Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good

Cory Booker

the lines that divide us are nowhere near as strong as the ties that bind us; despite our very real differences, we share common interests, a common cause, and, incontrovertibly, a common destiny. And it is this spirit, this ideal, that is at the core of this book.

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As Alice Walker wrote, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

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What we need now, more than anything else, are people who are willing to do the difficult work of bridging gaps and healing wounds, people in our communities who can rally others together, across lines of division, for the greater good, people who reject cynicism and winner-take-all politics, and instead embrace the more difficult work this generation now faces: to unite our country in common cause.

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I celebrate ideals of individual excellence, self-reliance, and personal responsibility. These are values that were instilled in me by my mother and father, and modeled for me by a loving community of elders. I hold these values deeply. But rugged individualism alone did not get us to the moon. It did not end slavery, win World War II, pass the Voting Rights Act, or bring down the Berlin Wall. It didn’t build our dams, bridges, and highways, or map the human genome. Our most lasting accomplishments require mutual effort and shared sacrifice; this is an idea that is woven into the very fabric of this country.

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I’ve said many times of my generation that we drink deeply from wells of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig, that we eat from tables prepared for us by our ancestors, that we sit comfortably in the shade of trees that we did not cultivate. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

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The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become. —W. E. B. DU BOIS

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If I couldn’t fail, what would the elements of my plan be, the steps toward this eventual success? If I were to do good for others, what would I need in order to excel? Whom would I need to meet? How would I need to invest my time?

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I would come to know that Ms. Jones embodied a critical ideal of leadership: you can’t lead the people unless you love the people.

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“I think America must see riots do not develop out of thin air,” he said. “Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots…. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

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I don’t drink, and have never have been one to hang out in bars or clubs—

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I once asked an emergency room doctor what the cost of one gunshot wound in Newark was to taxpayers—specifically, the medical costs associated with the uninsured men who are rushed to hospitals, clinging to life, and are often saved by talented women and men with the skills of frontline military medics. He said it could easily be up to $ 100,000—even $ 200,000 or more—for the medical costs alone, depending on the severity of the wound. Of course there are other costs, too, and financial metrics alone don’t measure it all. What is the cost of the emotional and spiritual damage to children, to a family, a neighborhood, a nation?

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For Ms. Jones, hope was relational. It didn’t exist in the abstract. Hope confronts. It does not ignore pain, agony, or injustice. It is not a saccharine optimism that refuses to see, face, or grapple with the wretchedness of reality. You can’t have hope without despair, because hope is a response. Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word.

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For a guy who talked a lot about change, I went about it in a boneheaded way. I didn’t seek common ground with my colleagues; instead I walked in and sought to distinguish myself from them. I wanted to be the reformer, but by separating myself from them I undermined my ability to advance change.

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I was running for mayor and, having lost once, I was determined not to lose again. I was all in, and had around me a campaign team whose passion and work ethic matched mine. It was an intense time,

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My father taught me early in my life that attitude is a conscious choice; it is a currency available even to those with no access to money. No matter what the circumstances, you exercise your power, you demonstrate your worth, when you decide how to act and react in the face of it all. If the world punches you in the gut, that doesn’t define you; it’s what you do next that speaks your truth.

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Frank went further. He insisted that the meetings served a vital function. They were more than just a forum to communicate information, to plan or strategize. There was mutual support there. Meetings and community gatherings were places to share and to be validated, places where you knew you weren’t alone. Folks were there to help each other, to collaborate and to commiserate. Frank explained that there is value in standing before your peers and figures of authority and having your struggle acknowledged; there is value in being seen, heard, and felt, value to being understood.

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In the 1970s, our nation’s policy makers embraced a drug war and clamored to appear tough on crime—and the United States Senate helped lead the way. With bipartisan determination, federal laws were changed, punishments were put on steroids, and our prison populations exploded. Federal laws such as 1986’ s Anti–Drug Abuse Act and 1994’ s crime bill sent a flood of money into states to incarcerate more Americans and build more prisons to hold them. As a result, the federal prison population has expanded 800 percent since 1980. America has become the undisputed global leader in putting her own citizens behind bars—our nation is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prison population. In the land of the free, you have more of a chance of losing your freedom to incarceration for a nonviolent crime than anywhere else on the planet.

