His soaring rhetoric has drawn comparisons to former President Barack Obama. He prides himself as the only Democratic presidential hopeful to live in an inner-city neighborhood. Reforming a criminal justice system plagued by racial disparities is central to his campaign.
Yet New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, one of two top-tier African American candidates in a crowded Democratic field, continues to struggle making inroads with black voters — something he addressed on Saturday in a wide-ranging interview with two voters that was moderated by NPR's Ari Shapiro.
"Let my work speak for me," said Booker, responding to a question about why some residents in his hometown of Newark, N.J., don't see him as "the voice" of black youth.
The interview — part of an NPR series with Democratic presidential candidates called Off Script — touched on an array of issues, from the student loan crisis to Booker's relationship with actress and activist Rosario Dawson and the candidate's stance on the Tupac vs. Biggie debate.
At Vonda's Kitchen in Newark, N.J., Booker spoke with education advocate Shanell Dunns, economist Diana Candelejo and Shapiro. [Watch the full conversation here.]
Dunns, who runs an education and leadership consulting business in Newark, told Booker that many of the young people she works with say criminal justice is a top issue. She then added:
"When we talk about the presidential candidacy, a lot of times they say they don't feel like you are the voice — the black voice — for the black youth. How do you respond to not being able to connect to that demographic of youth?"
Booker rejected the characterization.
"Well, No. 1: I think we actually do connect to it. Some of our biggest support is from HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] to African American young people who are big activists for our campaign. It's one of the groups we do very well in," Booker said.
Booker routinely polls in the single digits in most presidential preference surveys.
When surveys are broken down by race, as in a recent poll released last week, African American respondents often place Booker behind other Democratic presidential candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Booker called the criminal justice system a "national crisis." And he pointed to his record as a senator fighting for reforms such as the First Step Act. Signed into law by President Trump last year, the measure is designed to overhaul federal prisons and broaden rehabilitation opportunities for inmates.
"So let my work speak for me. In the United States Senate, I've pushed more than a dozen bills on these issues that span from police accountability all the way to the bill that I actually got passed ... the First Step Act, which has already led to the liberation of thousands of people, overwhelmingly black and Latino people."
Shapiro pressed Booker about his record as mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013. During his tenure, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the city's police force, saying it had received "serious allegations of civil rights violations."
"I inherited the police department with decades-long problems and patterns and practices," Booker said in defense of his record.
He said his administration made "tremendous strides" to correct the issues but admitted that it came after the Justice Department produced its findings and provided additional resources.
"At first I was like, 'Why do I need the DOJ?' But when they presented us with the data, we saw that we were not moving fast enough to correct the problems."
Candelejo, who works for a local health care network, quizzed Booker on prison privatization and how he would combat escalating student loan debt impacting millions of Americans, among other issues. But it was her icebreaker question to Booker that got the candidate flustered.
"I don't think it's going to get better than Rosario Dawson, so when are you proposing?" Candelejo asked.
"You've got me stammering," the senator said, laughing through his response.
"I would ... I will ... should I ever get to that point, I will try to embarrass her and put her on the spot," Booker said, adding that he's not making any announcements on NPR on that front. "But I'm very happy where I am right now."
He also joked about being her "arm candy" at two of her recent movie premieres, including Zombieland: Double Tap.
On the long-running debate about which rap legend was better, Tupac Shakur or The Notorious B.I.G., Booker said this:
"I just always love Biggie. He's just a person that I just feel this affinity for, because he was unapologetically who he was. So if you had to force me to choose, then I'm going to say Biggie."
And just for those voters who cast their ballots based on hip-hop preferences, Booker added: "But, I probably listen to Tupac's music more."
Booker and 11 other candidates are debating for the fourth time on Tuesday. The CNN/New York Times Democratic presidential debate airs at 8 p.m. ET on CNN. You can also listen to it on your local NPR station.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Inequality in education, employment and the criminal justice system are top of mind for two undecided voters in Newark, N.J. Now, this weekend, those voters had the chance to put questions on those issues directly to Senator Cory Booker. He's one of 12 Democratic candidates who's made it to the stage for tomorrow night's presidential debate. Booker and those voters sat down with our co-host Ari Shapiro as part of NPR's series Off Script.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: We met at Vonda's Kitchen. It's a soul food spot in Newark, and while the restaurant is famous for its fried fish and chicken, Senator Booker likes its vegan options. He hasn't eaten animal products in about five years.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
CORY BOOKER: She does brussel sprouts in a way that is a transformative human experience.
SHAPIRO: Owner and chef Vonda McPherson was in the kitchen when we showed up. Senator Booker says she's a great example of business leadership.
BOOKER: When I was mayor of the city, we were trying to get more local people to be entrepreneurs, and especially women. And this was really one of our great success stories.
