The next Barack Obama?

Newark's Cory Booker wows the Vote Hope crowd with a call for Democrats to inspire voters -- and learn to deliver when they're elected.

Published August 28, 2008 6:37PM (EDT)

DENVER -- Anyone seeking stealth inspiration and a bit of political passion, not to mention a dose of intellect that makes Barack Obama sound like Dan Quayle would have been very lucky, as Salon was, to stumble upon an appearance here by Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J.

Booker was speaking at an event held by Vote Hope, a PAC founded to help elect Barack Obama president that's now broadening to create an infrastructure that will help propel more minority candidates to elected office. Booker, a charismatic 39-year-old, was introduced by Vote Hope founder Steve Phillips as "the next Barack Obama," even as he was running -- literally -- into the banquet hall.

Once he caught his breath, Booker began a speech that served as an introduction to his unusual story: After playing football at Stanford and attending Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, he arrived in drug- and crime-addled Newark as what he called "an arrogant Yale law student" who chose to live on what he called "a challenged block." After winning an upset victory to become a Newark city councilman, Booker was not the most popular guy on that block, or with Newark's long entrenched and corrupt city government, and told of having his car ticketed and his employees going unpaid.

Booker described his early political life, during which he'd promised his supporters hope and change that he wasn't sure how to deliver, in terms that must have resonated with convention guests here to nominate Obama for president. "I had these people who believed in me so much," Booker said. But as a 20-something kid, he said, he didn't know exactly how to fulfill their expectations. "Every time I'd come to a point where I'd begin to indulge in what I should not be indulging in -- cynicism or skepticism or doubt," he said, a host of elder colleagues "would smack me upside the head."

In a desperate bid to draw attention to the open-air drug trade on his corner, Booker staged a 10-day hunger strike, sleeping in a tent on his corner in a protest that made headlines and brought supporters to join him. "My very cynical friends said it was the only way I could get anyone to sleep with me," he joked.

Booker's self-introduction touched on many of the quirks that have made him a press darling and a rising star in East Coast (and now national) politics. "I have always loved manifestations of faith," he said, noting that he'd traveled to ashrams in India, and that he was "the only goy head of the L'Chaim Society at Oxford," which is true.

Like Obama, Booker is a rare politician: unwilling to dumb himself down, and in fact eager to let his brains hang out. And, as with Obama, politically and culturally sophisticated audiences -- like the crowd gathered for Vote Hope -- cannot get enough of him. His 20-minute address included references to Langston Hughes, Golda Meir and Martin Luther King Jr., and a remarkable recitation (he said he was paraphrasing, but it sounded right on) of most of the last two pages of James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time," pages he called his favorite passage of literature, one that he said unlocked "the very secret and power of our country." It's the passage that goes, "One is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible."

Booker concluded with his own exhortation, saying that "the work of our ancestors is not done. We must now pay the price and make the sacrifices they made so that our children may dream again." Drawing on King's famous line that he had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, Booker said that it is up to us to "prove our ancestors right and make the most daring dreamers feel that they have underestimated our potential."

It is perhaps the greatest testament to the barriers that have begun to fall around us that Booker didn't sound like he was talking about a distant future but, rather, a very near one.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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