Booker was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Harrington Park, New Jersey. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University, where he received a football scholarship, ran a crisis hotline, and organized a youth program in East Palo Alto. He attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and earned a juris doctorate from Yale Law School, where he opened free legal clinics for low-income residents in New Haven, Connecticut, and was a founding member of the Jewish organization, ‘Eliezer.’
Booker’s passion for politics is an outgrowth of a desire to use his “God-given talents” to make a difference in the world. “The essence of life for me is about purpose and not position,” he says. Booker won a seat on the Newark City Council in 1998 and in 2002 lost the mayoral election to incumbent Sharpe James. In 2003, he started Newark Now, a nonprofit neighborhood improvement group. He won Newark’s mayoral election in 2006 and re-election in 2010.
As mayor he helped revitalize Newark, including new commercial and multifamily development. He convinced companies such as Audible.com, Panasonic North America, and Manischewitz to relocate their headquarters to the city. He lobbied for the construction and funding of the Prudential Center sports arena. He developed more than 13 family success centers to strengthen at-risk families. He got communities to partner with the police to drive down crime.
Booker worked with residents, philanthropists, and civic organizations to help turn the city around, says Modia Butler, formerly the mayor’s chief of staff and presently State Director to Sen. Booker. “Because of his national brand, Cory was able to raise private money.”
Butler, who first worked with Booker when he ran Newark Now, helped launch the Brick City Development Corporation aimed at growing local businesses and spurring real estate development. The BCDC Newark Fund has granted some 30 small business loans up to $400,000. Adds Butler, “Cory has made a concerted effort to put Newark on the map and change its image, letting people know Newark was open for business and a safe place to come to.”
Booker is a senator with national celebrity status. He was called America’s superhero for dashing into a neighbor’s burning home in 2012, emerging with a woman who had been trapped in a back bedroom. He breaks bread with wealthy friends such as Oprah Winfrey, who dubbed him a “rock star,” and Ivanka Trump, daughter of Republican real estate mogul Donald Trump, who both hosted fundraisers for his Senate campaign. He reportedly hauled in $11.2 million for the race, beating his Republican opponent, businessman Steve Lonegan’s $1.35 million, by 8-to-1.
But he has faced criticism for being “too much” in the spotlight. Salon political writer Alex Pareene described him as an “avatar of the wealthy elite, a camera hog, and a political cipher who has never once proposed anything to address the structural causes of the problems he claims to care so deeply about. He represents the interests of both Wall Street and Silicon Valley.” Pareene wrote that Booker would be the worst kind of senator—one that has no power.