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How Cory Booker sees himself standing out from the crowded 2020 field

Democratic presidential candidate and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said Monday he would continue making criminal justice reform a centerpiece of his campaign, but, in an interview with PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff, he stopped short of endorsing a plan first proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to restore voting rights to currently incarcerated felons.

“If Bernie Sanders wants to get involved in a conversation about whether Dylann Roof and the [Boston] Marathon bomber should have the right to vote,” Booker said that his “focus is liberating black and brown people and low-income people from prison.”

Sanders jump-started the debate during a televised town hall event for 2020 candidates last week, when he said even “terrible people” should be allowed to vote because voting rights are “inherent to our democracy.”

Booker just wrapped up his two-week “Justice for All” tour in Florida, where he pushed back on the Florida state legislature’s efforts to roll back a bill overwhelmingly approved by voters last November that expands voting rights to an estimated 1.5 million convicted felons who have finished serving parole and probation.

The Florida referendum is similar to a bill Booker sponsored in the Senate this year that would see voting rights restored nationally. An estimated 6.1 million Americans were unable to vote in the 2016 presidential election because of felony convictions, according to a study by The Sentencing Project.

“My focus is tearing down the system of mass incarceration so that we don’t even have to have the debate about people’s voting rights because they’re not going to prison in the first place,” Booker said.

Other highlights from the interview:

  • On taking on Trump: Booker said the crowded field of 20 Democratic candidates can’t “fight fire with fire” in competing to replace President Donald Trump in the Oval Office. “This is a time where our nation needs a revival of civic grace,” Booker said, adding that the moment requires a call “to our higher angels, not the low road fighting Donald Trump on his own turf and his own terms.”
  • On helping struggling Americans: As part of his “Justice for All” tour, the New Jersey Democrat unveiled a plan to double the income eligibility for the earned income tax credit. He said the plan would help 154 million Americans and lift nearly 15 million people out of poverty. According to Booker, he would pay for his economic proposal by undoing the “toxic” tax cuts signed into law by Trump in 2017, and by taxing capital gains at the same rate as income.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Cory Booker is one of 20 Democrats competing for his party's presidential nomination. He just wrapped up his two-week long Justice For All tour.

    And he joins us now.

    Senator Booker, welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    Thank you very much. It's good to be here with you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, as we said, you're one of 20. I think it's fair to say a number of voters out there are overwhelmed. They're trying to understand, how is one candidate different from another?

    As they look at you, how do they think Cory Booker is different from any of the other candidates?

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    Well, I think there's two things that distinguish me.

    One is just a very different career than the others in the race. I was a chief executive of my state's largest city through a crisis. And we actually created probably one of the best city comebacks in a decade, a city known for crime and corruption now going through its biggest expansion economically.

    It's going through its biggest transformation of a school system and more. And then, on top of that, I was, I am a United States senator that has a reputation in Washington for getting things done.

    In fact, the only piece of major bipartisan legislation that passed under this president was legislation I ran in the — I lead in the Senate on the Democratic side with Dick Durbin for criminal justice reform.

    So getting things done in two different environments, as a chief executive and as a legislator, I think points to what kind of leader I will be.

    But then the last thing is really important. I think there's a lot of folks who believe that this is a time that Democrats have to fight fire with fire. As a guy who ran a fire department, that's not a really good strategy.

    Democrats need to define themselves not what they're against or who they're against, but we have got to define ourselves with what we're for. And this is a time where our nation needs a revival of civic grace. And it needs us to call us to our higher angels, not the low road of fighting Donald Trump on his own turf, on his own terms.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking of what you are for, one of the things you have talked about in your — what you're calling your Justice For All tour, is expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit.

    This is something that was originally conceived to help the working poor. You're talking about greatly expanding it, so that couples earning as much as $90,000 a year would be eligible.

    The question is, it would cost $2.5 trillion over a period of years. Are you undermining the original purpose of it, which is to help the working poor?

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    Well, I don't think so.

    I think families often making, dual-income people making under $90,000 a year are feeling the squeeze, as everything — the cost of everything is going up, from prescription drugs to child care.

    We have this nation now where baby boomers, 95 percent of them did better in their parents. For millennials, it's now down to 50 percent. We have a nation that could see their first generation not to do better than the one before.

    And a lot of that is because we're at a time of corporate profits are at an 85-year high, but wages are about a 60-year low. And instead of this bank shot of sending tax cuts, like we just did, blowing trillions of dollars of holes in our deficits, and thinking that somehow that is going to trickle down to working people, let's just give working Americans making $50,000 a year, $40,000 a year, or couples making twice that more of a direct return on their taxes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, as we said, this would cost $2.5 trillion — you have said that — over a decade.

