About a month before his election to the U.S. Senate last October, Cory A. Booker arrived at Rider University in New Jersey to greet a group of high school and college-age students who packed a crowded auditorium to hear the candidate speak about his plans to improve the country’s educational system.
“How can we have a democracy in which we create, in a sense, an educational apartheid, where kids born in certain zip codes get great educations and kids born in other zip codes are trapped in schools?” Booker asked the students, sounding more like a sage pragmatist instead of a novice political partisan vying to become the first Black U.S. senator from New Jersey.
It’s that kind of starry-eyed optimism and rhetoric that first catapulted the former mayor of Newark, N.J., to the national stage, where he now seeks to be known as the education senator, much like the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
His fame has kept pundits monitoring his every move, even as they speculate about his political future. Simply put, they want to know if the former Stanford honors student, Yale Law School graduate and Rhodes Scholar has ambitions of someday becoming president of the United States of America.
It’s a fair question, considering Booker’s political trajectory. Some suspect that he may indeed want to someday follow in the footsteps of Barack Obama, who entered the U.S. Senate in 2004 little unknown outside of Illinois but quickly became a formidable candidate for higher office and went on to defeat John McCain, a veteran senator and Vietnam War hero, to win the White House.
But if Booker has political aspirations that stretch beyond the U.S. Senate, he won’t say, at least not now.
Still, there’s little doubt that the freshman senator — who was elected last November in a special election to serve out the remainder of the late Frank Lautenberg’s term — is better known than some of his colleagues who’ve held court on Capitol Hill for years.
With more that one million Twitter followers, Booker seems at ease with his celebrity status, even as he works to champion an ambitious legislative agenda.
Dr. Melanye Price, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University and an expert on contemporary Black politics, says Booker represents the new school of Black politicians like Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who present themselves to the voting electorate as the “quintessential de-racialized candidate” that can appeal to White voters in ways that traditional Black civil rights candidates, like the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, could not.
Two major documentaries have already been made chronicling Booker’s life, and wealthy donors have been lining up to support Booker’s political career, including Oprah Winfrey and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
But Price says that Booker’s popularity nationally “far outpaces his popularity in New Jersey and Newark, for that matter,” where he’s been criticized at times for being too enamored by the national media spotlight.
In the Senate, where he is now one among 101 legislators, Price says that Booker won’t always have the center stage, but he could be using his time in the legislative body as a training ground should New Jersey Governor Chris Christie decide to run for the White House in 2016, providing an opening for Booker to enter the governor’s race.
His decision to aggressively tackle issues like unemployment and education indicates to voters back home that he’s able to deliver for his state.
“By focusing on these bread-and-butter issues, he’s making a name for himself,” Price says.
The access agenda
Education isn’t exactly a new issue for the 44-year-old legislator. During Booker’s tenure as Newark mayor, Zuckerberg donated $100 million to help improve the city’s troubled public schools. School officials say the funds provided additional support services to students and led to an overall increase in graduation rates of more than 7 percent in the last three years.
Already popular on college campuses, Booker says that he now wants to help make college affordable and accessible to all Americans.
“Our country’s greatest natural resource is the genius of our young people,” he says in an interview with Diverse. “To tap that resource, we must do everything we can to remove barriers to college and ensure that every American can benefit from a quality education. Access to college is not only about providing all Americans with an opportunity to succeed, but is also an investment in our economy.”
Amid rising tuition costs, Booker says Congress should focus its attention on the creation of tax-free college savings accounts for low-income parents. Pell Grants, he says, should be increased, and lawmakers should curb student loan interest rates and create incentives for colleges and universities to hold the line on tuition and fee hikes.
This formula, Booker says, will inevitably help to improve the nation’s HBCUs, which have experienced a dramatic decline in enrollment over the past decade.
“The most important thing we can do to help HBCUs is to make college more affordable and accessible,” says Booker, who adds that he’s in favor of creating college savings accounts for families and is a strong proponent of the federal government contributing to these trust funds. “Additional matching funding from the federal government would be possible if families, states or philanthropists contributed as well,” he says.
According to Booker, making higher education more affordable would also go a long way in addressing one of the most pressing problems in the African-American community: the poor enrollment and retention rates of Black males in college.
“A variety of dynamics often make it difficult for young African-American men to even believe college is an option, and we have to change that,” says Booker, who has mentored a number of young men over the years. “[Government] has a responsibility to make a quality, secondary education accessible to everyone who is willing to work for it, regardless of their age, gender, race or economic status.”
That’s the Booker mantra — one that he proudly repeats in stump speeches whenever he makes the rounds at one of the nearly four dozen schools located across the Garden State. At Fairleigh Dickinson University several months ago, his talk was met with thunderous applause from students who say they are knee-deep in student loans.
As Booker campaigns this year for re-election to a full six-year term, the issue will likely be something that he’ll continue to discuss as he crisscrosses the state and tries to make inroads with younger voters.
“Whether it’s public or private school, college is just way too expensive and Cory Booker is one of the few people talking about this issue,” says Daniel Grant, a college senior who voted for Booker last year and plans to do so again in the fall. “With the attacks on financial aid and other programs like affirmative action, it’s no wonder why many minorities are not able to pursue a college degree.”
Despite numerous challenges to affirmative action, Booker says that he remains an ardent supporter. “I’ve said before that the Supreme Court got it right in its 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, and I think it’s still true that race is perfectly appropriate to use as one point in a larger set of criteria considered by college admissions boards.”
There’s no question that Booker is on a full-fledged mission to help ensure that every student is afforded the same educational opportunities that were made available to him.
“My parents provided invaluable support and insight as I pursued [my] education,” he says. “They believed in me and laid a solid foundation in my life, which gave me the tools I needed to succeed.
“But they were not alone,” Booker adds. “I had a community of people that believed in and supported me. We have all heard the phrase, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ and it’s important that we embody this principle. We all have a responsibility to invest in and support our youth.”