The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cory Booker, a would-be bachelor president, says Americans are ‘open to lots of different types of families’ in the White House

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Feb. 14. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

NEWARK — A banged-up Dodge Caravan pulls up next to Sen. Cory Booker, who’s out for a walk in the banged-up city center where he’s lived for almost a quarter-century.

“How you doin’, Mr. President!” shouts the driver, a middle-aged man with a huge smile.

These streets are Booker’s sweet spot, where he was mayor for seven years, where he still has a small house, where seemingly everybody knows his name and wants to shake his hand, and where, on Saturday, he will appear at a rally to officially announce his campaign for president.

It’s also a place where Booker doesn’t feel he needs to explain his private life. He’d prefer to discuss justice reform, education, all his issues — and not why he might be the first bachelor president since Grover Cleveland married in the White House in 1886.

“I hate it that people assume I’d be a bachelor president,” Booker says with a big laugh on this March afternoon. “It’s literally 700 days from now. You never know.”

Booker turns 50 this month, has never married and lives alone in a boxy little brick house here. He also keeps a basement apartment “crash pad” in Washington because he got tired of sleeping on borrowed couches. He’s a workaholic vegan who jogs, doesn’t drink alcohol and has a thing for Star Trek.

The presidency has, until recently, been marinated in the notion that a traditional family life connotes wholesomeness, integrity, character. Most recent presidents have presented themselves as dad in chief, with a wife, children and preferably a loyal dog. The iconic photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. peeking out from beneath the Resolute Desk suggested that a family like many others in America lived in the White House. George W. Bush had Laura and the girls. Barack Obama had Michelle and the girls. The White House was a fortress of American traditional values, reassuringly “normal.”

At his 2020 launch news conference, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) called the U.S. a "nation of immigrants," and said he would campaign for "every single" American. (Video: Reuters)

But those norms are shifting, especially in a Democratic field rich with female candidates, a married gay man — and one single guy who is banking on voters agreeing with him that “America is open to lots of different types of families.”

Booker notes that President Trump has “broken the mold” by being elected after marrying three times. In a sign of the changing times, Booker’s marital status may be more notable in this race than his race. He would be the second African American president, and he and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), who is also black, are two of the most prominent candidates in the crowded Democratic presidential field.

On this Sunday afternoon, Booker is walking down the cracked sidewalk past the Lucky Liquor shop, stepping over somebody’s empty bottle of Dewar’s scotch. He’s trying to laugh off questions about his private life, but he’s also trying to give a thoughtful and earnest answer, because he seems almost compulsively thoughtful and earnest.

“I do not merge my personal life with my professional life,” he says, taking loping, athletic strides in his black wingtips. “I’m running for president of the United States because I believe that I —”

He’s interrupted by a shouting, smiling young man.

“Cory Booker! How you doin’?”

“Well, brother. How you doin’?” Booker says, shaking the man’s hand.

“I hope you make it to be president,” he says.

“Thank you. I’m going to need your help,” Booker says.

“Yes, sir, you gonna get it!”

The interruption hasn’t derailed his thought, and he turns back to the question at hand as he walks into a cold Jersey wind blowing down the sidewalk.

“My romantic life is evolving, and I’m looking forward to one day having another title: husband and father. I believe both of those are going to happen. And if the American people will it, I’m going to be president of the United States as well.”

For weeks, Booker has been hinting that he has a “boo,” a girlfriend, but on this March day he still hasn’t yet said her name publicly. But now, pressed a little bit, he acknowledges what Booker-watchers have long suspected: He’s dating actress Rosario Dawson, who turns 40 in May, a New Yorker who lives in Los Angeles.

He says they met at a fundraiser for mutual friend Ben Jealous during Jealous’s unsuccessful 2018 run for governor of Maryland. They didn’t speak much then, but they met up again at a party hosted by another mutual friend, and they started dating just before Thanksgiving.

“Up until I started running for president in February, we had managed to spend a lot of great time together,” he says. “We spent Thanksgiving together, Christmas together. It was just a wonderful period of finding time to spend lots of time together. And now we just make it work.”

(Dawson publicly revealed the relationship a few days later, telling a TMZ reporter who found her at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, “I am just grateful to be with someone that I respect and love and admire so much.”)

Out on the campaign trail, Booker says, people are focused on issues, and only one person has asked him whether he intends to get married.

“I said the same thing,” he says. “God willing that that happens — and happens sooner than later.”

Booker notes that single Americans are a fast-growing demographic but that “I don’t know what it’s going to mean at the voting booth.” The Pew Research Center says half of U.S. adults are married, down from 72 percent in 1960.

As a never-married man, Booker has long dealt with speculation that he is gay. He’s says he has been attacked politically over it, in his first unsuccessful run for mayor in 2002 and since.

