Booker seeks dialogue about race as he kicks off 2020 campaign

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate Booker cancels NH activities, campaign says he has the flu Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Wisconsin: poll MORE (D-N.J.) has put the topics of race and reconciliation front and center in his nascent presidential campaign.

Since announcing his 2020 bid earlier this month, the New Jersey senator has talked in personal terms about racism — his parents’ struggle with housing discrimination in the 1960s, for example — and the need to have “honest conversations” about race.

"It is an issue he can own like few others," a former aide to President Obama said. "It is something he has talked about and has focused on since he was mayor and it might be the issue he is most authentic about when listening to him.”

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The early campaign themes are emblematic of growing calls among Democrats and progressives to address issues of discrimination and racial inequality at a time when support from minority voters is seen as crucial to the party’s electoral success.

"It is a major issue right now which white progressives, especially younger progressives, are increasingly seeking to understand better: how they can be a part of the healing,” the former Obama aide said.

The 2020 Democratic primary field is shaping up to be the largest and most diverse in the party’s history, drawing a historic number of women and people of color, including Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate New poll finds Sanders surging to within 7 points of Biden in South Carolina MORE (D-Calif.), who is of Jamaican and Indian descent.

Since launching his 2020 campaign on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month, Booker has repeatedly pointed out that he is “the only senator who goes home to a low-income, inner city community” in Newark, N.J.

He’s talked about systemic inequality and the need to confront racism head on.

Speaking at a campaign event in Iowa over the weekend, Booker recalled how white friends of his had asked him to explain the blackface scandals enveloping Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D).

“Imagine, in this climate now, saying that publicly,” Booker said. “If you want to have more courageous empathy, put yourself in a white person's position who might have questions.”

“All of us — black, white, gay, straight — we've got to start extending grace to one another so that we can start having honest conversations with one another and leave room for growth.”

Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina–based Democratic strategist, lauded Booker’s willingness to discuss race on the campaign trail. 

In doing so, Seawright said, Booker is drawing attention to an issue that has often been overlooked in politics.

“I think we have lumps in America’s carpet because we swept things like racism under the rug for a very long time,” Seawright said. “The problem with lumps in the carpet is people are starting to trip over them.”

At the same time, he said, it could help Booker stand out in an otherwise crowded Democratic primary field, especially in South Carolina, a crucial early-primary state where the majority of the Democratic electorate is black.

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“In a very crowded primary there has to be what I call a ‘separation factor’ for all the candidates. They have to differentiate themselves from each other,” Seawright said. “And Cory has been very consistent in talking about these things and talking about some of the ills we have in this country.”

Booker’s message stands in stark contrast to that of Obama, who sought to play down the topic of race during his 2008 presidential campaign.

"We did everything in our power to de-emphasize race," the former Obama aide said. "We'd acknowledge it without trying to inject race into the conversation because there was a group of voters, I'll call them the Obama-Trump voters, who would stay home or go to the other side. I think some believed that any time race was injected, it hurt us."

Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, said that Obama “belonged to a cohort of black politicians whose campaigns and policies were race neutral.”

“He made a tacit agreement with voters to not engage race, but the killing of Trayvon Martin, events in Ferguson, Dallas and Baltimore, put race front and center,” he said, referring to the high-profile killings of several unarmed black men and teenagers.

Now, more than a decade after Obama’s first run for the White House, other Democratic presidential hopefuls are also bringing discussions of race into their campaigns.

Harris paid a visit to South Carolina last month where she spoke briefly at a gala for Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest black sorority. She has also sought in recent days to rebuff critics who have questioned her black heritage.

"I'm black, and I'm proud of being black," Harris said in an interview on “The Breakfast Club” radio show that aired last week. "I was born black. I will die black, and I'm not going to make excuses for anybody because they don't understand."

Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers Reject National Defense Authorization Act, save Yemen instead MORE, (I-Vt.), who is expected to enter the race, has called President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed MORE a "racist," and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers Krystal Ball rips Warren's 'passive-aggressive' swipes at rivals MORE (D-Mass.) has called him a "racist bully." 

Whether Booker’s discussions of race resonate with voters beyond the primaries remains to be seen.

The former Obama aide said the strategy might help Booker in the Democratic contest but was skeptical about how it might play in a general election.

The aide explained that while it's helpful in a primary to excite the base, it won't play as well with more centrist voters who straddle party lines, including those who voted for Obama and then Trump. 

"It's definitely a scenario of cutting off your nose to spite your face," the aide said.

But Smikle said that Booker is tapping into something voters want to see in a presidential candidate.

“Voters, particularly African-Americans, are looking for engagement and healing rather than reticence,” Smikle said. “Candidates won’t be given leeway to sweep the issue under the rug.”