U.S. Sen. Cory Booker sat down for lunch yesterday with NJ Spotlight and its members at the first of our “newsmakers” events bringing important political and civic leaders to our readers.
Speaking in Rutgers-Newark’s new Express Newark space in the old Hahne’s building, the New Jersey Democrat spoke for close to an hour about everything from his push to bring Whole Foods to Newark to the current state of Congress in the Trump era.
Booker made a prediction about the next U.S. Supreme Court nominee, and another about his own presidential aspirations. And he ended the event on a somber note about the state of the nation’s criminal justice system.
The following excerpts are from Booker’s answers to questions from NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney and the more than 40 NJ Spotlight members on hand.
About his early entreaties as Newark mayor to Whole Foods to come to Newark (the store opened March 1)
I still remember my first meeting with Whole Foods in my first year as mayor, and they literally were giggling when I’d start talking to them about coming. I looked at them and said, “This is my holy grail, and you all will come to this city, and I will not leave you alone until you do.”
Under President Donald Trump, what is your best prediction about where we’ll be in a year or even six months?
I don’t want to give a flip answer, but I said it on Election Day: I’m out of Trump predictions. Everything I predicted, at every stage of his emergence turned out to be dead wrong… The first three months of the Trump administration, I couldn’t have imagined we’d see what we are seeing now. I am not going to make predictions about the next year other than say the unpredictable is going to happen.
Do you see a new healthcare bill being passed and signed?
I used to think [Trump] would get this done, but the defections now in the Senate on the right and on the left show me this bill as I last knew it is already being changed. I think we [in the Senate] now have the opportunity to block what I see as one of the most catastrophic pieces of legislation that I have ever seen.
I think, like the governor of this state often did, they will try to get the symbolic victory and say they passed a healthcare bill. But the problem is, do the Republicans two years from now or four years from now really want to own this? I don’t know if they really want to own the backlash that will come.
Yes or no question: will nominee Neil Gorsuch be confirmed by the Senate to the U.S. Supreme Court?
Will Gorsuch be confirmed with 60 votes [of the Senate]?
Yes. I’m worried that we can’t hold eight [Democrats] … I am one of those people who believes we should filibuster no matter what, but I believe he could pick off eight.
Any best guesses about which Democrats will run for President in 2020, and is this something you’re considering?
I get this question all the time … and I tell people you’re crazy to be thinking 2020 with that specificity now. I am one who believes you are a bad senator if you are thinking about running for president three or four years out. You are shaping what you think to what Iowa might want, what New Hampshire might want.
Wasn’t President Barack Obama as a senator thinking three or four years out?
I just want to say that I learned in Newark to focus on where you are... I am very happy where I am, and my focus is running again in 2020.
What are the most effective ways for average citizens to make their views known to their U.S. senators and representatives?
Please, never stop calling. I know we’re taking note of that. And I’m one of those who believes that town halls mean something. Even if you’re not yelling or protesting, just that you’re there means a lot.
New Jersey’s abundance of Superfund sites is a symptom of apathy.
The reason we were up in arms [in the past] is we realize these sites are so toxic... We now know that if you are born within three miles of a Superfund site that you are 20 percent more likely of [having] birth defects.
Now let me give you the bad news. In New Jersey, 50 percent of our population lives within three miles of a Superfund site. Why are we enduring toxic sites in our back yard? Why have we normalized these kinds of affronts to our communities?
In closing, what about the state of criminal justice in New Jersey and beyond?
I lived 20 years in Harrington Park and 20 years in Newark, and I now realize we have two justice systems, one that (says) you are better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.
I am so appalled that in my country and for every person in this room, that we as a country can’t rebuild our roads yet we are building a new prison every 10 days? We tolerate this: the land of the free is the incarceration nation that incarcerates one of four people [worldwide]? We are comfortable with this?
My father before he died stood with me and said he worried that a child born under his conditions in 1936 would have better chance of making it in America than they do today... That we tolerate this is so unjust.
to learn more about NJ Spotlight membership.