U.S. Sen. Cory Booker arrived just after 10 Sunday morning, but visitors waited nearly an hour to hear him speak as he wound his way through a crowded Keene home.
JoAnn Fenton and her husband, Bill, hosted the New Jersey Democrat and opened the event to the public. JoAnn Fenton said her home had never been so full.
More than 100 people packed into the house, and Booker seemed to make it his goal to personally meet all of them. Residents stood on tiptoes, phones held high in the air to get a shot of the senator. He shook hands, swapped stories of New Jersey roots and, of course, took countless selfies.
Invited guests wanted to meet and hear from the potential presidential candidate.
Booker, 49, spent the weekend in coffee shops and auditoriums and at house parties in Nashua, Manchester and Keene — touring key cities in a state that will host the first primary election in the nation in 2020.
But Booker told WMUR Saturday that he hasn’t officially decided if he’ll run for president, and said he’ll make that determination “over the holidays.”
Standing just inches from the closest listeners, Booker told those gathered in Keene that he appreciated the American tradition of opening homes and people’s “sacred spaces” in the interest of social movements.
“We have this misunderstanding somehow about how change is made in America,” he said. “Change doesn’t come from Washington; it comes to Washington.”
Then a cellphone rang loudly.
“And that’s somebody calling for change right there,” Booker quipped, the room filling with laughter.
Booker weaved humor with personal anecdotes and impassioned declarations of American ideals.
The words “Trump” and “2020” never crossed his lips. Instead, he focused on grassroots efforts in small communities, which he said are the agents of progress.
“... I worry right now that people are waiting for heroes, those white knights that might ride in and say, ‘I’m gonna run for president because I’m gonna make change. Leave it to me,’ ” Booker said. “… This country is never changed by one person at the top. It’s always changed by many people in the grassroots.”
In 2013, Booker won a special election to the Senate, becoming New Jersey’s first African-American U.S. senator. In 2014, he was re-elected to a full six-year term.
Booker attributes some of his ideas to his “schooling,” as he calls it.
“I got my B.A. from Stanford but my Ph.D. on the streets of Newark, New Jersey,” he said.
Born in Washington, D.C., Booker was raised in an affluent New Jersey borough called Harrington Park. While studying at Yale Law School, though, he moved to Martin Luther King Boulevard in Newark, a neighborhood with high poverty and gun violence.
“I live in that neighborhood right now,” he said. “I’m the only of the hundred senators that lives in that neighborhood below the poverty line, inner-city community. I made a commitment with my life that I am going to stay connected to those communities that are in struggle.”
He described the area’s challenges that he’s witnessed as a resident, that he observed as a Newark city councilor and, later, its mayor. Booker talked about the disparity in public education, and teachers who are underpaid but buy school supplies for their students.
He told the story of a teenager who was shot across the street from his home, and the experience of trying unsuccessfully to stop someone from bleeding to death. Booker told everyone to hug an emergency medical technician.
Gun violence is an upsetting norm in communities like this across the nation, he said.
“People who, Fourth of July and they’re hearing firecrackers, it’s not a great celebration to many families in this country,” he said. “It’s post-traumatic stress — I say post; it’s continuing traumatic stress.”
But despite all this, he told the crowd not to curse the darkness.
“I have this saying where I say, ‘If America hasn’t broken your heart, then you don’t love her enough,’ ” he said.
And he repeated words that were offered to him by a neighbor after he witnessed the teenager’s death those many years ago: “Stay faithful.” It’s not meant to be religious, he said, but a symbol of hope and strength.
His rhetoric about overcoming vitriol and reaching across the aisle may not sound original, particularly after the midterm elections, but Booker takes the idea one step further, promoting unconditional neighborly love to bridge the gaps. A person can be firm in their ideals, he said, and still be compassionate.
“Toughness is not cruelty, it’s not crassness,” he said, speaking about the messages of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. “... You can be tough and strong and win with love.”
Talking about political climate, he told the so-called “story of two hugs.” In 2012, then-N.J. Gov. Chris Christie faced stiff criticism for praising then-President Barack Obama’s support after Hurricane Sandy ravaged Booker’s state. Christie and Obama exchanged what Booker laughingly called “one of those awkward male hugs.” Booker said the governor was blasted in campaign ads for the brief embrace.
The second hug came last year, when the late Sen. John McCain dramatically stepped onto the Senate floor for a healthcare vote that dealt a blow to Democrats. But after the vote, a handful of senators lined up to meet McCain, including Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Booker.
“He just had a terminal cancer diagnosis,” he said of McCain, “and I give him a Booker bear hug in front of the C-SPAN cameras. So, 16 Americans saw me, 17 if you include my mom.”
Some liberals attacked Booker on social media for embracing McCain, considering it a betrayal.
“Have we gotten to the point in American history where we have so stripped each other of dignity and humanity that it is a violation of our purity test for touching another human being?” he asked.
During a Q&A session Sunday, Booker said that he believes in Medicare for all, but that legislators should start by trying to lower the age for the current program to 55.
Climate change needs to be addressed, he said, adding that environmental justice is also a priority. Areas with a lower median income are likely to be affected by climate change sooner because of living conditions, he said.
Booker mentioned he was one of six senators who took a pledge earlier this year to stop taking donations from corporate political action committees.
He also emphasized the power of local activism in fighting voter suppression, whether that’s though gerrymandering, legislation or restrictions on polling places and times.
Throughout his speech, Booker used collective “we” pronouns, reminding residents of their power in the process, he said. And he stressed the need to look past divisions and go back to “loving thy neighbor.”
“We cannot think we’re going to win just by beating Republicans. We need to win by uniting Americans,” he said.