Feeling at home in Keene

Presidential candidate New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker stumps on the deck at the Keene home of Allen and Ellen Mendelson Saturday evening.

Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker drew a crowd of more than 160 to a Keene house party Saturday evening, exuding an energy that drew laughter and even tears at one point.

Booker, a U.S. Senator from New Jersey and former mayor of Newark, visited Keene in December before officially declaring his run, and played a big enough role in the midterm elections that the state party’s chairman, Ray Buckley, dubbed him “the best friend New Hampshire Democrats had in 2018.”

Voters gathered at the home of Allen and Ellen Mendelson on Knoll Avenue around 6:30 p.m. to hear from Booker, who was joined by his mother, Carolyn, ahead of Mother’s Day and Booker’s commencement address at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester Sunday morning.

Former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Molly Kelly and longtime Democratic organizer JoAnn Fenton were among those in attendance.

For some, Booker’s enthusiasm and affinity for coupling his policy proposals with an unabashed sense of emotion, and even spirituality, stood out.

“He has the same kind of charisma as Barak Obama,” Richard Guerriero of Keene said.

That sense of familiarity goes well beyond race, Ed Taylor said.

A 22-year-old voting rights organizer who recently moved to the Upper Valley to work for NextGen America, Taylor said he was impressed with Booker because of his optimistic mindset and sense of resilience in working through the country’s problems.

“Obviously, being a black man and him being a black man means a lot to me, but I will also say that in the general field of candidates, Cory Booker has offered a vision of the country that is positive, but also different policies that aren’t just piecemeal, aren’t just fodder to the Democratic base,” Taylor said.

At one point, Booker answered a question from Amy Chapin Hathaway of Keene on Medicare-for-all by saying that as much as he supports the policy, he frankly does not think there’s a good chance of it passing in the first Congress of his potential administration between 2021 and 2022.

“Look, I do not want to run a presidential campaign where I’m making sloganistic promises that are not backed up by real plans to get things done,” Booker told The Sentinel in an interview after taking selfies with voters who waited in line to chat with him.

Similarly, Booker responded to other pointed questions about Israeli-Palestinian relations and packing the Supreme Court by telling voters that he is open for robust debate on those issues, but has found from his experience in the Senate that he could not over-promise and simply tell them what they want to hear.

Booker cited briefings on Hezbollah along with trips to the Middle East as reasons why he supports sending aid to Israel, and expressed concerns about creating and endless cycle of expanding the court for political gain.

In most other instances, Booker took his time outlining the details of his proposals and where he stands on many domestic issues, such as his 14-part gun control plan that would establish a licensing system.

Emotional stories and spiritual introspection were consistently weaved throughout the senator’s remarks and responses to questions from the crowd, and one on gun violence even brought a few members of the audience to tears.

Early in his time in Newark, where he would ascend the ranks of the city council and eventually become mayor, Booker recalled responding with an off-duty police officer to the shooting of a young black teenager.

Booker went into some graphic detail about his efforts to help restore breathing to the teen and to try to stop the bleeding before paramedics arrived.

“It is the most gruesome thing you’ve ever seen, trying to stop this child, this teenager’s blood from coming out of his chest ...” Booker said. “I reach in his mouth trying to clear a pathway to breathe. I’m doing all of these things in vain.”

The teen, Wazn Miller, 19, did not make it.

It was then that he turned to the advice of his mentor in Newark’s brick towers, a housing complex where Booker resided until they were demolished in 2008. His mentor, Virginia Jones, told him “stay faithful,” a motto Booker repeated Saturday night as voters were seen wiping tears from their eyes.

Just a few hours before Mother’s Day, Carolyn Booker told The Sentinel that there was no place she would rather be than with her son on the campaign trail.

“I just feel it’s important to support your children and what they’re doing, particularly when they’re doing something good,” Mrs. Booker said.

Carolyn said she never teased Cory about running for president one day, as some loved-ones of aspiring politicians might, because she said she sees his commitment to service as part of the family’s lineage, going back to his grandparents in the urban league.

As for what it’s like having her son run for president, Carolyn said it’s no different than any other big development in a child’s life, and that she still gives him advice.

“I’m a mother first, so I’m always, you know, going to focus on the safety and the health of my children and, you know, take it from there,” she said. “And they listen to me, but I’m not the only one they listen to. But mom has a voice, and I think it’s nice when your children grow up to feel that you can still have a voice in their life even though they’re grown.”

Jake Lahut can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or jlahut@keenesentinel.com. You can follow him on Twitter @JakeLahut.