Public service was nothing less than a calling for Cory Booker. As a young super scholar—a bachelor’s and a master’s from Stanford University; a Rhodes Scholar, with a graduate degree from Oxford in 1994; a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1997—he could have likely gone in any direction with his career. But serving forgotten communities was never optional for the senator whose words today about love are so poignant that he begins to sound like a preacher.
Booker traces his interest in public service to his teenage years, citing a need to uphold what he viewed as a lack of equality for all. Years ago, he consciously sought out the struggling Newark community where he resides and has his Senate office; it is a place that sits below the poverty line but gave him his political wings. In 1998, when neighbors asked him to rise to the occasion, the young servant leader won a seat on the Newark City Council. He served for six years, eventually becoming the city’s mayor in 2006. In 2013, in a special election to fill Frank Lautenberg’s seat, Booker was elected to the U.S. Senate. Known for the same humanitarian passion he had as a local politician, today the senator is pushing for bipartisan progress, all the while declaring that, “Tolerance should be the floor in America and love should be the ceiling.”
EBONY: You are a popular name in American politics, Sen. Booker. What initially made you go down the road of public service?
Cory Booker: My life as a teenager was focused on America. We all swear and take an oath to a nation of liberty and justice for all. That just didn’t seem real to me. We still have a nation with so much inequality, and every child in America doesn't get an equal shot. As a young man, I started doing [organizing] work in cities and fell in love with the work. From California, I continued to East Harlem and became a nonprofit leader. My hero was a man named Geoffrey Canada, who started the Harlem Children Zone . . . [he showed me] that you got to be connected to the people that you serve. So I moved to Newark, New Jersey. Newark had so many great neighborhoods but I wanted to find one struggling, so I moved into a very tough neighborhood on the south end of Martin Luther King Boulevard. There, I encountered some of the greatest American heroes. I always say I got my B.A. from Stanford and Ph.D. from the streets of Newark.
I started working and fighting against slumlords and feeling like I’d found my life purpose, and I was a part of this community struggling for the American dream.
It was those early heroes who basically said to me that City Hall was not working and that it was very corrupt; and before I knew it, I was the candidate to run for City Council in Newark, New Jersey.
EBONY: The community propelled you, it seems.
Booker: So I am proud and I still live in that neighborhood. I’m the only United States senator that lives in an inner city—a community rich with spirit and wealth of character that has so much value and potential but is below the poverty line. According to the census, about $14K per household. It is a majority Black and brown community. Right behind my desk and senate office is a map of the Central Ward of Newark. The first people to ever really adopt me and give me a chance. The first people to put me into politics, and I feel blessed. I get to wake up in my home and have neighbors and friends who will never let me forget why I got into office. I fight for people who are not getting a fair shot in this country.
EBONY: You recently sponsored a bill advocating for detained immigrants. What is driving your work now?
Booker: Look, America needs to understand that seeing children separated from their parents everywhere in our country, parents being taken away from their kids who are being deported and who are no threat to the country—people are afraid to go to the police and report crimes. I know. I travel around the country. Visited a pregnant woman from Missouri, she was not getting medical care. I’ve been to East Texas seeing law-abiding people seeking asylum turned away from our country.
I passionately believe in human dignity. We should be the nation setting the example for how we treat the most precious resource on the planet Earth. Much of my legislation has been about affirming dignity, potential and human worth.
With my legislation, I try to do two things: expand economic opportunity for working people and combat injustice in our country. That sort of drives my work on a daily basis.
EBONY: Where do you feel you've had impact, moved the needle?
Booker: The Dignity Act [co-sponsored with Sen. Kamala Harris] addresses the crisis of women incarcerated. We called out injustice on a federal level and now the Dignity Act is passing legislation in 12 states. This is calling out injustice and creating change from coast to coast—our Dignity Act is going to become law. I’ve partnered with Tim Scott [a Republican]; two elected African-Americans in the United States Senate at the same time. We have to figure out ways to invest in lower income communities, so we just created the Investment Opportunity Act—better tax treatment for people who invest in poor areas of our country. I believe all of us have power. Alice Walker said the most common way people give up their power is to not realize they have it in the first place. Our history as a country screams the truth.
We are a nation perpetually giving testimony achieving the impossible. So there is a fact: I walk on the Senate floor and [there have only been] four elected African-American senators in the history of our country. … After President Barack Obama was elected, that to me is a testimony. My ancestors kept pressing forward for civil rights, and I feel a sense of obligation to try everyday to pay that blessing forward.
EBONY: You are an advocate for bipartisanship. What are the challenges and where are you finding success?
Booker: At the end of the day, our nation is a declaration of independence. We must mutually pledge our lives, fortunes and sacred honor. We can’t become a country of tribalism. ‘I hate you because you look different or even think different.’ We have to find that common ground. It doesn't mean we don't stand our ground. The hard work is reaching out, engaging and understanding that person across the aisle. We may have two parties but we share one destiny, so I am working every day to find out where we can stand together. We live in a nation, where, regardless of where you live, your race or political party—we all have a tremendous amount of common pain. What we need now is for leaders to reestablish a sense of common purpose.
I rejoice when I’m able to make breakthroughs and pass legislation with everybody from Ted Cruz to Tim Scott. I really pride myself—even in the past with Newark, I took on disagreements with Chris Christie, but he and I found so much common ground.
EBONY: So let’s switch gears a bit away from politics. Senator, we hear you are vegan. When and why did you choose the vegan path?
Booker: I was a football player at Stanford and a varsity basketball player at Oxford. I was just exploring what would give me the highest performing diet. So [I went] three months of not eating meat and my body felt so great; I became a vegetarian in 1992. Now you see professional football players vegans. For me it began: How can I get my body to function the best, how can I get the most energy? I went from vegetarian to vegan. And I love my lifestyle. What we eat is one of the most intimate decisions we make. We don't need people preaching to us. Everybody has to make their own decision and find their own path. I found mine and I’m happy that I did.
EBONY: That was an interesting post on Instagram; that picture outside the coffee shop. Why did you post that?
Booker: Because above all, I try to create a more beloved community. Tolerance is in such a cynical state. Tolerance should be the floor in America and love should be the ceiling. And tolerance, I couldn't care less. Love tears them down. Love understands we need each other and we can work together creating communities better. If you look at my Twitter feed and you see hecklers, trolls yelling at me, I often respond: I love you. I post things on kindness all the time on Twitter. Love is not an easy word but hard. A great writer once said, ‘Justice is what loves looks like in public.’
EBONY: You talk a lot about love.
Booker: Love is sacrifice. Love is struggle. Love is hard. Love demands justice. Love demands accountability. We are called to be a society of love.
I just want to see us get to that beloved community King called us to be. Where there is a pathway for all children and everybody overcomes fear. Everyone has health care, housing. That is a beloved community—when you see the value in everybody. That’s what we should aspire for in this country. Not hatred. Not degrading other people, but elevating our nation to be one of light, of hope, promise and love. What is patriotism? Patriotism is a love of country, but you cannot love your country, unless you love your fellow member in it.
EBONY: Ultimately, what will be your legacy?
Booker: I want our legacy to be something 300 years from now, people won’t remember my name. I want it to be understood. I try to make the lives of others better. I contribute to the evolution of our nation. To the evolution of humanity toward a greater love. I just want to live a life that gives honor to that tradition in America so the generation who can’t remember my name, their lives are a little bit better.