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The minimum wage for workers who receive tips is $ 2.13 an hour, and it hasn’t been increased for more than twenty years. While the regular federal minimum wage has been raised, a concession was made between the National Restaurant Association and Congress to increase the minimum wage but not the tipped wage. So while minimum wage workers have seen some increase in their income, tipped workers have not, leaving them dependent on each customer.

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The food I ate that morning was especially cheap because taxpayers subsidize many of the ingredients that go into the food served at IHOP, from corn to sugar to meat products. But another reason why the food is so cheap is because of this cheap labor. IHOP, like many restaurants in our country, pay workers the $ 2.13 tipped wage—and then folks like Natasha, who work hard jobs for long hours, still have to rely on the taxpayer-funded social safety net. They are outsourcing the true cost of their food to all of us. Cheap food actually isn’t cheap. In fact, it comes at a high cost.

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Ironically, about a third of restaurant workers are considered “food insecure” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition. “Food insecurity” means that you don’t have the ability to buy nutritional, safe food. Many of the people who put food on our plate actually—literally—can’t afford to eat it or to feed it to their own families. Like Natasha, 20 percent of restaurant workers rely on food stamps—so says Restaurant Opportunity Centers United. According to its report, between 2009 and 2013 Americans subsidized the restaurant industry’s low wages with nearly $ 9.5 billion of tax money through programs such as SNAP (food stamps), public housing and Section 8 housing subsidies, and Medicaid.

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According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, “A 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Labor found that wage violations—concentrated mostly in the hospitality industry—result in between $ 10 million and $ 20 million of lost worker income a week in New York state.”

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Our society claims to value children, but struggling mothers like Natasha get no paid family leave. The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t offer government-sponsored paid family leave. Almost all of the world’s nations—from Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of Congo—offer this kind of support, but we don’t. Natasha’s son had a case of asthma that sent him to the hospital regularly. In an industry that offers workers no sick days (in which people regularly come to work ill and as a result spread their germs on our food because they can’t afford to stay home), where people have no paid family leave, or vacation days, a child’s illness is so much more than the minor stress and inconvenience my mother endured when I got sick. There is the added stress of how to pay a doctor or a co-pay, how to make rent if you miss a day’s work to stay home with your child, how to cope with not being there when your son, hospitalized for asthma, calls for his mother.

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I hadn’t wanted to wait for the formal ceremony to get started; though we told few people, that official swearing-in in front of thousands was just a reenactment. I wanted to begin dealing with the city’s urgencies right away, so in a private ceremony, I’d been sworn in at midnight. And the first orders I gave involved the police department.

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We knew it was critical to help ex-offenders, because without opportunity men and women go back to prison at alarming rates, while with help—often just in finding a job—they were far more likely to stay out of trouble. We had little money to run these programs, but we got creative, and I sought private donations and foundation grants for them. Seeking grants for city initiatives, in fact, would become an increasingly large part of my efforts as mayor.

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We formed a police foundation to raise philanthropic dollars for critical police needs, and I spent increasing amounts of time seeking donations. We created an adopt-a-precinct program to help with improvements to the buildings. We bought computers with city money and eventually got many more donated; by placing them in cars, we could give our officers on patrol access to critical information and the ability to write reports without coming back to a precinct. Through philanthropy we eventually had the resources to embrace more cutting-edge technology, from hundreds of public safety cameras installed in communities to gunshot-detection and -location technology.

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I had to find ways to ensure that our police department delivered the kind of services that our community truly needed. To that end, I learned from my time as mayor that leaders have an urgent need for accurate data and data transparency. Data, especially in a time of constrained resources, can help drive desired changes. What we needed to ensure effective policing were systems of accountability. And critical to true accountability are metrics of police integrity. Without them, declarations about police conduct are only rhetoric.

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In addition to training, we must collect better data. I am still astounded at how little data on police accountability and integrity we collect and analyze. You can’t have accountability without standards, a way to measure those standards and consequences, or changes that are made when those standards aren’t met. I introduced legislation in the Senate for better data collection on the federal level, and was encouraged when Director Comey also made that call: Not long after riots broke out in Ferguson late last summer, I asked my staff to tell me how many people shot by police were African-American in this country. I wanted to see trends. I wanted to see information. They couldn’t give it to me, and it wasn’t their fault. Demographic data regarding officer-involved shootings is not consistently reported to us through our Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Because reporting is voluntary, our data is incomplete and therefore, in the aggregate, unreliable. I recently listened to a thoughtful big city police chief express his frustration with that lack of reliable data. He said he didn’t know whether the Ferguson police shot one person a week, one a year, or one a century, and that in the absence of good data, “all we get are ideological thunderbolts, when what we need are ideological agnostics who use information to try to solve problems.” He’s right. The first step to understanding what is really going on in our communities and in our country is to gather more and better data related to those we arrest, those we confront for breaking the law and jeopardizing public safety, and those who confront us. “Data” seems a dry and boring word but, without it, we cannot understand our world and make it better.

