Cory Booker may not have been in Newark Friday afternoon, but he was in familiar territory at two separate campaign stops in the Trenton area.
Booker, far and away the leader in a race for the U.S. Senate seat held by the late Frank Lautenberg, told nearly 900 high school boys assembled at Rider University for the 68th American Legion Boys’ State graduation program to sweat the small stuff in on their paths to becoming community leaders.
Later, in more intimate setting at a Trenton public housing complex, the two-term Newark mayor fielded questions about for-profit prisons, gang violence and the proliferation of liquor stores and bars in low-income neighborhoods from about 75 gathered in a small community room at the Prospect Village housing complex.
Booker in 1986 was in the audience as a delegate to the Boys’ State – a week-long educational program steeping high school juniors in government instruction – and he had spent time in Newark living in public housing before becoming mayor.
“My parents taught me that you have to manifest your truth not in the big things but every single day in the small things,’’ Booker told the group at Rider.
His 24-minute speech was peppered with humorous anecdotes about his childhood, growing up in a predominantly white, suburban North Jersey town and a few of the foils on his way to becoming mayor of the state’s largest city.
Ignoring the lectern to instead pace around the stage as he delivered his fast-paced talk, Booker never mentioned his Senate campaign. Instead, he told story after story about his life and upbringing and the lessons he learned that guide him.
“We don’t have to surrender to circumstance,’’ Booker said. “Life is about making one choice over and over and over again: Accept conditions as they are or taking responsibility for changing them.”
In Trenton, before a mainly African-American crowd, the Booker’s tone was more serious, his speech less anecdotal and filled with far more appeal for support at the polling booth. But the same themes emerged in the hour-long session.
“If we do not come together as a community to solve our problems,’’ Booker said, “they will never get solved. We’ve got the power to make this change.’’
In answering a question from the audience on his position on for-profit prisons, Booker was adamant, saying he loved to hate them.
“The incentive is all wrong,’’ Booker said. “The incentive is to have more people in prison and keep them longer.’’
Booker pointed to programs instituted in Newark under his watch, such as those that support recently released inmates, fatherhood programs and fiscal responsibility programs as models that could be adapted at the federal level.
“I don’t want to be your voice in Washington,’’ Booker said. “I want to be your connection to Washington.’’
Booker received a standing ovation at the end of the session from an overwhelmingly supportive crowd.
Not everyone in the audience was impressed.
Victoria Wrepu, a Trenton resident who said she twice voted for but has been disappointed by Barak Obama, asked Booker what he would do for her if he was elected.
Booker responded by turning the question around.
“I’m going to be back here in Trenton, God willing, United States Senator representing you and I’m going to ask more from you than any other politician ever has,’’ Booker said. “This is a warning: Don’t vote for me, if you don’t want a politician up here in your face asking for more.”
Was she satisfied with her answer?
“Not really,’’ Wrepu said. “Talk is cheap.’’