“I’m a straight guy with a great girlfriend,” Booker says as he walks. “I know that I will be attacked, and they will always find some way to attack me no matter what.”

Booker says Americans are long past being interested in malicious chatter about a person’s sexuality.

“That’s the kind of politics that I believe we need to stop in this country,” he says.

On 18th Avenue, Booker can’t resist knocking on the door of a woman he’s known since he was a Newark city council member, who keeps a framed portrait of him on her living room wall.

He’s been out canvassing in New Hampshire and Iowa lately, but this stop is more for hugs than votes. The woman’s granddaughter gives Booker a big embrace, and her grandson tells him he had just seen the new Captain Marvel movie.

Booker trades reviews of the film with the young man — they both loved it. Booker says he’s a “movie addict” and recently took a group of Newark kids, “my mentees,” to see “Captain Marvel.” It’s a passion he inherited from his late father, Cary Alfred Booker, who he says was named after Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock.

Back outside, Booker patiently answers more questions about the private lives of politicians — especially his.

“I’m not allowing my timelines in my personal life to be accelerated or decelerated” by politics, he says. “I think that that’s folly. I think people want someone who’s their authentic self, whatever that self is.”

The son of two IBM executives, Booker was raised as one of the few black people in the New Jersey suburb of Harrington Park, where he was a star football player. After graduating from Stanford University, Booker spent two years as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in Britain, then earned a degree at Yale Law School.

In his third year at Yale, he moved into a run-down rooming house in Newark’s Central Ward, where he says his car was broken into the day he moved in. Later, he moved across the street to a 16th-floor apartment in the Brick Towers housing complex, a notorious symbol of neglect, rats and drug-dealing. He lived there for eight years.

He was elected to the Newark city council in 1998 representing the Central Ward, then was elected mayor in 2006 and a U.S. senator in 2013. Brick Towers has since been torn down, but Booker can see where it stood from his front door.

Booker says he chooses to keep a home in central Newark, rather than the wealthy areas where many of his Yale Law friends moved, because “this really is home for me.” He acknowledges that choosing to live in a grim public housing project for almost a decade complicated his dating life, but he said it made him a better senator and presidential candidate.

“Some of my supporters are still like, ‘Why do you live there?’ And I say, ‘Because everything I am in my professional life has come from this community,’ ” he says. “I’m a United States senator. But I would not be one without the neighborhood you see here and without the people here.”

Booker’s answers can often seem almost dipped in honey and dusted with sugar. Even his friends roll their eyes at his over-the-top sincerity and corny sayings, but they insist it is genuine and not a political confection.

“There have always been people saying it is fake,” said Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law School professor who was Booker’s classmate on the Rhodes Scholarship and at Yale Law. “But after years of close assessment I have concluded, as confidently as I am confident of anything in the world, that it is not.”

On the street near the old Brick Towers lot, Booker spots another couple of guys he recognizes, and he greets them in Spanish: “Todo bien?”

He says he learned some Spanish in the summer of 2017, when he went to Costa Rica for a few weeks to study the language and relax with then-girlfriend Cleo Wade, a poet and author. He says it was his longest-ever vacation and reflected on how he has tried to find a better balance between his professional and private lives.

“When I was mayor I was so career-focused,” he says. “I think since I’ve been a senator I’ve been able to find a more balanced life — at least until I ran for president.”

He has been seen out in public over the years with a number of women, which has created a lot of media buzz about his love life — which he says is sometimes wrong. For example, he says, TV news personality Gayle King, an occasional subject of media speculation, is simply a close friend.

“The problem I have, and this is maybe the reason why it seems like I’m being coy, is that I go out on a date and it ends up on Page Six,” Booker says, referring to the fabled New York Post gossip column.

“I had an ex-girlfriend that I dated years ago, and Page Six ran something about her,” he says. “It was so intrusive into her life. It makes you a little bit more private.”

Booker says one ex-girlfriend told him, “I don’t want the first time I show up on Google to be based on who I’m dating and not my important professional work.”

He says he’s trying to find a way to have a private life amid the full-sprint marathon of a presidential campaign.

“It definitely puts an unfair spotlight on people,” he says. “You want to be respectful of the person you are dating. You know, Rosario has a child. And suddenly her boyfriend’s running for president. These are complicated things, and you want to try to protect your family.”

After an hour-long walk through his neighborhood, Booker is nearly back at his house, where a black SUV is waiting to take him to two campaign appearances.

He passes his first mayoral campaign headquarters, now a Spanish-language Pentecostal church. A man on the sidewalk shouts: “Good luck, Cory Booker! You’re gonna do it!”

Booker is soaking it up, beaming, energized.

Two more guys ask Booker for a selfie.

And nobody asks him about his boo.