. He’d draw from her current supporters,” said Mendham resident Amalia Duarte.
From her experience phone banking, she concluded that Clinton needs a running mate who can appeal to older, white men.
“They’re the most likely to hang up,” Duarte said.
Year still young
Booker isn’t without critics in the Democratic party.
Logging into his Facebook account Sunday, Booker said he was greeted with plenty of comments from Sanders supporters who said, “I used to believe in you.”
He’s been criticized for his ties to Wall Street — a not uncommon liaison for a tri-state-area Democrat. And he angered liberals in a 2012 appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" when he criticized Obama’s campaign for attacking Mitt Romney’s private equity experience.
Still, his role as Democratic surrogate will extend well beyond this primary.
“I thought I’d be getting some rest after this presidential primary, but I’m going back on the road,” Booker said.
He’s headed to Florida within the week to campaign with Rep. Patrick Murphy, and after that to Ohio, where he’ll turn toward helping his party retake the Senate.
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