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in the years between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened in the United States every ten days. The astonishing rate of construction draws precious public resources away from other priorities. At the same time, America—which once had the top-ranked infrastructure, from roads to bridges to airports, seaports, and electrical grids—has slipped to twelfth place.

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Expungement, in the criminal justice sense, means to clear one’s record. Some states, like New Jersey, have narrow laws that allow certain people who made a mistake to petition after a number of years to have that mistake removed so that it won’t appear in criminal history searches.

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I often say I got my BA from Stanford, but I got my PhD from the streets of Newark.

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My volunteers were courageous, dedicated, and generous of spirit. They came from varied backgrounds. They were high school students, college students, and senior citizens. They were community leaders, tenant leaders, and activists. They joined me after long days at work and gave up their weekends, early mornings, and late nights for our campaign. Perhaps the most persuasive volunteers I had were my mom, my dad, and my brother, Cary.

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according to the National Employment Law Project, “the likelihood of a callback for an interview for an entry level position drops off by 50 percent for those applicants with an arrest or a criminal history.” And the arrest effectively reduces a person’s earnings, which minimizes his or her ability to provide for a family. To make matters worse, when it comes to the nearly seventeen million background checks done by the FBI each year for employers, approximately half of those records contain incomplete or inaccurate information. So even if a person is innocent, wrongfully arrested, or simply arrested by mistake, that mitigating resolution might not show up in a background check. And when such a mistake is not corrected, an employer is likely to pass that person over or disqualify him for employment. In fact, studies show that, as a result of inaccurate FBI records, nearly half a million Americans are in jeopardy of not obtaining a job that they would otherwise be offered, or of losing the job they already have.

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Though I would continue asking, if not begging, people for money for our reentry programs, I grew increasingly frustrated that my economic argument failed so often with government leaders. It often seemed like when it came to criminal justice expenditures—just as is the case in infrastructure development, early childhood education, and countless other areas—our society would much rather pay an obscene amount of money on the back end of a problem than pay a relatively small amount up front on evidence-based programs that would prevent the problem from happening in the first place. It was clear to me that the money we were investing in reentry in Newark was creating a significant savings for state and federal taxpayers. But it didn’t give stability to many of our programs. In fact, my overreliance on philanthropy would jeopardize the long-term security of the programs. This was not a sustainable strategy. We wouldn’t run our police department, courts, jails, or prisons on philanthropy, yet another vital component of our criminal justice system was being run on generous yet unreliable charities.

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In those days I lived in Newark’s South Ward, on the top floor of a three-family home. One reason I picked this neighborhood—after Brick Towers closed—was because it had one of the highest rates of shootings in the city. I knew from watching the former mayor that Newark’s chief executive had twenty-four-hour protection, even at his house when he wasn’t home. I figured that if my home was going to have round-the-clock police presence, why not live in a community that could benefit from all that security? This decision sparked heated debate among my staff and police leadership, but given that I was coming off eight years of living in Brick Towers, no appeal about my safety or “quality of life” was persuasive. I insisted that I would live in the section of the city that reflected many of the urgencies that had inspired me to run for office in the first place.

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the mechanism used by Congress to pay for Superfund cleanup—last reauthorized with bipartisan support in Congress and signed by Ronald Reagan—has expired, and cleanup has slowed to a dangerous pace. In 2014, along with Senator Barbara Boxer, I requested that the Government Accountability Office report on the downward funding trend and its impact on the effectiveness of the Superfund program in eliminating these ongoing threats to American health and safety. Their report found that the decline in funding for the program has predictably affected the pace of cleanup. In fact, it pointed out that from 1999 to 2013, the number of Superfund sites has actually been increasing in the United States. The problem is getting worse.

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From the ShopRite on Springfield Avenue to Newark’s first Whole Foods, soon to be opened on Broad Street, I worked to convince companies to come to Newark, engaging in every type of persuasion that was legal.

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