‘We Can’t Make Our Elections About Being Against Trump’

Cory Booker on the 2020 presidential race, Star Trek, and why it’s Gen X’s turn to save the day

Cory Booker, photographed in Washington, D.C., on January 25, 2018 (Stephen Voss)

As Democrats position themselves for the 2020 presidential election, one name is mentioned again and again: Cory Booker. Before becoming New Jersey’s first black U.S. senator, in 2013, Booker was the mayor of Newark for a controversial six years. As mayor, he earned national attention for his crusading style and daring stunts—at one point he saved a woman from a burning building—but was criticized by some constituents for his neoliberal approach to policy, particularly his embrace of charter schools. In 2016, he was a contender to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate. Since then, he has taken a series of very public stands against Donald Trump’s administration, including his unprecedented testimony against Trump’s nominee for attorney general, his colleague Jeff Sessions. He is a vegan and an ardent Trekkie.

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

Julia Ioffe: First question: Are you running?

Cory Booker: Every morning I’m trying to get as much exercise as possible. I’m more biking.

JI: Spinning?

CB: My chief of staff has the Peloton bike, but you have to have special shoes to do it. I have a bike that has a video screen, so I ride courses.

JI: Let me ask the “running” question a different way. There was talk that you were under consideration to be Hillary’s running mate, and we saw what happened in Alabama [in December’s Senate election] when the black vote was mobilized. If she had picked you, would the outcome have been different?

CB: I really have no idea. Donald Trump has been president a full year. I’m not sure how healthy it is to continue to ask what-ifs.

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JI: Are Democrats getting their message out?

CB: There are individuals who are giving the right message. Like Danica Roem in Virginia—this trans woman who made her campaign [for the state legislature] not about being the first trans person elected in the state to that kind of office but about traffic! So as much as people might want to frame this as “counter-Trump”—and I’m saying this to Democrats who will listen to me—we can’t make our elections about being against Trump. They have to be about what we’re for.

JI: You’re about to go on the Senate floor and talk again about marijuana legalization. Why is that an issue that affects the everyday person? And do you even smoke weed? I know you don’t drink.

CB: Don’t drink—really never have. Don’t smoke. My addiction is empty carbohydrates, which I’m trying to stop.

Look, the War on Drugs has been our country’s self-inflicted wound. It’s affected this country in ways that are far more profound than the average person understands. Between the time I was in law school and the time I was mayor of Newark, [the country was] building a new prison every 10 days. That’s a gross waste of resources. We are perhaps leading the planet in incarceration; we are torturing people through things like juvenile solitary confinement.

You and I went to universities where you never saw police doing raids for pot. You have dozens and dozens of members [of Congress] who will talk about smoking marijuana—three out of the last four presidents admit to having done it. There’s no difference for blacks and whites in using drugs, using marijuana, but blacks are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. This is unjust enforcement.

JI: You testified against Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing, which was an unprecedented step. When people like Sessions talk about law and order, are they just talking about law and order for black people?

CB: This administration has shown a lack of respect for law and order. They’ve lied or misled under oath. “Law and order” seems to be more about rhetoric—a tired trope that I see as an attack on poor people, on communities of color. For many of us, when we hear Jeff Sessions stand up and talk about law and order, we hear it as “We are going to target the vulnerable in this country, we are going to target the poor, we are going to target minorities.” I knew this about Jeff Sessions! I served in the Senate with him. I knew what he said about marijuana, I knew what he said about gays and lesbians, I knew what he said about women and their physical safety, and I knew that he was an existential threat to communities across this country. That’s why I went so far against him.

JI: You’ve introduced a marijuana bill that doesn’t stand a chance in this Senate. A lot of the bills you’ve introduced have not become laws. Is your lack of legislative accomplishments, ironically, a good thing if you plan to run for higher office?

CB: Let’s put running for higher office aside. I’m here right now—the fourth-ever popularly elected African American in the Senate’s history—because of people pushing impossible legislation. When civil-rights legislation came up in this body, it seemed impossible. The longest filibuster in Senate history was a racist rant against the civil-rights movement. But people stood up for what was right despite the odds. My calling attention to injustices may not pass legislation, but it is making a difference.

JI: Is that what’s left of being a senator in the age of [Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell? You become a messenger and hope your message trickles down?

