NEWARK, N.J. — Sen. Cory Booker on Friday made his first public appearance as a presidential candidate in the city where he rose to political prominence, extolling his record as the mayor of Newark and insisting a positive message would help him stand out in a diverse Democratic primary field vying to take on President Donald Trump.
The New Jersey Democrat, who announced his campaign earlier in the day with an email to supporters, sought to draw a parallel between himself and Trump, though he largely avoided criticizing the president directly.
Voters are ready to denounce “politics of hate [and] politics of division,” Booker said during a news conference in Newark, adding, “I’m looking to unite Americans in this race.”
Speaking to reporters in front of his house in the low-income neighborhood where he has lived for the past several years, Booker appeared relaxed in an open collar and overcoat despite the frigid, sub-freezing temperature.
Booker, 49, demonstrated a grasp of issues like education and income inequality, and answered one question in fluid Spanish, highlighting the political skills that catapulted him, in the span of a decade, from the mayor’s office in Newark to the U.S. Senate and cemented his place as one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars.
He spent much of the news conference touting his ties to his neighborhood and accomplishments as mayor, which he said included improving Newark’s public schools, adding jobs and drawing major development to the city.
But Booker also faced questions about his support for charter schools and ties to Wall Street banks, issues that could put him at odds with the party’s progressive base.
On health care, one of the top issues for Democratic voters, Booker said he did not envision private insurance being eliminated altogether as part of a plan to expand access to health care.
The position set Booker apart from at least one top-tier Democratic rival, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who was criticized last week for saying she supported dismantling the private health insurance industry.
Harris announced her presidential campaign in January. Since the end of December, two other prominent Democratic senators, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, created presidential exploratory committees, the first step toward launching a run for the White House. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has reportedly decided to enter the race as well, though an official announcement has not yet been made.
Other Democrats have also already committed to running or announced their campaigns, including former Obama cabinet secretary Julian Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former Maryland congressman John Delaney.
In choosing to wait to announce until now, Booker ceded the media attention that comes with being one of the very first candidates to enter the race.
But the primary season is still in its earliest stages — voting does not start for another year — and Booker has long telegraphed his intention to run for president.
Booker traveled the country for Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms, and has made frequent trips to key early voting states like Iowa to meet with local party leaders and activists.
Booker has said he plans to run a positive campaign based on a message of uplift and unity, despite criticism from some Democrats who believe a more aggressive approach is needed to beat Trump. Booker addressed the criticism Friday, saying if his approach doesn’t resonate with voters he won’t win the nomination.
“People in America are losing faith that this nation will work for them,” Booker said. “We’ve got to extend each other more grace.”
Booker is the second black candidate in the Democratic field, along with Harris. The primary field so far also includes several women, and more women and minorities are likely to join in the coming months.
Booker’s announcement came four days before Trump is scheduled to deliver the State of the Union address. After the speech, Booker plans to make several campaign stops in Iowa, which holds the nation’s first presidential nominating contest.