Dorothy Raines, of Newark, reacting to stage music as she waits for U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker to take the stage for his hometown presidential campaign celebration on April 13, 2019.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr

NEWARK—Kim Barnes voted for Cory Booker both times he successfully ran for mayor of Newark, the mostly black city here in New Jersey where the now senator is holding his hometown presidential campaign celebration. For Barnes, Booker is a native son, someone she remembers as never “forgetting where he came from.”

For Barnes, it is a no-brainer that his time as mayor of Newark has primed him to be America’s chief executive. And as far as the banter that Booker isn’t speaking forcefully enough on black issues, Barnes scoffed at the suggestion that he isn’t anything but a black man who loved her black city through the worst of times.

“We had had certain issues here in the city where he had came out of his own pocket,” she said. “But if he didn’t care, he would’ve come out of his pocket. I mean, come on. A lot of people think, because he’s light(skin), he’s not totally for all black people and that’s not so.”

Here in Military Park, an ethnically diverse crowd came to support Booker as he kicked off his hometown celebration of what he and his supporters hope will end with him winning the democratic nomination for president and then, the White House. Many of the black residents told The Root that the park in which we’re standing is now surrounded by national chains that were hesitant to invest downtown Newark, fearful of its reputation for high crime rates. Booker is given lots of credit for creating clean, safe parks where residents can bring their children to play and making Newark a city that can stand as a respectable partner to neighboring New York City.

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In this crowd of mostly black people, Booker is a black man whom they are proud is representing their black city many here feel the country had long given up on.

The first time Lamont Jackson met Booker was when he saw him walking around the city getting to know residents. He was running for mayor the first time, in 2002. He was an ambitious city councilman looking to take the helms of the city from Sharpe James, a machine politician who would later be convicted on fraud and conspiracy charges by a federal jury and sentenced to more than two years in prison. Jackson, like many people in the crowd, calls the senator by his first name. Though he is leaning towards supporting Booker, Jackson said the Democratic field is too big for him to commit to his former mayor at this point in the race.

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“I’ve known Cory for a long time, Jackson said. “He’s like a friend. I just like to keep my options open.”

It was hotter than expected today, with water being served to attendees braving the 80 degree weather. The program began with the usual procession of party insiders that throw support behind a high-profile candidate. In Booker’s case, it was Gov. Phil Murphy, the Lt. Gov, Sen. Robert Menendez, and a host of New Jersey elected officials.

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In the early 2000s, Booker was seen as a political superstar, with his name grabbing national headlines before social media became a thing. “Street Fight,” a documentary that followed his first unsuccessful campaign for mayor, put Booker’s name in the national spotlight. From his early days in the U.S. Senate, in 2013 when he won a special election, to 2014, when he won his seat in the midterm, Booker was always seen as the man who could potentially compete for president.

Currently, he is polling in the single digits and competing against presidential candidates who have their own mayoral experiences to tout. Several senior level staffers for Booker’s campaign told me that they are looking at this campaign as a marathon and aren’t too worried about his low polling numbers. The key strategy they will employ over the upcoming months is proving to the public that a man who can turn around a city like Newark has the experience, knowledge and the grit to turn around America.

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One of the staffers said that the campaign could do a better job of telling Booker’s personal and legislative story so that those unsure of his fitness to lead America will feel better about supporting him in the primary next year. Another staffer added that they will talk more about how Booker had to defeat James, who was relentless and trying to portray Booker as an out-of-touch black man from the suburbs who wasn’t black enough to run a city like Newark.

“James was very Trump-like in his language,” said a senior staffer who asked for anonymity. “If he can beat Sharpe James, he can beat Trump.” A little after 1:30 p.m., Booker stepped to the stage as Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” played over the sound system. The theme of his message focused on the need to push back against the urge to engage Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric.

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“Critics will tell us that a campaign powered by grace and love and a deep faith in each other can’t beat that,” he said. “But I say it’s the only way we win. The President wants a race to the gutter and to fight us in the gutter. To win, we have to fight from higher ground in order to bring this country to higher ground. So we cannot allow them to divide us, and we also must resist the urge to divide ourselves.”

Dorothy Raines, one of the black residents The Root spoke to, was dancing around the crowd and singing along to the music playing throughout the hours leading up to Booker’s speech. Raines is one of the few people here who hasn’t met Booker personally, but her mother, who is 93, has met him several times.

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She ready to support Booker for as long as he is viable, saying his message of unity coupled with his decades of commitment to Newark signal to the read of America that he is the right person to beat Trump.

As for his time as her mayor, Raines gives Booker rave reviews.

“He did everything for our school system, he’s built downtown Newark, she said. “He’s done remarkable, he did an excellent job.”