Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Cory Booker, the first black person elected to the US Senate from New Jersey, made an impassioned bid for inclusion among the front ranks of Democratic Party candidates for president in a CNN town hall broadcast Wednesday night from Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Booker checked all the boxes on a range of progressive issues that leading Democratic Party presidential candidates have worked to forge consensus on. This included support for LGBTQ rights, health care for all, criminal justice reform, immigration reform, gun control, climate change, and race relations, just to name a few.
Booker’s support for these issues reflects the evolution of the post-Obama Democratic Party that has embraced progressive reform with a boldness, candor, and vision that surpasses the heyday of 1960s Great Society liberalism and seems intent on reimagining the Great Depression-era New Deal for the 21st century.
He also said that one black woman asking a question about the fairness of the Electoral College was part of “the best voting demographic in America,” showing flashes of the easy charisma that has made him an attractive presidential candidate.
Orangeburg, where the town hall was held, is home to two historically black colleges, South Carolina State and Claflin University, and the event featured faculty and staff from these institutions. More poignantly, the city is the site of the 1968 “Orangeburg Massacre” that left three black students dead and 27 injured after state troopers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators picketing a segregated bowling alley. Booker also discussed the importance of HBCUs to his own family, noting that he’s the child of two HBCU graduates.
Part of the evening turned personal in a different way when Booker reflected on the results of his recent DNA testing that traced his ancestry back to 1640 and found enslaved Africans and Confederate soldiers as part of his family tree. The senator said he believes that his complex mixed-race ancestry “lets folks know that the lines that divide us are not as strong as the ties that bind us.”
Booker characterized himself as “uniquely qualified” to defeat President Donald Trump. “We win this election,” he remarked, “not by showing the worst of who we are but by showing the best of who we are.” On that score, Booker promised to run a positive campaign that advocates a forward-looking political vision capable of “uniting all Americans.”
He sounded additional progressive themes on criminal justice reform, most notably the pursuit of commuting sentences for marijuana-related crimes, expunging the records of ex-offenders, and approving mass pardons at the federal level as president.
Asked by host Don Lemon if he supports reparations to the black community for racial slavery, Booker demurred, saying he supported a longstanding House bill that would provide federal resources to study the issue, but proclaimed a strong policy interest in ending racial disparities in wealth, housing, and health care outcomes.
“Health care is an American right,” emphasized Booker, underscoring his commitment to a Medicare For All legislation while admitting the pathway to such policy would be arduous. On this score Booker, whose early rise in New Jersey politics was in part funded by drug companies, vowed not to accept any contributions from “pharmaceutical executives money, corporate PAC money, or federal lobbyists money.”
Sen. Booker resisted the call to impeach the President until the Mueller report is publicly released, a cautious answer that drew polite applause from the Democratic-friendly crowd
Booker promised as president to support strong gun control legislation that would “bring the fight to the NRA.” He talked in stark terms about how black men are 6% of the population yet represent the majority of victims of gun violence in America. The bold talk continued with Booker expressing support for a Green New Deal, advocated most visibly by US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. On this score, he promised to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords if elected president
The New Deal-like positions that Booker touted in Orangeburg reflect his own evolution from a pro-business, pro-Wall Street, media-savvy mayor of Newark whose late-night television appearances, “Brick City” reality television show, and cozy relationship with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg marked him as the darling of Silicon Valley neo-liberals.
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The political contradictions between a moderate past and a progressive future that Booker’s candidacy faces also impact the entire Democratic Party field, from veteran politicians such as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to fresh-faced newcomers such as Beto O’Rourke. In Orangeburg, Booker made a convincing demonstration that national politics is guided as much by historical context as personal conviction. Democratic primary voters will have to decide which of these best animate Booker’s presidential campaign.