“We wanted someone who wasn’t from the suburbs,” Dick DeVos said at the time.
Booker accepted. Appearing on the stage at a Grand Rapids debate called “School Vouchers — Yes or No?,” Booker represented “Yes.” He passionately echoed the DeVos view that parents should be able to use tax dollars to pay for a child’s private school education, according to a video of the event obtained by The Washington Post.
The debate was the prelude to an unlikely alliance with Betsy DeVos. Booker served with her on the boards of pro-voucher groups, attended numerous meetings with her across the country, and supported key parts of her agenda. Like a number of elected officials representing cities with poor education records, Booker sought alternatives to a failing system. He decided to back vouchers and charter schools.
Booker’s political career took off as a parade of wealthy philanthropists, hedge fund managers and others who supported DeVos’s “school choice” viewpoint poured money into his campaigns and pet projects.
But as Booker runs for president, his relationship with DeVos, his previous support of vouchers and his continuing praise for charter schools present potential roadblocks. Vouchers and charters schools are anathema to many powerful teachers unions, who have outsize power in Democratic primaries, and some candidates in the party strongly oppose them on the grounds that they weaken traditional public schools.
DeVos is also reviled by many on the left, as Democrats have said she is unqualified for her job and have questioned her commitment to public schools.
In response, Booker has defended his record but also performed a series of reversals and denials. In the most striking instance, Booker said in a recent interview with The Post at his campaign headquarters here that he doesn’t recall his participation in the Michigan debate. “I remember visiting Grand Rapids. But I don’t remember a debate,” Booker said.
Booker now takes a view opposite of his debate stance. He told The Post in a recent candidate survey that “the evidence has become clear that vouchers do not help — and in fact, hurt — the cause of educational equity.” In his interview with The Post, Booker said that while he did initially support vouchers when he was on the City Council, he turned against them by the time he became mayor in 2006.
He also has separated himself from DeVos. In a dramatic 2017 Senate floor speech, Booker opposed DeVos’s nomination to be Secretary of Education, saying he had “no confidence” in her stance on civil rights issues, without mentioning their prior work together on pro-voucher groups.
DeVos’s allies are stunned by what they call his turnabout. They view Booker’s effort to distance himself from her and her agenda as a betrayal.
“Now that it is politically inconvenient, he has distanced himself from the issue and those who helped launch his political career,” said William E. Oberndorf, who was chairman of the American Education Reform Council when DeVos and Booker were on the board. “Cory once told me that his father used to say to him, ‘Never forget the girl who brought you to the dance.’ I can only conclude that Cory not only forgot one of the girls who brought him to the dance, he missed his . . . moment to stand up for an issue he always said he believed in.”
Betsy and Dick DeVos declined to comment.
Booker said Newark’s public schools were in crisis when he became a City Council member and then mayor. With the state having seized control of the city’s failed school system, he said he was “desperate” for anything and anyone who could help the city’s children.
“I was looking to anybody who had ideas that could help rescue my children from patently unjust educational circumstances,” Booker said. Initially vouchers, and the backing of DeVos’s network of financial contributors, seemed to provide just the opening he wanted.
Breaking with Democrats
Booker’s support of programs such as vouchers was rooted in his upbringing. Booker’s parents had grown up in the South, where they experienced widespread racism, became employees of IBM, and moved to New Jersey.
Booker said his parents sought to live in what he said was the “all-white suburb” of Harrington Park, 22 miles north of Newark, to put their children in good schools. They were able to buy the house only after intervention by a civil rights group, Booker said. As a result, Booker said he obtained a stellar education — one that he said is denied to countless children in poor areas — that eventually enabled him to attend Stanford University and Yale Law School, and become a Rhodes Scholar.
Booker was elected to the Newark City Council in 1998 and, after witnessing the frustration of parents of inner-city children in poorly financed school districts, he became one of the best-known early supporters of vouchers among Democrats. He was embraced by conservative Republicans who were waging campaigns across the country to enact voucher programs.
In September 2000, Booker delivered a blistering pro-voucher speech to the Manhattan Institute, a conservative policy group.
At the time, the graduation rate in Newark was 45 percent, and 75 percent of eighth-graders failed math proficiency tests, which Booker said in the speech was a “repugnant” situation.
Wealthy people, Booker told the Institute audience, “have vouchers because they have the power to choose schools for their children.” It was unfair, he said, that the country’s leaders in effect “say to the poorest, most vulnerable Americans that they cannot choose.”
