Sen. Cory Booker spoke to The State by phone ahead of his return to South Carolina this week.
Below is an edited version of the interview in the senator’s own words.
Q: You’ve focused very much on an optimistic, unifying message in this race. Is that resonating with a party that in many ways is looking for a more aggressive partisan fighter to take on President Donald Trump?
A: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. You can be a fighter. Civil rights activists fought with love against bullies like Bull Connor. They didn’t bring bigger fire hoses and bigger dogs. They changed the whole tenor of the fight. They brought it to a higher, moral level and they won. I don’t think we beat Donald Trump by trying to fight on his turf, getting in the gutter and trying to fight in that kind of way. I think that’s exactly what he wants, and I think it’s a recipe for losing this election. Americans are yearning to get our politics back to the best of who we are, not the worst. I don’t think we win this election by fighting the way Donald Trump fights, with the very things we’re deploring. I think we win by showing who we are as a nation, by having leaders who excite our base, who call to our higher angels, and who can get this country back to pursuing justice and opportunity for all by bringing people together, not dividing them.
Q: You’ve worked with one our senators, Tim Scott, to pass anti-lynching legislation in the Senate. Have you talked with him at all about your South Carolina strategy?
A: Tim is a friend. We disagree on a lot of things, but as we need to do in this country, we need to find common ground with folks. And as a result of what we’ve done together, we’ve passed things that really help South Carolina. We passed the “Opportunity Zone” legislation that is helping to bring a lot of investment into South Carolina, that haven’t seen it before. So again, he’s somebody I talk to about a lot of things, because you’ve got to build relationships that actually practically help people on the ground, and I’m honored to have not only him but a whole lot of friends in South Carolina. My dad’s from right over the border in Hendersonville, N.C. I’m proud to have a lot of family and community down there to really work with. And I’ll tell you this. I’m going to be a presidential nominee who isn’t going to win South Carolina and then ignore it. I’m going to come back there and campaign in the general election. I think we have a chance to elect Democrats statewide in that state and really work on building the party. And when I’m president of the United States, I’m going to come back there to work on the problems that South Carolinians are struggling with; rural communities being hollowed out, access to broadband, not having access to clean water and high-paying jobs. I’m happy I have connections down there on both sides of the aisle. I’m going to work hard to build a great Democratic Party there and then, as president, deliver results.
Q: Does your message make you stand out in a crowded field? How can you stand out when we have a different presidential candidate coming through every week?
A: There’s a lot of things that make me very unique in this field. I was the chief executive of the state’s largest city here in New Jersey, and we created a city transformation that has really made this the comeback city of the last decade or so, bringing in tens of thousands of jobs and opportunities, our school system improving into now the No. 1 ranked school system in America for taking kids out of poverty and sending them to college. Then I was a senator who got things done, like some of the things I talked about with Tim Scott and passing comprehensive criminal justice reform in our First Steps Act. And then, as you said, our message is different. I don’t believe in fighting fire with fire. I ran a fire department and that’s not a good way to put out a fire. If you want to fight darkness, you’ve got to bring the light. If you want to fight hate, you’ve got to bring the love. Determined, tough, strong, durable love. We’ve got to be a nation where we put indivisible back into ‘one nation, under God.’
Q: You’ve talked about the importance of rural infrastructure. I know you’ve campaigned in rural areas here in South Carolina, and probably will again. What do you see as the importance of that in a state like South Carolina?
A: We started our campaign in the rural areas of South Carolina. I did my CNN town hall very purposefully in a rural area of South Carolina because I come from a community – it happens to be an inner-city community – that like rural areas is too often looked down upon or overlooked. I have a chip on my shoulder for communities that don’t get respect, nor do they get the investment that they need. So we’ll put front and center a rural agenda that deals with rural health care and hospitals, rural schools that are struggling, on getting rural infrastructure from broadband to roads. We have a lot of work to do to honor the idea that every area, every part of America, has got to be a land of opportunity. So I know the 95 corridor going through the great state of South Carolina is called by some people the ‘Corridor of Shame.’ Under my leadership as president and with great leaders at the local level, we’re going to create a ‘Corridor of Opportunity’ going through our rural areas, where our children born there have a chance to go out into the world and make the best of themselves with their hard work and ingenuity.
Q: But how do you do that? How do you take an area that is so deprived and neglected and which lacks so many resources, and turn it into an area with much more opportunity?
A: Well, first of all, you elect somebody with a proven track record of doing it. When I was Newark’s mayor, we had 60 years of population decline and people leaving our urban base. Now, Newark has 6 percent of the state’s population, and one out of every three building permits are going on in the city of Newark. So I have a proven track record of bringing jobs to places where people are leaving. You do that by investing in people. You’ve got have great apprenticeship programs, great educational programs, and, for areas that are like rural areas, you’ve to create great access to capital and investment in those communities. The next thing you’ve got to be sure that you do is recognize that the centers of successive progress are the assets you already have. I was there in rural areas and saw some of the great historically black colleges and universities. I saw that they’re trying to close some of our rural hospitals that are some of the main drivers of economic opportunity and jobs. So pushing to get Medicaid expanded so you have pipelines of resources coming to your rural hospitals that are economic centers, and doubling down on colleges and universities like our HBCUs. Those are anchors of economic development that you can build upon. Having access to broadband helps businesses grow, creating technical centers and business incubators. These are strategies that worked for me in my community in New Jersey, and these are things that are just waiting to happen in South Carolina where we can start seeing our rural areas come back and thrive.