True, he’s a month behind Warren, two and a half weeks behind Kirsten Gillibrand, and a week and a half behind Harris, Booker figures, but he’s ahead of Biden, Sanders, and Mike Bloomberg.
“It’s February. It is very, very early,” Booker said after the church service. Running through all the pieces that have been put in place, he added, “I think we’re going to run the best campaign we could possibly run.”
All of Booker’s love talk, his tendency to give sermons—rather than speeches—that count as short if they’re under 40 minutes, the wide eyes, and the constant hugs can make people forget that the documentary about his first big campaign, against incumbent Newark Mayor Sharpe James in 2002, was called Street Fight, and that he has been defined by ambitious, hard-edged politics. Watch the movie now (it’s streaming on Netflix), and it’s notable how much, 17 years later, Booker looks the same and sounds the same, talking about his philosophy of walking every street that he wants to represent, getting into fights with the cops James sent out to harass him.
“No disrespect to Sharpe James, but he’s had 16 years to show you what he could do. And anything he could have done, he should have done by now. It’s time for some new, young blood,” Booker says to one voter early in the movie. Talking to his consultants during a scene in the final stretch, he pushes back on running negative ads.
“I’m not going to lose this race because we’re afraid to punch Sharpe in the nose. I just think there’s a way to do it with dignity—you’re still rolling up your sleeve and slugging this guy in the face, but there’s a way to do it with dignity,” he tells them on speakerphone.
On Thursday night, Booker said his opponents are making a mistake if they think he’s going to be all about hugs and preaching unity. The password for the preview of the launch video his staff sent to reporters was BringIt.
“I came up through Brick City,” he told me, using the old nickname for Newark. “But we have this, we have this, we have this mistaken sense that being strong is being mean, that being tough is being cruel. It’s just not. Separate those things for a moment. You can be a strong, tough street fighter and still be a person of grace and love and kindness and empathy and vulnerability.”
He paused. “We all yearn for a nation that comes back together and fights for each other.”
Booker lost that race against James, but came back and won four years later. These days James’s son, John, is on the Newark city council. He’s a close-enough political ally in town to have been invited Thursday night (but not close enough to be ready to jump on board Booker 2020). Booker is “going to go for it on his own,” John James said. “He doesn’t need my endorsement.”
James stood for the whole service, clapping when he was asked to help.