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Senator-elect Cory Booker: Our generation has no right to indulge in cynicism

Newark Mayor Cory Booker will be New Jersey’s first African-American senator, having been elected to fill the U.S. Senate seat of the late Frank Lautenberg. Gwen Ifill talks to Booker about his win, his legislative priorities and how he plans to pursue "uncommon coalitions for uncommon results" with his fellow lawmakers.

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    Now more on New Jersey's new senator-elect.

    When he is sworn in, probably later this month, Cory Booker will be only the fourth African-American elected to the U.S. Senate. But he brings his own celebrity with him, including as the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary in 2005, "Street Fight."

    I spoke with him a short time ago.

    Mayor Booker, congratulations on your election last night.

  • CORY BOOKER, D-N.J. Senator-elect:

    Thank you very much. I'm grateful. I'm grateful to have a chance to be on with you.


    You know, you're a big guy on Twitter. Everybody knows you do a lot of communicating with people that way, and one of the questions I posed yesterday to you on Twitter was, why does he want to come to Washington in the middle of all this?


    Well, you have got a lot of people in my world excited that you tweeted at me.

    And, look, I have been a mayor who has been trying to push a city forward with a lot of great people from all sides of the aisle, and we just faced a lot of headwinds because of some of the things that often seem very obvious that Washington isn't doing to help out.

    So take, for example, gun violence in my city. The majority of guns that we recover don't even come from New Jersey. They come from criminal gun runners who are not law-abiding citizens who should have a Second Amendment right. They come from criminals who can walk into secondary markets and buy weapons. And having commonsense background checks that 90 percent of Americans agree on makes sense, but we're not getting it done.

    And so on a number of issues, from kids that go through my colleges and get degrees and things that can barely spell, but as soon as we educate them and use our taxpayer dollars to do that, and they graduate, they're ready to start businesses and add to our economy, we tell them they can't stay here, and we end up pushing them out of our country because they can't get a H-1B visa.

    I can go through dozens and dozens of issues that would make New Jersey stronger, more economically competitive and safer. But we're just not getting it done in Washington right now, so I want to be a part of what I hope will be people coming together to get work done for the people of New Jersey and the nation.


    You just named two issues, gun control and immigration, which don't seem to be going anywhere, even in the Democratically controlled Senate. Why do you think your presence there would change that?


    Well, look, I think you and I both know that one senator, especially now the 100th in seniority, won't necessarily walk down there and everybody will be spitting sunshine and rainbows.

    I'm very knowledgeable of the challenges before me. And I also go there with the right attitude. I have got to really I work hard and humbly and learn as much as I can and find creative ways to join with others to make a difference. So, I promised the people of New Jersey I was going to work hard and find creative ways to move the ball forward, and that's what I intend to do.

    I know we can do better. I know America can. And I know this current state of sort of brinksmanship, zero sum game politics is not working for either party. It's not working for America, and I'm hoping that I can join with other people that want to go a different way. And I'm confident that American history is a testimony to the achievement of the impossible, and, in Newark, I come from a hard city where people said we couldn't make a difference, couldn't make a change, couldn't reverse trends like our population declining, our city tax base declining, but we have reversed those trends now.

    We have done what others said couldn't be done, and I'm ready to take that to another level.


    There are a couple of different examples of what a new senator in Washington can do that you could follow, especially senators with reputations that precede them, like yours. Hillary Clinton came to Washington. She was on the backbench. She kept her head low. Ted Cruz came to Washington and he obviously didn't keep his head low, as we saw in the last several weeks.

    Which example would you try to follow?


    You know, neither. I want to be myself. I want to be as authentic as possible. And that means doing like Hillary Clinton, having a humble heart, and focusing on getting work done, but also making sure I'm staying true to myself in the way that I have found the best way to get things done.

    And so, in Newark, we were very tactical. You know, my first year in office, I think I spent most nights in a police car until 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning, working on crime issues, up in the morning, greeting people at schools, trying to give heart to people in our city.

    But, at the same time, sometimes, we found it necessary to elevate Newark's profile, to bring attention to our city, so we can draw investment. I don't know what the strategy will be in Washington. The reality is, is, I have got to go down there, as my mentor, as people like Bill Bradley have told me to do, get to know your colleagues on both sides of the aisle, recognize that they, too, beat with the same heart, and the same type of blood.

    And learn procedure of the place, because it does have its own rules. And then become a master of a lot of issues, a number of issues that you can really make your own and drive the ball forward. And then in every way possible, be a scraper. Try to find ways to score points. Hit singles and doubles for the people you swore an oath to represent.


    Last night during your acceptance speech, you said that democracy is not a spectator sport. What do you say to people who are alienated by the whole process at this point?


    Well, we cannot afford to surrender to cynicism.

    I mean, think about the frustrating times of our past where many people should have thrown up their arms, when civil rights legislation kept failing, as lynching in America kept getting worse, where women were denied again and again the right to equal suffrage. You can go through our history, and there's so many times when there was justifiable reasons, even more so than now, for great criticism and frustration.

    Our generation who stares at this incredible history of working through frustration to great breakthroughs has no right to indulge in cynicism. We don't. What we have is an obligation to keep working at it, to keep fighting, to never give up. And so Washington has to work for America. Our nation was founded with a bunch of founding legislators who joined together to move our country out of the blocks and get us started and every generation since then has found a way to advance the ball down the field.

    And so I have never been one who indulges even cynical folks or that kind of negativity. I want to find ways to really find ways to create uncommon coalitions for uncommon results. And I know, I'm confident, I have faith that we can get some pretty remarkable things done in this country, that we're still a nation where impossible dreams can be made real.


    Which is more important to you, that you are the fourth elected African-American to the U.S. Senate in modern times, or that you are the 21st mayor to go straight to the U.S. Senate?


    I think those are both really important questions. The first, being the fourth African-American, speaks a lot to our nation and really to my state. That that wasn't a central feature in this campaign, even, shows a lot of the evolution of our state.

    The latter to me is very important, because when I watch the Senate, and, again, from a distance, and I don't want to say they know all about that body or much about the internal workings, but when I step back, I often see issues that face urban spaces in America, that face urban issues. They're just not being addressed, and a lack of urgency that I have had to live with as a mayor every single day that doesn't seem to be made manifest.

    And so I want to join with other legislators in that body who believe, like I do, that 85 percent of Americans live in cities or in their suburbs and that we have got — in fact, the Brookings Institution now rightfully is talking about that if you want to create a robust economy, where the majority of our GDP is driven is in our cities, you have got to have an urban vision for America.

    And I want to go down there with the practical skills that I have learned and add to that understanding and that sense of urgency, and the reality that in America right now, there are large swathes of our country who are less and less seeing the kind of social mobility that my parents saw, who are more and more finding themselves in traps economically that they can't escape because they don't have access to the basics. And that's a threat to our economy.


    Newark Mayor Cory Booker, senator-elect from New Jersey, congratulations, and thank you for joining us.


    Thank you very much, Gwen. It's great to be on with you and talk with you yet again.

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