- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2019

While many of his competitors rage against “them” — the wealthy, the Republicans, the capitalists — Sen. Cory A. Booker’s presidential campaign is pitching his candidacy on the idea that we’re all in this thing together.

Or, as the Rev. Al Sharpton puts it, in a lesson he says he learned from Martin Luther King Jr., there are two kinds of people in politics: The activists who rage against the system and those who try to change it from within.

“Martin Luther King said that you have people that shake the trees and you have people that pick up the apples and make applesauce,” Mr. Sharpton told The Washington Times.

Mr. Sharpton said he is “a tree shaker.” Mr. Booker, he said, is “an applesauce guy.”

Even as other candidates compete for the combative fringe, Mr. Booker of New Jersey hasn’t wavered from the tone he set early on when, at his campaign launch, he told supporters that “you cannot make progress by dividing people” and that the “only way to overcome tough challenges is by extending grace, finding common ground and working together.”

It’s not clear whether applesauce is what Democratic voters are looking for in 2020.

Many in the crowded presidential field are running on a confrontational platform, calling on voters to pick sides in what they portray as a battle of corporations versus the poor and middle class.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernard Sanders of Vermont are particular practitioners, with New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio also joining that fight in the initial primary debate earlier this month.

But Mr. Booker has staked his flag on a more unifying message.

“Cory’s message of unity, bringing people together, leaning toward a bipartisanship kind of message is very hopeful,” Mr. Sharpton said. “I think Elizabeth Warren is saying that she feels there are too many indications on both sides [of the political aisle] that everybody is taking a side and there is not going to be a middle ground. So let’s fight it out.”

Mr. Booker says his approach has worked on Capitol Hill, where he helped pass bipartisan legislation to create opportunity zones in low-income communities and give the criminal justice system a facelift.

As a former high school football Player of the Year in New Jersey, he’s featured in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated as a one-time Gatorade Athlete of the Year who went on to big things.

But he’s also no stranger to partisan bruising in Washington, gaining notoriety for his “Spartacus” moment when he broke Senate rules to attack Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing last year, and he’s shown an uncanny ability to garner media attention, including last week when he escorted asylum seekers into the United States.

Ms. Warren, meanwhile, is arguably best known for helping create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Wall Street cop, in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. She also made headlines by defying Senate rules to read aloud harsh criticism of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions during the debate over his nomination to be attorney general. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s admonition of her — “She was warned … nevertheless, she persisted” — became a T-shirt slogan.

So far, Ms. Warren’s approach appears to be winning.

National and early primary state polling show her running as a top-tier candidate, usually in third place.

Mr. Booker is stuck in single digits, despite holding many of the same big policy positions as Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, including support for a “Medicare for All” government-run health system and the Green New Deal environmental plan.

Bret Niles, chair of the Linn County Iowa Democrats, said Mr. Booker’s early struggles remind him of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, whose 2016 White House bid as a bipartisan problem-solver failed to gain traction.

“Martin’s desire of ‘we should get together’ seems similar to Bookers’ message,” Mr. Niles said. “I think at some point in time Senator Booker is going to have to say we will come together after most parties do after the nominee is picked, and until that time you have to do what you have to do to win.”

Mr. Booker is betting his fortunes will change over the long haul.

He has developed one of the most robust ground games in Iowa, where success in the caucuses depends on that sort of thing. And he has had 34 events in South Carolina, home to a large black electorate. That puts him on par with Sen. Kamala Harris, the other black candidate in the race, and well ahead of the rest of the field, according to a running tally from The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston.

“There is definitely a difference between how it feels in Iowa versus the national polls,” said Sean Bagniewski, chair of the Polk County Iowa Democrats.

He said he sees similarities between Mr. Booker’s message and the hope-and-change message that carried then-Sen. Barack Obama to victory in 2008, and said voters might be eager for that now, with President Trump in the White House.

“But you definitely need to understand and connect to the energy of the moment,” he said, adding that with issues such as the border crisis energizing Democratic voters, “this is the time to bring the fire.”

Mr. Booker has rolled out plans to curb gun violence by tightening restrictions on gun purchases and enacting universal background checks.

He wants to overhaul the criminal justice system by legalizing marijuana and by cutting minimum sentencing and granting clemency to thousands of nonviolent drug offenders.

And he wants to overhaul the immigration system by expanding protections for illegal immigrant “Dreamers,” putting strict requirements on migrant detention facilities and stopping parts of the Trump border wall from being built.

Jim Demers, a veteran New Hampshire strategist who served on then-Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 and now backs Mr. Booker, said the New Jersey senator’s “very unifying” message stands out from the pack and could catch fire over coming weeks and months.

“He doesn’t deliver a message of us against them,” Mr. Demers said. “He delivers a message of we come together as Americans to work on things. It is a contrast to some of the other candidates, who don’t talk that same way.”

Mr. Sharpton was more skeptical, saying he has doubts over whether Mr. Booker’s message of “hope and reaching across the aisle is going to resonate.

“It should, but I don’t know if in this climate that it does,” he said.

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