By Gary Walker

Sen. Cory Booker bonded with supporters and exhorted the crowd at Scale LA to make the 2020 campaign “a referendum on who we are”
Photo by Alon Goldsmith

You wouldn’t know it from watching him on television, but Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Cory Booker really knows how to connect with a crowd.

The combative Booker of the Aug. 1 presidential debate emerged as an energetic happy warrior among hundreds of supporters who gathered Aug. 21 at Scale LA, a health care innovation startup co-working space in Palms.

The 6’3” Booker leapt onto a makeshift stage at the center of the jam-packed and sweaty room, greeted with cheers from supporters who’d waited more than an hour to hear him speak. Wearing a blue jacket and an open-collar white shirt, he spoke of changing the dialogue about the 2020 presidential election from simply focusing on defeating President Donald Trump to treating the process as a litmus test for what voters really want.

“This election is not a referendum on him. It’s a referendum on who we are and what we must be to each other,” he thundered to resounding applause. “What is the vision that we have for America? More important, what is the vision that we have for each other? I get concerned when I hear that what we need more than anything is a candidate who can beat Donald Trump. Let me tell you right now: I want to beat him, but beating Donald Trump is not enough. We have to have bigger aspirations than that. That’s the floor, that’s not the ceiling.”

In a 28-minute speech somewhat reminiscent of another African-American senator and presidential candidate 12 years ago, Booker shared anecdotes about growing up in New Jersey, where his family faced housing discrimination in the 1960s, and how an attorney named Marty Feldman helped them stand up to bigoted real estate agents. Booker also talked about Vivian Jones, a “fierce agent of change in our neighborhood” who started him on the path of neighborhood organizing after he returned from Yale Law School — “she taught me you cannot lead people if you don’t love them,” he said.

A Stanford University graduate who acknowledged with a laugh that he was in “Trojan territory,” Booker noted some of his family’s local ties. His mother is a native Angeleno, his uncle attended high school here, and several family members lived in the Baldwin Hills area.

Booker landed many of his best applause lines, however, when he talked about an “impotency of empathy” that has enveloped the nation since Trump was elected and the need to restore dignity, compassion and courage to politics and society.

“We have a crisis of empathy, a crisis of love. We don’t beat Donald Trump on his turf using his tactics,” he said. Paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Booker said that he is more concerned “not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.”

Historical references peppered Booker’s call for personal activism.

“I think American history is a perpetual testimony to the achievement of the impossible. We have to be activists that wake up the moral conscious of our country. How did we beat ‘em in the past? Did we beat Bull Conner in Alabama by bringing bigger fire hoses and bigger dogs? No. We beat those bullies and demagogues by turning toward each other and not away from each other,” he said.

Wiping his brow with a handkerchief, Booker continued: “You beat darkness with light and you beat hate with love. If you elect me president I’m going to ask more from you than any president of your lifetime.”

During the event, Booker joked that “2020 does not stand for the year of the election; it stands for the number of candidates who are running.” Joining Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for a gun violence prevention roundtable in South Los Angeles, he shrugged off lagging national poll numbers.

“Polls are not predictive in this country. In fact, in my lifetime there has never been a Democratic president who has been leading in the polls this far out,” he told reporters. “We are six months before voting in Iowa begins and early voting in California begins. This far out Barack Obama was 20 points behind, and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were considered longshots. I’m very confident about where we are right now.”