Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., spoke about his work on building bipartisan consensus, criminal justice reform, farming and gun control legislation on April 10 as part of the Tisch College Solomont Speaker Series. He was joined by dean emeritus of Tisch College and former U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Andorra Alan D. Solomont, who moderated the talk.
Booker started off the discussion by recounting how his work in the Senate challenged his assumptions of Republican colleagues. In one instance, he found common ground with conservative former Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., working together on a legislative amendment to help unhoused and foster children despite their deep personal disagreements.
“That would not have happened if I got stuck in this mode, where my hurt, or my offense or my own real substantive pain was where it was [before],” Booker said.
According to Booker, however, there is still a long way to go to bridge the ideological gap in politics, specifically on issues of race and justice.
“What is really frustrating to me is, I thought that legalizing marijuana would have a democratizing force on our country,” he said. “We’re not seeing the kind of expungements with people who are using marijuana now legally. … If you’re Black in America, you are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than somebody that’s white.”
The senator also spoke about prison reform, highlighting the disproportionate number of incarcerated women in America and the dehumanizing conditions they continue to live in.
“I [visited] Danbury, Connecticut, a federal lockup,” he said. “On the way in [with] this tough warden, I asked her, how many women here are survivors of sexual trauma, violence? And this tough woman stops, looks vulnerable to me, and she goes, ‘90, 95%.’”
Booker cosponsored the bipartisan First Step Act in 2018, which reformed criminal sentencing laws.
“We have a system that is so tortured, that we would rather spend more and more money creating the problem or on the back end of the problem than making the humane investments on the front end that would not necessitate these so-called prisons in the first place,” he said.
Booker still believes in the Democratic Party’s message going into 2024 — despite unfavorable polling numbers brought up by Ambassador Solomont. He commended President Biden’s legislative work, including an initiative included in the bipartisan infrastructure law to replace lead pipes nationwide.
“We think it should be a part of the social contract in America, right? You have clean drinking water,” he said. “We just didn’t. Kids were being poisoned every day in America, still are in some cases. But now we have a president that’s prioritized finally getting every lead pipe out of the ground, fighting these legacy environmental injustices.”
First-year environmental studies major Penelope Kopp asked Booker about the status of his Farm System Reform Act, which aims toplace a moratorium on large concentrated animal feeding operations. Booker said that reform efforts have faced legal challenges from both the Trump and Biden administrations.
“We think these massive industrial factory farms that are being driven by these handful of international food companies, that there has to be controls put on them to protect the environment to protect against environmental dissolution, not to mention the kind of conditions in which animals and others are being raised in,” Booker responded.
Speaking just hours after a mass shooting in Louisville, Ky., Booker responded to a question on gun violence from a student from Sandy Hook, Conn., the site of a 2012 mass school shooting.
“The fear that you feel is becoming epidemic in our country,” he said. “Fear is like a cancer. … We are now in this nation, in this dystopian present, where we have more active shooter drills in America than we have fire drills.”
Booker called for more pressure to be put on legislators demanding change.
“I've seen what some great students have been able to do after shootings, maybe not passing federal laws but passing laws in some states,” he said. “But I can't beseech you enough and everyone in here enough, to begin to take more responsibility for this issue and begin to do more to demand change. Because every single day we don’t, about 100 Americans are killed by a gun, and hundreds more are wounded.”
Booker also offered some inspiration to students thinking about civic responsibility. He reflected on a conversation he had with his mother as a graduate student.
“I remember her asking me what I was going to do when I graduated, which is the worst thing you should ask a child when they have no clue. With my mom, I felt like she was poking the wound of my anxiety and my insecurity about what the heck was I going to do. … But she said something different to me that I never heard her say to me before, and she just basically said, ‘Son, I’m worried that you’re going to make a decision out of fear and not faith.’ And she goes, ‘I want you to think of the boldest thing that you can do. In fact, I want you to tell me what you would do with your life if you knew you couldn’t fail.’”
He believes life is about always staying in motion.
“The secret sauce for me, I think, has been I’m willing to fall flat on my face — which I often have,” Booker said. “But making sure when you fall down, you don’t forget to pick something up, a lesson or some wisdom when you get there. And be bold. Be as bold as you possibly can. What is your wildest dream of service that you have? And go and pursue that.”