SHAPIRO: When we sat down with Booker on Saturday, news reports about Atatiana Jefferson had not surfaced yet. She is a black woman who a police officer shot and killed inside her own home in Texas. Even before that story broke, the voters who sat with us wanted to talk about law enforcement and policing. Diana Candelejo is an economist in her late 20s working for a local health care network, and Shanell Dunns is an education consultant and business owner in her late 40s with five kids and three grandkids. Both are women of color, and both had concerns about police abuses in black and Latino communities. Diana started by asking about accountability.
DIANA CANDELEJO: We see that body cameras, you know, are making police brutality more salient. I just want to better understand, you know, what are your policies in order to improve our police system here in United States?
BOOKER: So look. This is something I've learned the hard way running a police department here - that police accountability is so critically important in police transparency. And so when I - before I became a senator, I worked with the ACLU here to try to create national models for police transparency. And one of the biggest things we learned - and I learned this from working with the DOJ here in Newark - is that you have even good-intentioned people who just - because we're not doing deep dives on the data, you don't have that kind of objective understanding.
SHAPIRO: If I may, you refer to working with the DOJ, the Justice Department, in Newark, but the police force in Newark came under a consent decree...
SHAPIRO: ...From the Department of Justice because the abuses while you were mayor were so egregious, and that went on for years. This was...
BOOKER: Just to give you a little bit of a counter to that is - I inherited a police department with decades-long problems and patterns and practices, and we were fighting to correct those things, not moving as quickly as we should have. And the DOJ came in, which, at first, I actually - I was like, why do I need the DOJ? When they presented us with the data, we saw that we were not moving fast enough to correct the problems.
SHAPIRO: You were mayor for eight years, and those problems persisted well into your second term.
BOOKER: We actually were making tremendous strides on that, and as the head of the ACLU themselves will tell you - that we were embracing reforms not just in word, but in leadership and presenting national standard best practices by the time I was mayor.
SHANELL DUNNS: So - and so...
DUNNS: While I feel like - yeah, we have to have the numbers. We have to do all this research. But if people are literally dying, you know, at the hands of the police here in the street - and how do you then talk to that parent?
SHAPIRO: Have you had firsthand experience involving the police?
DUNNS: So I mean, sure. I have - I can give you my own experience with my own - my very own son. Thank God that he was able to walk away, but he was definitely in a position where he was in a car, he was stopped for absolutely no reason - dragged him out of the car, handcuffed him, put him in the back of the police car, still not telling him what's going on. And when the officer saw that he went to this private school here in Newark, he changed his actions towards him and literally left my son, my minor child, on the street at, like, midnight just by his self.
BOOKER: And as a black man who grew up in this country, too, and has...
BOOKER: ...Stories exactly - very similar to that, I should say, the indignities that - as a young black person that you faced in my generation, as well as the kids today, is absolutely outrageous and unacceptable.
BOOKER: And so it's more than just data collection. It's more than just body cameras. This has to do with recognizing that implicit racial bias is a reality in this country, and unless you start doing everything from training police officers, getting a diverse police force, it means making sure that we have a DOJ under my leadership that will actually investigate these things, hold people accountable, take up cases when local prosecutors are unwilling to prosecute clear violations of people's civil rights. There has to be a larger vision for how that we do this, and...
DUNNS: What do you say to - so in a lot of my work, I talk to, like, first-time voters, kids that are just turning 18. And those are the things that come up for them - like, the criminal justice reform systems. And when we talk about the presidential candidacy, a lot of times, they say they don't feel like you are the black voice for the black youth. How do you respond to not be able to connect to that demographic?
BOOKER: Well, No. 1, I think we actually do connect to it. Some of our greatest support is from HBCUs to African American young people who are big activists for our campaign. But more than that, look. This is the issue, as you know, as a United States senator - in fact, when I was running for the United States senate, my pollster said, this isn't an issue that pulls in the top five or so of things. Why are you talking about it at every stop? And I go, I'm talking about it because this is a national crisis, and we live in a country that - as Bryan Stevenson says, it treats you better if you're rich and guilty...
BOOKER: ...Than if you're poor and innocent.
BOOKER: We live in a country where marijuana - everybody thinks that somehow, we're making some advancements. There were more marijuana arrests in 2017 than all violent crime arrests combined, and people in college campuses aren't getting arrested for marijuana. It's people in communities like ours.
BOOKER: And I know people all over this city who have records for doing things that two of the last three presidents admitted to doing.
BOOKER: And what's horrible about that that most Americans don't understand is it's a life sentence because now you can't get a job. You can't get a business license. You can't get a loan from the bank. And so let my work speak for me. In the United States Senate, I've pushed more than a dozen bills on these issues that span from police accountability all the way to the bill that I actually got passed, the First Step Act, which has already led to the liberation of thousands of people, overwhelmingly black and Latino.
SHAPIRO: The Department of Justice released more than 3,000 federal inmates under the First Step Act back in July. Of those who had their sentences reduced, 91% were black, 4% were Hispanic and 4% were white, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. You can watch more of our conversation with Senator Booker and other presidential candidates. Video is up on npr.org/offscript. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.