CB: A lot more gets done here than people think. Sitting with Jeff Flake now as the two leaders of the Subcommittee on Africa, we’re able to score a lot of wins. We’re finding that shining flashlights in dark corners gets the administration to react. The way you presented the question almost sounds like you’re devaluing what it means to stand up and fight.

JI: No, my question was more about how the Senate works now, under Mitch McConnell.

CB: Clearly this place is broken. But especially this last year, I feel a sense of purpose in my life—that I’m in the right job at the right time. I often tell the story about my family in 1969, moving into Harrington Park, New Jersey, this relatively affluent town, as the first black family. Real-estate agents wouldn’t show us homes. It took a white couple posing as us and a bunch of lawyers organizing this sting operation.

I went back to find out why white lawyers in that community would try to help black families move in. What was their motivation? Arthur Lesemann, the lawyer who helped organize the other lawyers, told me that he was sitting at home, comfortable on his couch, watching TV, and saw these marchers fail in their attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery.* He was so moved by what happened that it got him engaged in the civil-rights fight. A guy on his couch becomes a chief activist in Bergen County, New Jersey. Those protesters failed—but their action leaped over 1,000 miles to change the outcome for generations yet unborn. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for that chain reaction of activism, of patriotism, of love. Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is not realizing they have it in the first place.”

JI: You helped lead the charge against Senator Al Franken. There is some consternation on the left that all of the bloodletting prompted by the #MeToo movement has been on one side of the political spectrum. Is the left hamstringing itself?

CB: I was one of the people that called for Franken to resign, but when he gave his speech, I felt overcome with a rage I’ve never felt. I hugged him, then went into the cloakroom feeling an uncontrolled rage.

JI: Did you punch some coats?

CB: [Laughs] No, I didn’t punch any coats. I’m a nonviolent guy. I felt rage at the fact that we have a guy sitting in the White House who has talked about grabbing women in a way that not only is inappropriate but, frankly, is a felony. I’m enraged that he still sits there almost giving validity to this kind of behavior—enraged that there should be no accountability.

JI: Let’s go a little bigger. I hear you had Star Trek sheets in college? Do you still have them?

CB: [Laughs] I cannot confirm or deny whether I had Star Trek sheets. But I am a Trekkie, I do admit that. I love sci-fi, period!

JI: Why do you love sci-fi so much?

CB: What it meant to my dad, who made me watch Star Trek with him, to see an African American woman and an Asian man as a view of the future. For a guy who in the ’60s, when the show came out, was dealing with unconscionable discrimination, Star Trek was a hopeful beacon. My dad brought me up to understand that art—even in the most unconscionable, painful, degrading present—can help us pull ourselves and our society to a higher level.

JI: Obama got flak for eating arugula. Let’s say you run for president. Do you think you’d get flak for being a vegan?

CB: No. I remember somebody teasing me when I was getting ready to run for mayor in Newark: “There’s no way a black city is going to elect a vegetarian!” But people did. What you put in your mouth is one of the most intimate decisions you make; it should be your decision. New Jersey as a whole elected me to the Senate—I actually went from being a vegetarian to being a vegan on Election Day.

JI: But the bigger your national profile becomes, the more people care about your personal life. Is it problematic to be a national politician and still be unmarried?

CB: You’re going from the veganism to the unmarried-ism! We just elected a three-times-divorced guy who has a lot of personal issues. People said they were focused on what he could do for them. I think people are concerned about what kind of leader I’ll be. When I go around New Jersey, nobody’s asking me about my personal life.

JI: Given the president we have today, do you see Obama’s election as an anomaly?

CB: I think we are going to elect incredible diversity to that office over time. You’re seeing a historic number of women in the Senate; you’re seeing black, Latino, biracial people being elected. America’s core ideals include a recognition that we share a common humanity and that we should focus on the ties that bind us, not the lines that divide us.

JI: Despite the white backlash?

CB: It is awful what we’ve seen this past year. But the bigger threat is not the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good people. Our democracy would be so much more robust—we’d have a Congress that works so much better—if people didn’t treat our democracy like a spectator sport. If the period of Donald Trump has shown us anything, it is that we can’t just sit back and think the right thing is going to happen. We’ve inherited so much because of the sacrifices of the generations before us—people who stormed beaches in Normandy, who did Freedom Rides. What’s Gen X’s great moment of sacrifice and engagement? This has got to be it.

*This article originally misspelled Arthur Lesemann's name. We regret the error.