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You also want to raise the minimum wage. You want to see that raised to $15 an hour.

    You have got other Democrats. Senator Warren wants virtually free public college. She's talked about a federal day care program. Beto O'Rourke is talking about a $5 trillion climate change plan, and on and on.

    A lot of this is popular, but voters are going to be asking, how do we pay for it?

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    Well, I can show you how to pay for it.

    I can't speak to other folks. But the pay-fors for me are very obvious. Number one, you can start taxing capital gains as ordinary income. A wealthy person buys a Picasso, sells it for a million dollars, sells it for $10 million, they're paying less of that than somebody who goes out and sweats for their job as a janitor or in a factory.

    They should be taxed at the same rate. That alone is going to bring in well over a trillion more dollars. Rolling back these toxic Trump tax cuts at the highest marginal incomes, moving back the — some capital gains tax to where it was in the crazy, wild days of the Obama era can bring in over a trillion dollars.

    So we can do things that we used to do in my grandparents' generation that expanded the middle class, making the strategic investments, and having a tax rate that is fair, in terms of not blowing holes in our deficit, but actually creating more growth for everyone.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But is there a simple Democratic message, though? You got President Trump saying, look — and this is if the economy stays where it is right now — economy is continuing to grow. We have got full employment. Stock market is roaring.

    What's the Democrats' simple-to-understand answer?

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    Well, you're going to have 20 different people telling you what that is.

    And my simple answer is that we are at a point in our society where the indices of success that we're using don't speak to the average American. The stock market ticker or GDP numbers don't speak to people in my community.

    I live in a working-class community that is struggling at the poverty line, where people who work full-time jobs still at my corner bodega use food stamps. Do you think they care what the stock market's doing today or what the GDP number is? No.

    Donald Trump seems to have the answer to folks who have wealth. And I'm not demonizing people with wealth. But why are we gearing our tax code help people with wealth get more wealth.

    We put $750 billion in our tax code moving wealth up. And some of those things, I defend and think are OK, like the interest — mortgage interest deduction. But why aren't we starting to do things to make sure that people who work every day in America can have the American dream? And that's the problem that we have right now.

    And there seems to be a lack of empathy. A more courageous empathy is needed in our country to see the struggles of people from factory towns to farm towns to city towns who can't even afford the rent in their cities anymore because costs are going so high.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You do favor the Medicare for all plan introduced by Senator Sanders.

    In essence, it's single-payer. It would within four years do away with virtually all private health insurance. Your state of New Jersey just in November elected new members of Congress, Democrats, heavily Republican districts. Do you think voters in those districts want to see their private health insurance go?

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    Well, I'm a pragmatist.

    I ran a city and had to try to bend the cost curve of health care. The way we're doing it now doesn't work. Now, I say Medicare for all, but I'm also a person that is going to tell you in the next breath, we can't get there right away.

    We need to start showing first and foremost that we can create a viable public option. Just by reducing Medicare eligibility to 55 — we were one vote away from doing that right before I came into the Senate — that alone would drive down costs. It would actually create lower costs for people that are in the private market, because more older people would come into that public option.

    So there are really pragmatic steps we can take to accomplish our goals, expanding health care, lowering costs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A few other things I want to ask you about.

    In your Justice For All plan, you favor — and you have long worked on justice — criminal justice issues. You want to give convicted felons the right to vote.

    As I'm sure you know, Senator Sanders has said they should not only have the right to vote when they're released from prison; they should have that right while they're incarcerated.

    Do you agree with him?

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    I just think that that is a frustrating debate that we seem to now be having.

    As a guy who lives in an inner-city black community, and knows that there are millions of Americans that are being arrested and convicted and should never be there in the first — they not only lose their right to vote, but they lose their liberty.

    Let's get this conversation back to where it is right now. Our prison population in this country has gone up 500 percent since 1980 alone. We locked up more people for marijuana in 2017 than all the violent crimes combined.

    And so here we have a nation that takes away people's liberty and their right to vote for doing things that two of the last three presidents admitted to doing.

    So if Bernie Sanders wants to get involved in a conversation about whether Dylann Roof and the marathon bomber should have the right to vote, my focus is liberating black and brown people and low-income people from prison, because we have a system in America, as Bryan Stevenson says, that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent.

    My focus is tearing down the system of mass incarceration, so that we don't even have to have the debate about people's voting rights, because they're not going to prison in the first place. People that don't belong there are there. And I'm going to stop that as president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Cory Booker, we will be following you on the campaign trail. Thank you.

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    Thank you very much. Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you.

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