Booker later told Dale Russakoff, author of “The Prize,” a book about the effort to transform Newark’s schools, that “I became a pariah in Democratic circles for taking on the party orthodoxy on education,” but it led to him gaining “all these Republican donors and donors from outside Newark, many of them motivated because we have an African American urban Democrat telling the truth about education.”
Among the Republicans most excited about Booker were members of the DeVos family, who had made billions of dollars running the Amway Corporation.
In Michigan, Dick DeVos was leading a group called Kids First! Yes!, which was behind a ballot initiative that would enable taxpayer dollars to be used for vouchers to pay for private religious education. Betsy DeVos had supported the measure in her role as chairwoman of the Republican State Committee.
A debate on the issue was slated to be co-sponsored by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. Betsy DeVos served on the Acton board at the time and the DeVos family was a financial supporter of the institute, Acton officials said.
Booker’s opponent in the debate was Wendy Wagenheim, the legislative director of the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Wagenheim kept a video of the debate and provided a copy to The Post. It provides an unparalleled view into Booker’s thinking on the issue at the time, one that has not been seen publicly in 19 years.
Wagenheim began the debate by noting that Booker didn’t live or vote in Michigan, while she and her fellow residents would have to bear the consequences of a vote for vouchers.
“I’m not flying out back to New Jersey or wherever he is going tomorrow,” she said.
Booker struck back. “When I fly out, I go to the projects,” Booker said, referring to a recreational vehicle that he lived in near an urban housing area in Newark. “When she leaves here, she goes to the suburbs.”
Booker argued that vouchers should be provided if it meant a child could get a better education. “If a better school is across the street, and it’s a Catholic school, they should be able to go there” with taxpayer-financed vouchers, Booker said.
In November, voters sided with Wagenheim, defeating the efforts to legalize vouchers by a 3-to-1 margin. But Booker didn’t waver.
Champion of choice
Booker lost his 2002 campaign for mayor, but school-choice backers flocked to him.
Oberndorf, an investor and philanthropist who remains close to DeVos, helped lead the way. He held at least three fundraisers for Booker in his San Francisco home, each attended by about 50 people, some of them familiar to Booker from his days at Stanford University.
As chairman of the American Education Reform Council, a pro-voucher group that included DeVos on its board, Oberndorf became convinced of Booker’s commitment to the issue and invited Booker to join the board in 2003. Booker accepted. Then, from 2004 until 2009, DeVos and Booker were on the boards of two related organizations that met simultaneously, according to former board members.
Oberndorf said he watched Booker work closely with DeVos at board meetings. “The purpose of the organization at that time was solely focused on private school choice,” Oberndorf said in an email. “The board met three times a year, and virtually all of those meetings were held in person where Cory and Betsy DeVos were both present. At no time do I ever remember them having anything but warm and high regard for one another. There also was virtually no disagreement or misunderstanding between them or anyone else at those meetings as to the mission of the organization.”
The council’s president, Susan Mitchell, recalled it similarly, saying via email that “during all the years I worked with Cory and Betsy, I never observed anything other than a warm relationship between them. I recall no occasion when Cory was critical of Betsy. Betsy was extremely supportive of Cory.”
Booker, however, said he aired his disagreements with DeVos, Oberndorf and others during the board meetings. “We fought like the dickens over a lot of issues,” he said, recalling “heated arguments.”
Told that Oberndorf and Mitchell recalled no such arguments, Booker suggested talking to another former board member, Howard Fuller. In a telephone interview, Fuller, a professor of education at Marquette University, disputed Booker’s account.
“I was on the board the whole time,” Fuller said. “There were no heated arguments about anything. I consider Cory to be a friend, I respect Cory, I believe that people can change their minds, but you can’t revise history.” Fuller said DeVos and Booker “were friends. Obviously Cory has changed.”
Booker’s connections to school-choice advocates across the country, as well as many others, helped him raise millions of dollars for his 2006 campaign for Newark mayor, which he won after promising to revolutionize the city’s schools.
As mayor, he had abandoned his support for vouchers, although he supported a proposal for tuition tax credits for low-income families. He emphasized charter schools as a way of giving students in failing schools other options, and he remained on the board of DeVos-connected groups through the first several years of being mayor.
At the time, a growing number of Democrats, including President Barack Obama, expressed support for charter schools. The majority of charter schools — and all of those in Newark — are nonprofit groups funded with tax dollars. Most are not unionized. Some union officials have opposed the growth of charters on grounds that they diverted money from traditional schools and would draw away the best students, although Booker said that did not happen in Newark.
