Black Politician Says He Represents All Americans

Like Barack Obama, Cory Booker is regarded as a leader whose appeal transcends racial politics. Booker is mayor of Newark, New Jersey. He talks with Renee Montagne about the new era of politics in which black elected officials can now represent all of America, just as white politicians once did.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When Barack Obama was still a state senator in Illinois, Cory Booker was running for mayor in Newark, New Jersey. He was up against an older African-American who told voters that his younger opponent was not black enough. When Cory Booker won, he became part of a new generation of leaders, like Barack Obama, whose appeal appears to transcend racial politics. Cory Booker is in Washington, D.C., this week to see his friend take the oath of office. And he stopped by our studios. I ask him his thoughts on the country's first black president.

Mayor CORY BOOKER (Mayor, Newark, New Jersey): He presents himself in a way that such a diversity of Americans, all of us, feel included in the presidency in a way I don't think we've seen before. So it won't be urban-suburban, it won't be north-south, Republican-Democrat. I think a lot more people are going to see us as the United States, as he often says.

MONTAGNE: Or possibly it won't be black-white. I mean, this election has generated so much talk about post-racial politics in America. You've been used as an example over and over again as one of the new breed of African-Americans taking it beyond what is traditionally known as black politics. How true is that notion?

Mayor BOOKER: Well, first of all, I really reject this idea of post-racial. I mean, I want to be post-racism, I want to be post-bigotry, but the reality is I love the racial deliciousness, diversity in the United States of America. I don't think that Barack Obama signals the end to race being an important factor in America. What I hope it does is exposes us to the great beauty of our country and that each individual cultural current in this nation adds to the tidal wave of strength that is America.

MONTAGNE: Although, within what has traditionally been black politics there's an older generation. Jesse Jackson is giving way to his own son, Jesse Jackson, Jr. Al Sharpton, not so old, actually, but old school I think would be fair to say. What comes of those folks, and do they become niche politicians at this point?

Mayor BOOKER: First of all, I think Al Sharpton has a way of reinventing himself, so I wouldn't pigeonhole him like that at all. But the reality is there is a generational divide even in the country, and it's not a bad thing. I was born after King was shot. I was born after Kennedy, after the modern civil rights movement as we know it. And my parents even integrated a town that just 10 years earlier they wouldn't have been able to even move into. So we are now beneficiaries of opportunities and exposure that that other generation made possible.

But what has me so excited is when I do look at the American landscape, you see these incredibly talented men and women - Adrian Fenty, these people that are coming to the table with such a great skill set and benefiting from an older generation that imbued them with opportunity as well as skills and knowledge.

MONTAGNE: Adrian Fenty, of course, mayor of Washington, D.C.

Mayor BOOKER: Yes, another bald-headed black man leading a city.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: But do you see then - does your generation of politicians, do you still see what might be called core black issues?

Mayor BOOKER: Well, I think the benefit of my generation - I think it's a good thing - is that, you know, I'm leading a majority-minority city, but it's not a simplistic black chocolate city, as they used to say.

MONTAGNE: This being Newark, New Jersey.

Mayor BOOKER: This being Newark. But pick your city. I love the fact that any leader, be they black or Latino, has to be a lot more nimble in their politics and has to be able to show a vision that is appealing to all. Just as white politicians for generations have represented all of America, black politicians now can be seen to represent all of the state of Massachusetts, all of the United States of America.

MONTAGNE: Talking to Cory Booker, who is mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Does the Obama presidency change in any way where you see yourself going or maybe how fast you see yourself going politically?

Mayor BOOKER: Look, I have a father who I love a lot, and he's here with me in the studio. And, you know, we have conversations that I wish, I pray I never have with my children. My father was born to a single mother in poverty. Will those problems still be around a generation from now? As far as my path in the future, I've never been so proud to be in the trenches, to be in the fight. We're going to solve these problems. We're going to make an example in our country, another light of hope in Newark, New Jersey.

MONTAGNE: Is Mr. Booker out there?

Mayor BOOKER: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Your father. Bring him in here and ask him what he thinks about the inauguration.

Mayor BOOKER: OK. He's listening.

MONTAGNE: This will take one minute. I'm sorry for not knowing this, but Mr. Booker, can I ask your full name?

Mr. CARY ALFRED BOOKER: Cary Alfred Booker.

MONTAGNE: Cary Alfred Booker. Did you imagine this day would come in your lifetime?

Mr. CARY ALFRED BOOKER: Yes, I did. I felt very strongly that it would, and I felt that my son would be one of the leaders of it.

MONTAGNE: Did you tell him that when he was a little boy?

Mr. CARY ALFRED BOOKER: I tried to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mayor BOOKER: The question is did I listen to what my father told me. But a wonderful quote from James Baldwin says, children are never good at listening to their parents, but they never fail to imitate them.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you for joining us. And this will be a big day for everyone, but enjoy the inauguration today.

Mr. CARY ALFRED BOOKER: Thank you.

Mayor BOOKER: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and his father, Cary Alfred Booker.

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