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.