NEWARK, N.J. ― Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who announced his presidential candidacy on Friday morning, defended his record against criticism from the left later in the day during a news conference outside of his home.
Booker calmly fielded questions about how he would respond to hypothetical attacks from President Donald Trump about Booker’s ties to Wall Street, the perception that he is “too corporate” and his support for public charter schools at a moment of resurgent teachers union militancy.
Rather than adopt the populist rhetoric of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Booker defended his work combating predatory financial practices, including exploitative lending to low-income homeowners in Newark, and vowed that he would continue to stand up to “bad actors” in corporate America whose practices harm ordinary people.
“Anyone who knows my history knows my history of standing up for people who have been hurt by bad actors,” he said.
Booker did not deny supporting public charter schools. It would have been difficult for him to do so: He spoke at a rally co-sponsored by a charter school system in New Orleans on Jan. 18, at a time when Los Angeles schoolteachers were on strike in part over the growth of charter schools there.
Without once saying the word “charter,” Booker affirmed, “We shouldn’t have one-size-fits-all education. Local leaders should be able to decide what works best for them.”
Instead, he cast himself as a champion of higher public school teacher pay and better school funding that would enable more hiring of teachers, counselors and mental health professionals. One way he suggested to address the issue is by reforming the tax code so young stockbrokers, who may benefit from the carried-interest loophole or the lower tax rate on capital gains, don’t pay a lower tax rate than teachers.
“Our teachers are ridiculously underpaid in America,” he said. “If you look at this in an economic analysis, they are the professionals who contribute the most to a thriving American economy. And we cannot continue to devalue one of the greatest professions in our country, which is public school teachers.”
“I’m going to run the boldest pro-public school teacher campaign there is, which is how I ran the city of Newark,” he added.
In addition, during a discussion of health care, Booker avoided a pitfall encountered by a fellow presidential contender, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), earlier this week.
Harris declared at a CNN town hall in Iowa on Monday that she supported a Medicare-for-all system that included “get[ting] rid” of private health insurance. But by Tuesday, under fire from Republicans, Harris’ staff was clarifying that while Medicare for all was her preferred policy, she was open to multiple paths to universal coverage.
Booker, like Harris, is a co-sponsor of Sanders’ September 2017 legislation replacing all but supplemental private insurance with one public federal program.
On Friday, however, when a reporter asked Booker if he would eliminate “private health care” ― seemingly referring to insurance, not the actual medical care ― the New Jersey senator took a different tack.
Without elaborating further, he responded, “Even countries that have vast access to publicly offered health care still have private health care.”
Notwithstanding the below-freezing temperatures, Booker’s decision to address reporters outside his Newark home in a working-class neighborhood provided an opportunity to showcase his status as a hometown favorite. (Booker served as mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013, before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014.)
When Narcissa Quito, a neighbor of Booker’s from across the street, noticed the news conference, she opened up her window, waved and called out to him frantically.
Booker, who was in the middle of his answer to the question on charter schools and public education, smiled, calling back, “Hermana!”
“Hola! Como estas?” he continued in Spanish. “A la victoria!”
“Yes!” she replied in English. (In a follow-up interview, Quito, who immigrated from Ecuador more than 30 years ago, confirmed that she is already an enthusiastic backer of his bid.)
Booker had ample opportunity to showcase his facility with policy details, including on criminal justice and immigration reform, causes he has long championed.
He previewed a presidential run that is likely to focus on uplift, appealing to American “decency and goodness” to overcome the divisiveness that has consumed the country under Trump.
Pressed on whether he was up for the task of taking on Trump, given his focus on “love” as a driving force in American politics, Booker expounded on the compassion of white lawyers who helped his parents overcome discrimination in the housing market and other civil rights advocates who helped move the country forward.
“The people I admire are the people who lead by calling out the best in who we are and not the worst,” he said. “So I’m running for president because I believe in us, I believe in these values, I’m going to put them before the American people ― hey, and if that’s not what they want, then I won’t be the next president of the United States.”