Politics & Government

Cory Booker makes gun debate personal on Democratic debate stage in Miami

When the question of how to address gun violence in the U.S. reached Sen. Cory Booker, he made the answer personal, recalling when he heard gunshots in his Newark, New Jersey, neighborhood.

“I think I’m the only ... I hope I’m the only one on this panel here that had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week,” he said. “Someone I knew, Shahid Smith, was killed with an assault rifle at the top of my block last year.”

On a crowded debate stage in Miami, Booker stood near front and center and managed to grab several moments in the spotlight in a two-hour span, during which he spoke for nearly 11 minutes — the longest of any of the 10 candidates, according to a Washington Post analysis. He used that time to stake out positions on gun control, LGBTQ rights, immigration and the economy.

He also flexed some of his Spanish skills — after giving fellow candidate Beto O’Rourke a side-eye when the congressman was the first to speak Spanish onstage.

“I just knew he had laid a gauntlet down,” Booker told CNN’s Anderson Cooper after the debate Wednesday. “And I was talking a little bit with [Julián] Castro. Both he and I knew, as people who can speak Spanish, that now we were gonna bring it as well.”

On guns, he wrapped his wide-ranging gun policy neatly into one comparison.

“If you need a license to drive a car, you should need a license to buy and own a firearm,” Booker said.

The moment appears to be one of several that steered viewers to look him up. Late Wednesday, Google reported that Booker was the most searched candidate during the debate.

Gun violence is likely top of mind for Miami-Dade County residents living in marginalized communities where young people are shot and killed one, two or three at time. The issue was one of several that members of the black community told the Miami Herald they wanted to hear candidates discuss, from addressing the roots of the violence through youth programs to providing more advocacy and resources for grieving families of victims.

The 50-year-old former Newark mayor did not seem to make any missteps and found few challenges on the debate stage. When the moderators asked him if he believed that pharmaceutical companies — several of which are based in New Jersey and have supported his past political campaigns — should be held responsible for the opioid crisis, he answered directly.

“They should absolutely be held criminally liable, because they are liable and responsible,” he said. ”This is one of the reasons why well before I was running for president I said I would not take contributions from pharma companies, not take contributions from corporate PACs, or pharma executives, because they are part of this problem.”

Healthcare news site Stat has reported on how Booker has had to shake a reputation for being cozy with Big Pharma, which was bolstered in 2017 when he voted against a bill that aimed to lower prescription drug prices. He has since made several statements that illustrate a balance between considering the jobs that these companies provide and the role they play in the opioid epidemic and rising healthcare costs.

The opioid problem hits home in Miami. The debate took place walking distance from highway overpasses where opioid addicts struggle to survive, where doctors distribute clean needles and dispose of dirty ones to reduce the transmission of blood-borne disease, and where lifesaving nalaxone is freely handed out to reverse overdoses in the street. No candidate specifically mentioned Miami’s epidemic during the debate.

Cory Booker
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) speaks during the first primary debate for the 2020 elections at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami on Wednesday. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

When social issues were debated Wednesday, Booker highlighted the worries of children in the LGBTQ community who skip school for fear of being bullied.

“We don’t talk enough about the trans community, especially the African-American trans community and the incredible high rates of murder right now,” he said. “We don’t talk enough about how many children, about 30% of LGBTQ kids, who do not go to school because of fear.”

The moment might resonate with a vulnerable population in South Florida. In November, a Human Rights Watch report highlighted shortcomings in healthcare systems that serve marginalized communities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, from inadequate cultural sensitivity training for medical employees to insufficient data collection to measure HIV’s impact on the transgender community.

Booker, who while mayor of Newark developed a national profile on social media, has centered his campaign on building bridges and finding a “common purpose” across political divides. After the debate, he cast himself as a contender who can fight President Donald Trump in a general election, but not by taking the president’s tack. He said he presented his message for unity well on the debate stage.

“We had a lot of moments that showed America who I am,” Booker told reporters. “This is one of those debates that I think definitely advanced us toward the White House.”

He did find himself alone on one question posed by moderators — whether he would rejoin the Iran nuclear deal as it was originally written.

When every other candidate raised their hands, Booker’s remained down. The reason? To leverage better terms. Other candidates shifted toward similar answers when it was their turn to speak.

“We need to renegotiate and get back into a deal, but I’m not going to have a primary platform to say unilaterally I’m going to rejoin that deal,” Booker said. “Because when I’m president of the United States, I’m going to do the best I can to secure this country and that region and make sure that if I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal, I’m going to do it.”