Booker recently has criticized some charter school programs as “really offensive” and “Republican schemes” even as he defended those he helped enact in Newark.
Booker’s support for charters gained even more attention when Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared in 2010 with him on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to announce a $100 million gift to help improve Newark’s schools. Booker agreed to raise another $100 million, much of it from Wall Streeters who backed school choice and his campaigns.
The money led to a groundbreaking compromise: It helped seal a contract with the union that raised teacher salaries and provided money for charter schools.
Shortly afterward, Booker delivered the 2012 keynote speech at the American Federation for Children, which DeVos attended in her role as chairwoman. Booker’s appearance drew derision from many Democrats.
Booker defended his appearance, saying the group had members of both major political parties, but then he took a swipe at then-President Obama. “I’m going to be out there fighting for my president, but he does not send his kids to Washington, D.C., public schools,” Booker said. Obama’s two daughters attended the private Sidwell Friends School in Northwest Washington.
Booker told the group, “We created a system that if you’re connected, elected, have wealth and privilege, you get freedom in this country, and now you want to deny that to my community.”
In a sign of progress, the state returned control of the school system to Newark two years ago. The number of Newark students in charters has risen from 10 percent when Booker was elected mayor to more than 35 percent today, compared to 6 percent nationwide.
Booker cited positive findings in a study completed earlier this year by the New Jersey Children’s Foundation. It found that black students in Newark were four times as likely to attend a school above the state average as in 2006, when Booker was elected mayor. The study also, however, said 15,000 students, nearly one-third of the total, attend schools with low proficiency rates.
DeVos supporters stunned
Booker’s emphasis on education resonated with New Jersey voters, and he was elected U.S. senator in 2013 in a special election. He received help from Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, who contributed to his campaign and hosted a fundraiser at their home, and he was reelected in 2014.
Booker, 50, said in the interview that he had already broken sharply with DeVos by this time.
“When I was a guy in my 20s, I . . . was willing to go anywhere I could, talk to anyone, if it was gonna help inner-city black and brown people get an education. Now as I got older and into my 30s and started looking at these ideal programs that people created, like Betsy DeVos, and saw how bad they were, and also saw that some of the agenda that I felt they held was very dangerous on lots of levels — including one that I’m very concerned with about race equity in this country — I fell out and said, ‘This is not the strategy.’ ”
But as recently as May 2016, Booker appeared again before the group that DeVos chaired, the American Federation for Children. After DeVos delivered a speech defending herself against attacks from Democrats, Oberndorf warmly introduced Booker, praising his commitment to school choice.
Booker spoke proudly about the growing number of students in Newark’s charter schools, saying, “This mission of this organization is the mission of our nation. . . . I have been involved with this organization for 10 years and I have seen the sacred honor of those here.”
As Booker finished his speech, the audience gave him a standing ovation. To DeVos and her allies, it seemed that Booker was still firmly in the fold, according to Oberndorf.
Seven months later, President-elect Trump announced that he was nominating DeVos as education secretary. DeVos’s backers were concerned she could lose the nomination by a single vote, so Booker’s support seemed crucial.
But when Booker appeared on the Senate floor on Feb. 6, 2017, he made no mention during his 46-minute speech that he had been allied with her. He said he opposed her because of his concern that she would not have an effective Office for Civil Rights.
He said did not have confidence DeVos would protect those who are harassed in school because of their skin color or sexual orientation. A Booker campaign aide said the senator was also concerned about reports that DeVos and her family had donated to “anti-LGBT” groups.
The “reason I fought so hard against her was probably because I knew her really well,” Booker said in the interview, “and there were things about her on LGBTQ issues or things about her on race issues that really bothered me.”
Booker’s vote shattered his career-long alliance with DeVos and stunned her supporters.
“Cory gained a great deal of political support thanks to his association with Betsy and other supporters,” said Mitchell, the president of the American Education Reform Council when Booker and DeVos were board members. “His abandonment of school choice and of Betsy makes it clear that his professed commitment to the issue and his friendship with her were fueled by political ambition, not principle.”
Every Democrat and two Republicans opposed DeVos’s nomination. She was approved by the narrowest margin, a 50-50 tie broken by Vice President Pence, the first time in history that such a step was needed for a Cabinet position.
Alice Crites and Laura Meckler contributed to this report.