Immediately after being introduced by Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) grabbed the wireless mic and abandoned the podium. He walked a few rows out in the center aisle that separated the filled seats in Mountain View’s Boys and Girls Club, paused, and said sharply: “Is it right that I am in the most diverse community in the United States of America?”
“That is something extraordinary,” Booker said, shaking his head. “That’s extraordinary.”
Begich plucked Booker from Ted Stevens International Airport. It was after midnight, New Jersey time, when he began his speech. He quickly offered high praise of Begich, calling him one of his mentors in the senate, and repeatedly encouraged voters to send him back to Washington. But the praise wasn’t without some lighthearted criticism:
I want you all to know — I know this is what’s going to be put on the news tomorrow; this is the clip; it’s going to be pulled out of context — but I’m sorry, I’m going to step in it. But he is the most righteously annoying man I have ever met.
It’s past midnight. I come off the plane. I’ve never been to Alaska before. We’re coming into this area here and I’m starting to fall asleep. But then he just turns around, he’s sitting in the front seat. And he starts telling me about every street corner, every neighborhood, every house, he’s going crazy, he’s getting excited. And that got me excited. And I don’t live here.
Booker spoke before the Alaska Black Leadership Conference Freedom Summer Event, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Before his arrival, a half dozen community leaders and youths paid tribute, honor, and remembrance to and of Civil Rights leaders. Each wore a white t-shirt with black lettering that read “Are you registered to vote?” on the back and “Died for your right to vote” on the front, listing Andrew Goodwin, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner; three civil rights workers in Mississippi gunned down by the Ku Klux Klan. Outrage over their deaths helped pave the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as the Voting Rights Act the following year.
New Jersey and Alaska are obviously two very different states, with two very different Democratic Senators. But Begich and Booker share a strikingly similar career trajectory. Booker is ten months into his first term in the U.S. Senate. “I still have that new senator smell,” he joked.
He easily won a special election in 2013 against Republican Steve Lonegan (one of the more interesting figures in our nation’s politics) to fill the seat of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Before he ascended to the upper legislative branch, he served as the 36th mayor of Newark, and served four years on the city council before that. He looked and felt right at home in Mountain View, and was well versed in her struggles.
“I know about what it takes when you fight the good fight for a great community against tremendous odds,” Booker said.
He relayed a humbling experience he had when campaigning for the city council in 1998, as a young law student. “Everybody tells me, look, you want to make a difference here, you got to go into some highrise projects in Newark and you got to meet the tenant residents. And I learned that in these communities from coast to coast — I don’t care what state, what culture –there’s always some folk in a community that have so much wisdom, so much truth, that know what’s going on.”
So, he knocked on the door of one such tenant resident. A five foot tall, elderly African American woman answered. He said she brought him right out onto Martin Luther King Boulevard — to the middle of the street — and asked him to tell her what he saw around him.
I said I see the projects. I see an abandoned building; people using it for drugs. I said, I see graffiti. I just described what I saw. And the more I talked, the more this woman looked upset at me. And finally I stop and she goes “You can’t help me.” And she starts walking away from me.
And I run over to the side of the street, and I’m like, “What are you talking about?”
And this woman, I grab her from behind, she wheels around. Now remember, she’s much shorter than I am, but now it looks like she’s looking down at me. And she says, “Boy, you need to understand something. The world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you. And if you’re one of those people who only sees problems and darkness and despair that’s all there’s ever going to be. But if you’re one of those stubborn people, every time you open your eyes, you see hope, you see promise, you see love, you see the future.”
“She turned around and she walked away. If she had a microphone, she would have dropped it,” Booker concluded. “I’m just looking at my feet. And I said, ‘okay grasshopper. Thus endeth the lesson.'”
It’s a story the Mountain View community knows better than most. The statistics are sobering. Mountain View has an education crisis, with over 48 percent of residents not graduating high school. The crime rate is nearly double the U.S. average. Nearly a full quarter live below the poverty level. The name of Precious Alex still weighs on everyone’s heart and mind.
But these characteristics are precisely what Booker learned were the wrong things to look at. They prevent one from seeing the vibrant refugee community, the beautiful parks and artwork created and maintained by locals, the award winning community development efforts by the Anchorage Community Land Trust, and the outright magic that takes place every single day within the very building in which Booker spoke, the Mountain View Boys and Girls Club.
That shared history, Booker said, is only one generation removed (if that) from Jim Crow. As in keeping with the rest of the thirty minute speech, he made sure to intertwine really heavy history with bits of humor. He recounted a story about his father buying the family’s first home:
My father tells the story like this, he says, “Son, we went to look at the house. It was sold. The white couple — the test couple; the volunteers — came after us.” It was still for sale. They put a bid on the house. It was accepted. On the day of the closing, my father says, he and a lawyer went to the real estate agent. The lawyer gave a speech, said you’re in violation of Colonia Real Estate fair housing law. The real estate agent was so upset, he gets up and punches my dad’s lawyer and sicks a dog on my father. And every time my dad tells that story the dog gets bigger.
But that’s how we moved in. “Four raisins and a tub of sweet vanilla ice cream.” That’s what my dad called us. And as I was growing up, here I thought I was something special. High school All-American football player. Scholarship to go to Stanford University. I would walk into that house with that swagger again and my dad would look at me and say, “Boy, don’t you dare walk around this house like you hit a triple. You were born on third base. You didn’t get here on your own. People cried for you. People scrubbed toilets for you. People marched for you. People stormed beaches in Normandy for you. People died so that you might live free. You drink deeply from wells of freedom and liberty and opportunity that you did not dig. You sit under the shade of trees planted for you by your ancestors. You eat lavishly from banquet tables prepared for you by the hands of those who came before. You can’t just consume these blessings, getting dumb, fat, and happy, sitting around here like you got nothing to do. You have a mission. You are an American. The struggle continues. The fight goes on.”
Although Booker, like Begich, faces an election this November, he told the Mountain View crowd that he felt it was important for him to come to Alaska at this moment — which, admittedly, is a tense moment in racial politics across the country. Addressing that tension specifically and deliberately, Booker referenced Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” emphasizing one line in particular: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
“I’m here because we’re all in this together,” Booker said softly but firmly. You could hear a pin drop. “Let nobody separate the struggle of this community from the struggle in Newark, from the struggle in Camden, from the struggle in Ferguson, from the struggle in east St. Louis. We are all in this together.”
The crowd responded with a standing ovation that continued long after he shook several hands and headed out the door, headed back to the airport. There was a sense that everyone had just heard something special, important, significant; been a part of it. A man standing behind me, at the back of the room, said aloud: “That sounded presidential.”
Booker’s visit to Alaska had an obvious purpose, which was to stump for Begich. And if you happen to be a Democrat running for office, I highly you recommend you do everything in your power to have him do that for you. Hell, if you’re a Republican, I’d recommend giving it a shot. He is incredibly good at it. Seriously.
But Booker did a lot more than that. He spoke passionately about his life, his experiences, his values, and shared the often hard lessons and bits of wisdom he’d picked up along the way. And he, in no uncertain terms, told everyone there that he stood with them; that he genuinely understood their trials, lived the same frustrations, challenges, fears, and hope. The connection he made with attendees was electric. And it was an incredible thing to be there to see, hear, and feel.