Though he is widely believed to be eying a seat in the United States Senate in 2016, Cory Booker wasn’t interested in giving the standard stump speech. Booker, the second-term Democratic mayor of Newark, the largest city in New Jersey, was far more interested in connecting with Rider students when he spoke to an enthusiastic audience inside Yvonne Theater on Tuesday, March 12, as a guest of Rider’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.
“You have to courageously pursue your dreams,” Booker told students, stepping out from behind the podium walk among the theater’s pitched aisles. “Whatever it is, pursue it with courage and alacrity and enthusiasm.”
Though he was raised in the tony Bergen County borough of Harrington Park, Booker said his own parents fought to overcome a statistical profile that might have cast them toward a life far less than the one they managed to build.
“My parents tell me stories, which have come to take on a theme of democracy. They feel, at this point in their lives, like it’s a blessing,” he said, discussing his parents’ modest upbringings and their decisions to attend college – choices bolstered by a strong network of support.
These stories, Booker said, began to truly resonate with him as a teenager, leading a comfortable life that saw him star in football at Northern Valley Regional – Old Tappan High School before playing the sport at Stanford University, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees before heading to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He would later attend Yale for a degree in law.
“I thought, wow, one generation ago, my parents were living in poverty. Now, I’m growing up in Harrington Park,” he recalled.
Booker said it was more than simply the perseverance of his parents that afforded him such advantages. He recalled being awarded an honorary degree by his mother’s alma mater, Fisk University in Tennessee, at the 50th anniversary of her graduation.
“The night before the ceremony, they had a dinner for the honorary degree recipients, and I felt pretty important,” Booker recalled. “Then, my mother started taking me around to the people she knew, people she want to school with, and telling me, ‘this is the woman who led our boycotts,’ and others who were involved in the struggle for Civil Rights. She said, ‘it’s not like now. These people risked their lives. These people fought for you.’ ”
It was clear then to Booker what he parents had always told him: “You are the physical manifestation of a conspiracy of love,” he said, referencing the lineage of support that helped pave his way.
Switching gears, Booker said many of Newark’s grim realities altered his perceptions once he moved into the city’s crime-riddled Brick Towers housing complex as he prepared to run for City Hall. Recalling how he had a friendly but passing acquaintance with three teens who used to frequent the lobby of his building in the days when he was campaigning for mayor, Booker lamented the fact that he spent more time focused on the big picture than to getting to know the youths more personally.
“My first month (in office), I was obsessed with crime, almost like I was a clergyman attending to my city,” he said. Not long afterward, he received a report of a young man shot dead in the city.
“His name was Hassan Washington … the kid from the lobby. I had this kid right in front of me – I walked by him every day,” Booker said, his voice rising with emotion. “And I couldn’t help but think, ‘what if people did that to my dad when he was a kid?’ ”
He continued to explain how the community turned out in droves for Hassan’s funeral, but to Booker, it was clearly too little, too late.
“Everyone showed up for his death, but where were we for his life? Where were we when he started showing (gang) colors? And started dealing (drugs)?” he said, elaborating on the youth’s likeable, charismatic personality. “He was a leader – he could’ve been a teacher, or the mayor – but we didn’t show up. We didn’t even know his name.”
It was a moment when many things crystallized for Booker, he said. In addition to fostering economic prosperity by attracting new business to Newark, he has become focused on grassroots financial and family empowerment programs, such as the Fathers Now/D.A.D.S. Fraternity, which offers fathers mentoring, parenting and life skills assistance, support groups, employment workshops and other means of strengthening the role of fathers in the city.
“In 2006, I used to say I’m a prisoner of hope,” he said, referring to his mayoral campaign tagline. “That metaphor has changed in 2013. Look what we’ve done. Now, I say, I am hope unhinged. There is nothing we can’t do as Americans.”
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The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University is dedicated to public service and scholarly analysis of government, public policy, campaigns and elections in New Jersey. An Evening with the Hon. Cory Booker was supported by Genova, Burns, Giantomasi, & Webster, Attorneys-at-Law.
The Rebovich Institute will present An Evening with Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. on Wednesday, April 3, at 6:30 p.m. in the Mercer Room of Daly Dining Hall.