When Senator Cory Booker took the stage at Iowa Democrats’ largest event of the year last night, emotions were running high in the room of over 1,100 party activists. Most were still seething or depressed over the Brett Kavanaugh vote that took place just hours earlier. Booker had jumped on a plane immediately after voting against the nomination and flew to Iowa for what was essentially a major debut of his potential presidential run.
But rather than take the anger of the evening and whip the crowd into a frenzy, Booker delivered a sermon of hope, love and resilience, urging the crowd to not get stuck in “sedentary agitation” in the face of frustration and despair.
“I know there’s a lot of folks who are hurting right now, I know there are a lot of folks who are upset, and a lot of folks who are angry,” Booker opened his speech with. “Even as I was walking through here, I had survivors come up to me and give me a hug and let me know what the fight meant to them.”
The New Jersey senator shared the story of when he himself nearly gave up on public service and politics. He had moved to Newark as a young attorney, just lost an election for mayor and then saw a young man die on the street from a gunshot wound.
“I remember that painful night of anger, and I was so angry and full of rage at our nation, and how can’t all of us, Republicans and Democrats, agree on common sense gun regulation? How? How can we not get this done?” Booker questioned. “That night I felt like giving up.”
But an older woman who lived in his apartment, one who had stayed around to improve the neighborhood even after her son was killed there, encouraged him to “stay faithful” and keep in the fight. He implored the Democrats there to do the same, and to not get bogged down by frustration from their anger over the past few weeks.
“We are not defined by a president who mocks a hero, Dr. Blasey Ford. We are not defined by a president who does not believe women,” Booker said. “We are defined by how we respond.”
Aside from that, little of Booker’s speech focused on the Kavanaugh fight or Booker’s role on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Instead, he concentrated on national themes of what America could aspire to be, as well as biographical stories and what his family taught him growing up. And much of it was a rallying cry for Democrats and defining what the party stood for before the November election.
“This is a party that cares about every single person,” Booker said to a standing ovation. “It’s a party of we, not the party of me. It’s a party of inclusion, not a party of exclusion. It’s a party that believes someone who is nice to you but not nice to the waiter, is not a nice person.”
The crowd of party loyalists largely came away impressed and reenergized for the final weeks of the campaign.
“I was very depressed and angry today about the Kavanaugh decision and I really thought I wasn’t going to go tonight because I’m not in the mood for cheering and happiness,” commented Suzanne Chester of Ames. “But I really wanted to hear Cory Booker speak. I’m so glad I came. I feel much better. I’m inspired. We need to make things better.”
Chris Adcock, a longtime party activist from Southwest Iowa, agreed.
“We needed this to remind us who we are,” she said. “It’s not all that ugliness.”
“I thought he was electric,” added Ryan Crane of West Des Moines. “I thought the words of hope and the historical perspective that he gave us tonight was just what I needed after the Kavanaugh vote.”
Still, Booker’s speech could have taken a much different tack. He just as easily could have gone on a stemwinder of blasting Republicans for ramming Kavanaugh’s nomination through and blown the doors off the place. He could have tapped into the fury of the day and positioned himself as the leader of the resistance to Trump’s America. Instead, he emphasized the shared bonds that Americans can and should have.
“You can’t hate Republicans,” Booker said. “We need each other as Americans. We’ve got to lead with love. You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. All of the people.”
That approach largely worked in the larger context of his speech with the Democrats in the room.
“I liked the positivity. We could use some of that right now,” said Zach Wahls, a state senate candidate, though he wondered how it would play with others. “I think Democrats do our best when that is our message. I’m not sure that’s where everyone in the party is right now. I think there are a lot of people, especially today, who are angry, who are scared, and I’ll be interested to see how that is received.”
The reaction was not a very positive one online where folks on the left were still angry over Kavanaugh, and very specifically angry at Republicans for it. That will be one of the most fascinating aspects of Booker’s message to watch going forward. In a time when many Democrats want to see their leaders express the same anger they’re feeling, Booker came to Iowa with a message of community, hope and optimism.
A large contingent of Booker’s family was on hand that evening. His family has roots in the old Iowa mining town of Buxton, and many of those descendants later moved to Des Moines. Booker said he had about 50 cousins in the state. That will obviously prove helpful for the senator should he run for president.
This trip out to Iowa certainly looks to be a full planning and preparation visit for Booker, not just a simple stop-by for a major speech. Booker has events scheduled through Tuesday, and was originally going to be here starting Thursday before the Kavanaugh vote disrupted some plans. He attends his family’s church on Sunday morning and holds a private family reunion with them that afternoon before hitting the political trail. Booker will headline a fundraiser for Deidre DeJear in Des Moines, huddle with the Iowa Democratic Party’s Black Caucus, rally Democrats at an early vote site in Adel and travel to Davenport for an event with Scott County Democrats, all with meetings and smaller events along the way.
If Booker launches a presidential run shortly after the 2018 election, he’ll join an incredibly crowded field, many of whom have already made extensive visits to the lead-off state. But he will have had the advantage of speaking to Iowa Democrats’ largest crowd of the year on a momentous day in American politics and history.
While Republicans in the Senate have accused Booker of being a blatant political opportunist, it seems the more opportune thing would have been to deliver a fiery, contentious speech that could have rung out far beyond Iowa. It’s not clear if this approach will serve Booker best in the caucus, but it did give Iowa Democrats a good look at Booker’s real character. And it certainly made him a more interesting candidate to watch as the 2020 contest develops.
by Pat Rynard