NJ Primary Elections 2020: Spotlight on Hamm, Sen. Booker’s Primary Opponent

Colleen O'Dea | July 2, 2020 | , NJ Decides 2020, Politics
Given Booker’s high profile and hefty campaign chest, it’s easy to lose sight of Lawrence Hamm, the senator’s activist opponent in the upcoming primary
Lawrence Hamm, left, is challenging U.S. Sen. Cory Booker for the Democratic Party’s nomination.

Now five months months beyond his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker is seeking his second full term in the Senate with the solid backing of the party establishment and millions more in the bank than his primary rival.

While many are preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant economic downturn and focusing on the protests against racial injustice in light of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, it may have gone unnoticed that Booker does face a primary challenge from activist Lawrence Hamm.

Booker, 51, the former mayor of Newark, is running a typical, confident incumbent’s campaign, meaning essentially no campaign. His campaign website includes Booker’s biography and a way to sign up to support him or donate.

He may not need to do any more than that, said Matt Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University.

“Post COVID, Gov. (Phil) Murphy might be the most popular politician in New Jersey, but before the pandemic, it was Cory Booker and it wasn’t particularly close,” he said.“ It would take evidence that Booker personally started COVID-19 for him to lose the primary or general. Even with that, he could probably beat” the leading GOP candidates.

Message of love falls flat

Until mid-January, Booker was focused on running for the presidency. He dropped out of the race almost a year after announcing his candidacy via Twitter, after his message of love didn’t catch fire among a presidential field that at its peak numbered more than two dozen. But he said he doesn’t regret having tried.

“What I found during my presidential campaign was that even when facing tough challenges, the spirit of love and kindness is not lost among the American people,” Booker said. “Having the opportunity to meet so many people and hear their hopes, dreams, frustrations and fears firsthand was an incredible experience that I will never forget, and the things I learned will inspire my work for the rest of my life.”

A Rhodes Scholar who got a law degree from Yale University, Booker said he is proud to have been able to “deliver results” for New Jersey despite gridlock in Washington.

“Even in the face of Donald Trump’s hatred and division, I was able to lead a divided Congress forward to pass into law historic reforms that make our criminal justice system, which disproportionately imprisons poor, Black and brown families, more fair,” Booker said, referring to the First Step Act he co-sponsored that was enacted in December 2018. Among other provisions, the law shortens mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and gives judges more discretion to deviate from mandatory minimums for such offenses.

Getting the lead out

He also touted securing tens of millions in federal funding to remove lead from drinking water, working to ban drilling off the New Jersey coast and helping to “create landmark incentives that draw new economic investment into communities across our state that need it most.” Booker co-sponsored legislation that got tucked into the 2017 tax overhaul law that has created Opportunity Zones, where investors can get tax incentives for funding development in struggling areas.

He also sponsored legislation loosely dubbed “baby bonds” that would give all newborns a savings account with an initial deposit of $1,000 with contributions continuing annually through age 18 depending on income as a way to narrow the wealth gap.

Booker sits on the Senate judiciary, foreign relations, environment and public works and small-business committees. He said that if re-elected, “I will keep working to make justice and opportunity real for every New Jerseyan in the Senate.”

Most recently, Booker has focused on trying to push for police reform — co-sponsoring the Justice in Police Reform Act that would hold police accountable for egregious misconduct, increase transparency through better data collection and improve police practices and training. He also tried unsuccessfully to win the removal of Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol.

Profiling Booker’s primary opponent

His primary opponent has been working on similar efforts in the trenches on a much smaller stage, such as protest marches and rallies in New Jersey, including one outside the state administrative courts headquarters in Trenton calling for criminal justice reform and an end to police brutality on Tuesday. Hamm told NJTV News that Booker didn’t always hold such progressive views.

“When he was mayor of Newark, he was not for police reform,” Hamm said. “He is talking now about police brutality, but when some of the worst police brutality cases in the state happened under his watch, he not only didn’t speak out about these issues, he in fact denied to me directly the existence of police brutality.”

The Newark Police Department continues to operate under a consent decree dating back to March 2016 that require it to improve police training, supervision and disciplinary practices. The decree resulted from an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey that began in May 2011, while Booker was mayor. The investigation found evidence of improper stops, searches and seizures and the use of excessive force by police, among other problems. The city of Newark and its police department cooperated with the investigation.

Hamm is a founder and current chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, which works for racial, social, economic justice and peace, and a longtime activist and organizer. In 1978, he graduated cum laude with a degree in political science from Princeton University, where he was an organizer of the campus anti-apartheid movement. He was the youngest member of the Newark Board of Education, appointed by the mayor at age 17.

As more proof of his progressive chops, Hamm is chairing the presidential campaign in New Jersey of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020.

Progressive vs. practical

Hale boiled the race down this way: “The fact Sen. Booker even has a primary opponent is evidence that there is a part of the Democratic party that favors progressive purity over practical politics.”

In a post on his campaign Facebook page, Hamm summed up his motivation to run and asked for voters support: “Cory Booker had his chance to represent the people of New Jersey in Washington. Instead he stood for special interests. Now it’s time to elect someone who has spent a lifetime standing up for the working class.”

According to his campaign website, Hamm is advocating for a host of progressive policies, including restoration of the Voting Rights Act, legalization of marijuana, creation of a federal commission to craft a proposal to provide reparations to African Americans, enactment of Medicare for All and imposition of a tax on the top 0.1% of Americans — those with a net worth of more than $32 million.

He is clearly outgunned in financing. According to the latest reports from the Federal Election Commission, Hamm had raised about $64,000 and had $7,650 left in the bank as of June 17, while Booker had raised $12 million and had $2.9 million left to spend. It’s doubtful that the incumbent needs to spend much of that to win, having gained the backing of party leaders throughout the state.

The primary is July 7. At least one polling place will be open in every municipality, but most voters are expected to use mail-in ballots due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.