The Ties that Bind Cory Booker and Barack Obama

by Dax-Devlon Ross

[Cory] Booker is turning his attention to enforcing quality-of-life crimes—something he’s passionate about. Driving with his police escort recently, the mayor watched as occupants of the car in front of them hurled trash out of their window. Ordering his escort to pull over the car, the mayor rolled down his window and berated the offenders. “I told them that what they did was an act of violence,” he recalls

                                                        From The City Journal

“In Chicago, sometimes when I talk to the black chambers of commerce, I say, ‘You know what would be a good economic development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks weren’t throwing their garbage out of their cars,’ ” Obama told a group of black state legislators in a speech in South Carolina last month.

                                                        From The Washington Post

Newark Mayor and media darling Cory Booker has officially thrown his surging political weight behind the Barack Obama campaign. Not only is he pledging his political clout, he announced he will be heading up Obama’s presidential push in New Jersey as either chair or co-chair of the state’s campaign. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Their political careers have evidenced a similar concern with access to housing and healthcare, combating violence and resurrecting a crumbling educational system. With regard to education, Booker seems more amenable than Obama to vouchers, although that could merely be a function of being a local rather than national politician. Public education in its purest form is still too tightly woven into the fabric of American idealism for a national dialogue to begin about eliminating the public education system as we know it. As far as health care is concerned, Obama announced his pledge to universalize healthcare by the end of his term in office at the same Trenton gathering of AFL-CIO workers, where Booker threw what we must presume is his full and knowing support behind the Senator. “We can have universal health care by the end of the next president’s first term, by the end of my first term,” Obama said, bringing more than 600 union workers to their feet.

However intoxicating these remarks are, they elicit an air of curiosity in light of a recent New Yorker article in which Obama was quoted as saying,

“If you’re starting from scratch then a single-payer system (think Canada) would probably make sense. But we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we made need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.”

The two upstart leaders have the most in common on the housing front, which makes sense considering they both sharpened their political swords in the fires of the urban ghettos blighted by poor housing conditions (more on this below). “A couple months ago, I stood with Mayor Healy urging the federal government to restore needed funds,” Booker stated at the Trenton rally, “Today, I stand with Senator Obama and Mayor Healy to ensure affordable housing is a priority all over the country. After taking the podium Obama announced his plan to create a housing trust that would provide for the development of affordable housing on an annual basis. He discussed his plan to create 14,000 new units of affordable housing per year and help with rehabilitation of older homes and lead abatement. Under his administration, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would be reorganized and instruments like federal housing vouchers would be funded.

“The federal government has basically abandoned the [housing] field and left mayors holding the bag,” Obama said. “The first step is to make a decision that this is something important, that it’s not acceptable that somebody is working full-time in this country but they can’t afford to find a place to live for themselves and their family.”

The fund would use a small percentage of the profits of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – both quasi-governmental bodies – to create up to 14,000 new units of affordable housing every year in mixed-income neighborhoods. About 75% of the funds would support households below 30% of the median income while the additional 25% of the fund would be used to assist low-income families in home ownership efforts.

Booker and Obama were introduced to one another by Oprah’s gal pal Gayle King and have since developed a close personal friendship. Both are ivy league trained lawyers who spent little time actually practicing law. Both represent a post-civil rights agenda that seeks to merge economic development with community upliftment to form a kind of pragmatic-populist progressivism. Both are highly approved of by whites from across the political spectrum. Both have volatile relationships with the black community in part because of the across-the-board love they get from white America. Since announcing his support of Obama, Booker has been nothing short of effusive in his support of Obama. Here are a few of Booker’s notable-quotables gleaned from the web:

“Barack Obama is expanding a vision for America that’s inclusive, that’s exciting, that’s innovative, that’s competitive.”

“It’s time that we have a national leader that’s going to raise us around our highest common ideals and remind us that we have more in common as a people than we do that divides us.”

“Barack Obama is going to help ensure that the American dream — as bold and broad as it is — is accessible to all Americans”

“Barack Obama has a substantive approach to our enduring national challenges. I believe he is committed to expanding access to economic abundance and opportunity.

“I believe that America’s destiny is going to be determined by us rising to a larger common purpose. The best person in my opinion that represents that kind of prophetic leadership, is Barack Obama.”

While the two men have been linked together as leaders of the new black political class as far back as the 2004 Democratic Convention, where both spoke, the question at the forefront of discourses surrounding them remains, why do their Ivy League pedigrees, the knee-jerk approval of white liberals and conservative draw such skepticism from the black community?In the past few months alone, Obama has pointedly criticized hip-hop, anti-intellectualism, and poor voter turn-out in the black community, and the so-called scourge of ‘talking white.’ Booker, meanwhile, directs his critique of black culture at recalcitrant black leadership, something implicitly indicated in his favorable remarks about Obama above. Obama has taken a more savvy approach to his critique of black leadership, but he has also been allowed to do so because there are few black politicians who have reached his level or national prominence. Booker has had to get a little down and dirty. Though he tried to steer his campaign against incumbent Sharpe James clear of race-bating rhetoric, it inevitably nose dived in that direction. Down and dirty is the nature of local politics. Obama, on the other hand, has been permitted to (and indeed must) stand above that particular fray. Nevertheless, both tactics have been heavily criticized by the black intelligentsia, and only prove some people will never be pleased. Booker gets slammed for being too myopic when it comes to dealing with what are essentially systemic problems. Obama gets roasted for not being more accessible to other black leaders.

Booker and Obama get away with their critiques of the black community because 1) they are black, 2) they both chose to forego opportunities in the private sector for public service, and 3) they both got their start as inner city activists. Booker made his name initially by staging a vigil in the name of elderly tenants against the housing authority in Newark, Obama by leading the same demographic in a protest against Chicago’s housing authority. Their commitment to remembering the forgotten is critical to any understanding of the intensely conflicting arguments surrounding their respective rises to prominence. Those that vaunt their achievements typically look at their grassroots work as evidence of their love for their people. Those that question their authenticity typically look at that same grassroots work and read it as being part of a skillfully orchestrated plot by a pair of ambitious, but estranged, privileged sons to win support from and create ties to the black community for their own political gain. Those who haven’t quite made up their mind are torn between these competing ideologies. It is there, among those undecided voters, that the battle the two leaders have agreed to wage together will be won or lost.