The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sen. Cory Booker formally joins presidential race with an echo of Martin Luther King Jr.: “We can’t wait.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) spoke at a campaign rally in Newark, N.J., on April 13. (Video: Reuters)

NEWARK — Speaking in the rejuvenated downtown of the city he helmed as mayor for seven years, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) offered himself as an optimistic and hopeful counterpoint to President Trump who would heal political and social toxicity that Booker said extends far beyond the White House.

Like most of the Democrats running for president, he mentioned Trump sparingly in his remarks during his hometown kickoff — and then only as a symptom of a more pervasive problem in American society.

“We can’t wait when powerful forces are turning their prejudice into policy and rolling back the rights that generations of Americans fought for and died for,” he told the crowd of 4,100. “We can’t wait when this administration is throwing children fleeing violence into cages, banning Muslims from entering the nation founded on religious liberty, and preventing brave transgender Americans from serving the country they love.

“And we can’t wait because many of our most serious challenges as a nation were with us long before Donald Trump entered the White House.”

Booker’s choice to formally announce his campaign in Newark, with a speech that echoed lines of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights writings, was meant to put firm underpinnings beneath a candidate who has been criticized by some as inauthentic and a campaign that has struggled to survive in a sprawling and diverse Democratic field.

Booker, the mayor of New Jersey’s largest city from 2006 until 2013, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, finds himself solidly in the middle of a presidential pack that now numbers 18. Booker raised more than $5 million in the two months since he announced his bid for the presidency, a number that places him behind other high-profile aspirants like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is expected to formally announce his candidacy on Sunday. O’Rourke and Sanders raised more in the first 24 hours of their campaign than Booker did in more than 60 days.

Booker’s campaign and supporters insist he has enough support and cash to avoid being deemed irrelevant, while skirting the intense scrutiny visited on front-runners.

With little notice, his team is investing money and energy into the workmanlike tasks they hope will pay dividends when voting begins next year: building campaign infrastructure in the earliest voting states, while attempting to insinuate Booker into political and activist networks.

“We’re not building this campaign to win a poll in April of 2019. We’re trying to win a primary in February of 2020,” Booker campaign director Addisu Demissie said on Thursday. “We have 298 days until the Iowa caucuses. That is a lot of time for not just us but for other campaigns to make a lot of difference. We’re trying to win an election, not to win a news cycle.”

Anton Gunn, the South Carolina political director for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential primary campaign and a former state representative, said Booker is in a sweet spot in a field whose size is unprecedented.

“I think he is right where he needs to be,” said Gunn, who has not endorsed a candidate. “If you’re in the front you’re going to catch all the hell for everything you do. If you’re in the back, you’re on the verge of being irrelevant.”

The South Carolina primary, which Demissie called critical, looms as a particularly large test because it is the first state in which a majority of Democratic voters are African American, like Booker and Harris.

Booker’s campaign has snapped up two of House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn’s former campaign staffers. He’s interspersed public events in South Carolina and elsewhere with meetings with politicians and pastors who will serve as opinion leaders in the primary.

“He has built a first-rate team that is executing ostensibly the early stages of an organizing plan, and making significant investments in staff, manpower and relationships, even before he got in the race,” said Mike McCauley, who worked on both Obama’s and John F. Kerry’s presidential campaigns. Like Gunn, McCauley has not backed a candidate in the 2020 race.

Booker also has sought to build alliances in New Hampshire, the first primary state.

“He’s come to my home, sat down and really tried to understand thoroughly the issues that are critically important to my nine towns in the southern part of New Hampshire,” state Sen. Jon Morgan, who endorsed Booker after the senator campaigned for him in 2018, told The Washington Post. “He’ll come and have dinners with leaders and other stakeholders. He just wants to hear from as many people as he can. That definitely includes legislators.”

That workmanlike approach to early states reflects a realization by Booker that he is far from the biggest celebrity in the 2020 race, despite a political career filled with dramatic moments.

In Newark, he once ran into a burning house to save a woman. He shoveled snow from elderly constituents’ driveways and once chased down a man who mugged a woman outside city hall while screaming “Not in my city.” During his tenure, crime fell and businesses began returning to a city that was once dubbed one of the nation’s most dangerous.

Booker made himself a symbol of the city by taking up residence in Brick Towers, then a struggling public housing high-rise. His harshest critics nonetheless dismiss him as someone who used a rebuilding of a blighted city to construct a national profile.

In part that is because he sought out Newark. Booker actually grew up in Harrington Park, an affluent suburb that his parents helped integrate. He won an athletic scholarship to Stanford, spent two years as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in Britain and moved to a crime-filled section of Newark in his third year at Yale Law School.

The campaign stump story of struggle he tells is not his but his parents’. His father was an IBM executive who had a dog set on him when he tried to buy the home in the mostly white suburb where Booker grew up. His mother participated in sit-ins in Charlottesville and helped organize the March on Washington. His parents frequently remind him, as Booker often recounts, that he started life on third base.

In this campaign, Booker also has come under criticism from Democrats preferring a more aggressive foil to Trump who speaks with withering criticism rather than, as Booker does, of love and caring. His strategists, however, say a message of optimism that focuses on what Democrats bring to the table reflects how the party was able to retake the House in 2018 and how it will best position itself in 2020.

Jimmy Wright, a retired homicide detective who Booker appointed as Newark’s inspector general, recalled that many in Newark wondered at the motives of an Ivy League graduate fond of quoting King and Maya Angelou who chose to move into slum housing.

Wright answers a question about Booker’s sincerity by pulling out his phone. Every year the former police officer throws a reunion barbecue for people who used to live in Brick Towers — and Booker contributes $3,000 of his own money to help buy chicken and hot dogs, Wright said, displaying a message from “Cory” that said “I so hope I can be there.”

“He went above and beyond over and over again for years,” Wright told The Post. “If that’s being fake, I’ll take fake all day.”

On Saturday, Booker said he drew on the years he’s spent in Newark in developing a philosophy that “fights from higher ground to bring this country to higher ground.”

“Newark, Brick City, this community taught me about that love,” he told the crowd. “It’s not feel-good easygoing love. It’s a strong, courageous love. It is defiant love. The kind of love that serves, it’s the kind of love that sacrifices. The kind of love that is essential to achieving justice.”