St. Cory Booker: An Interview with Glen Ford

The canonization of a saint is traditionally a multi-year process requiring confirmation of miracles, a devotion to the person’s cause by supporters, and the hearing of a Devil’s Advocate who articulates a skeptical critique of the cause. Since Sen. Cory Booker made an impassioned speech during the confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions as Attorney General on January 11, 2017 (transcript), invoking the memory of the civil rights movement and its legacy, it has seemed evident that the corporate media and various internet-based elements connected to the Democratic Party have been promoting Booker’s ascent that bears striking familiarity to those who recall the rise of Barack Obama.

If there is one journalist in America who would be the perfect Devil’s Advocate for such a canonization, it is Glen Ford, the editor at Black Agenda Report who has been covering Booker’s career since the beginning. Ford’s 2002 article for Black Commentator titled Fruit Of The Poisoned Tree: The Hard Right’s Plan To Capture Newark NJ is a stunning and prescient study of a relatively new phenomenon, the corporate-sponsored neoliberal brand of black/brown Democrats who promote austerity, privatization, and bail-outs for the rich at the expense of the poor. Ford agreed to an interview that would serve as a useful testimony to the Grand Inquisitor in such a canonization process.

Andrew Stewart: When was the first time you heard about Cory Booker and what you began to notice as you saw him develop and bloom as this figurine in the brand line of Black neoliberal politics?

Glen Ford: Well I’d known about Cory Booker because I had covered him for a small Black New Jersey newspaper that I helped start off and on for a while. I was not impressed by him, he didn’t have even a good record of attendance at the Newark city council. He was 31 years old at the time, he was prone to gimmicky demonstrations just to get press coverage, and I knew that his national political coming out had been at a power luncheon of the Manhattan Institute, which is one of the New York stars of the right wing constellation of think tanks and media-influencing outfits. And being invited to a power luncheon of the Manhattan Institute is basically an introduction to the folks on the right, on the corporate right, basically saying ‘he’s one of ours’. But I really didn’t pay that much attention because, again, he was just a 31 year old first term Newark city councilman who wasn’t making much of an impression in his hometown, or rather the town that he adopted.

But when he declared his candidacy for mayor in early 2002, I immediately went to the web after going to his campaign speech to see what kind of reaction there was in the press. And what shocked me was not just all the press coverage that he got, and Newark, New Jersey wasn’t in the habit of getting lots of press coverage for anything political, any of its political elements, but that the whole damned internet lit up in terms of the whole entire constellation of right wing organizations. They were all saying ‘Go Cory!’ They knew him by his first name! And I’m talking about every conceivable right wing corporate-funded organization with this character Cory Booker, who I thought was just an obscure councilman in Newark, New Jersey. And that had a profound effect on the political direction of the Black Commentator, which was the internet political journal that I was about to cofound in March of 2002.

What it showed was that the corporate right, which we associate of course with the Republican Party and which had been dabbling in Black politics only on the level of Black Republicans and solitary conservative Black academics, people like Steele and Thomas Sowell and, as I said, Black Republicans who not elected one of their own to a majority-black district since the last Black Republican congressman left the scene in 1935, that they were getting their feet wet in Black politics for the first time with, among other candidates, Cory Booker. Cory Booker, as soon as he declared his candidacy, had a campaign war chest full of contributions that were equal to or more than that of the incumbent four term mayor, who was thought to be the most powerful Black politician in New Jersey. But immediately Cory Booker was out-spending him! Cory Booker got the endorsement of the totality of the corporate media! The newspapers and radio stations, which had not paid attention to Newark politics since the first Black mayor was elected in Newark in 1970, they all knew his name. And that’s when I made the connection to the Manhattan Institute and said ‘well, they must have engineered this.’ Cory Booker came within a few thousand votes of unseating Sharpe James, the incumbent mayor, when he made his first run in 2002.

In that same year the same people, the same financiers fielded previously-unknown Black candidates against Congressman Earl Hilliard in Alabama, a left-leaning congressman, and against Cynthia McKinney in Atlanta, Georgia, and defeated them both. These are the same money people so it became very clear that there was going to be a new era in black politics in which the hard right was going to use its same capital and its same tactics, same strategy, of creating with its money out of whole cloth organizations and candidacies to challenge the old-line Black Democrats. And that was something that was very clear, not just Sharpe James in Newark, but the rest of the Black Democratic political establishment was not prepared to confront because it never happened before.

AS: So let’s talk about Booker’s election and ascent, which was simultaneous with Chris Christie, because the popular narrative in the mainstream national media saw these two as this kind of odd couple, they would not get along normally but somehow they were able to get along on certain issues and I wonder what you thinking is on that.

GF: Well Cory Booker is a real right winger. He was not suborned, forced off of traditional Black liberal Democratic politics by the allure of money, he’s the real deal! Cory Booker was running two private school voucher private schools in Newark, New Jersey and was part of that whole network of private school advocates who were seeking school vouchers at the time and that network was a Republican network. It included lots of Republican office holders.

Just in 1999, I believe it was, they were summoned by a group of corporations to Milwaukee to create an organization called the Black Alliance for Educational Options and that was the group created as I said out of whole cloth just with right wing Republican corporate funding to create a demand that had never existed in the Black community before for the public funding of private schools and a whole ragtag group of mostly Black Republicans but some Democratic politicians and assorted hustlers manned this Black Alliance for Educational Options which was funded initially to the tune of $3 million, but as soon as George Bush got into office since school vouchers were an essential part of the Republican platform, they were adopted by the Bush administration, got federal funding, and a whole lot more private capital funding became a real presence on the national scene.

And Cory Booker was a vice chair of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and, along with a former Black congressman from Queens, Floyd Flake, who had been the most right wing member of the Congressional Black Caucus, they were the most prominent members of this school privatizing factoid newly arrived on the Black scene. But they were basically creations of the Republican Party, so of course Cory Booker would have a working relationship with Chris Christie, the top Republican in New Jersey. And any differences between the two were the kind that, well, politicians routinely concoct in order to make it look like there’s really a great deal of difference between the parties on issues in which sometimes there is not. There is certainly no difference between Cory Booker on school privatization and a host of corporate issues at all.

AS: So you’ve also been able to observe Cory Booker’s arc of development simultaneous with the Obama presidency and I wonder if you have any observations or thoughts having seen now, we’re speaking just two days before the final moments of the Obama administration?

GF: If Cory Booker had won instead of losing by just a few thousand votes his quest for the City Hall in Newark in 2002, he would have been the Obama. He would have been the fair-haired Democratic Leadership Council Black politician of that time but we succeeded in defeating him and he didn’t gain that office until 2006. It does appear he can anticipate being next Obama in 2020 since everybody is bandying about his name. And if anything he will be a more right wing Obama, he is, as I said, the real article, a genuine Black corporate-to-the-bone politician who is if anything more fervent about school privatization than Barack Obama, who is the king of school privatization!

Although Barack Obama was the greatest gift to charter schools, Cory Booker comes from an even older privatizing tendency and that is to give public aid to private schools, so he would embrace that. And Cory Booker shows up with his old friends, Republicans many of them, at speaking engagements all of the time, so if his candidacy does materialize for 2020, and if there is anything that would be worthy of a progressive opposition in the Democratic Party, he is going to be prime meat. There will be no lack of ammunition to throw at Cory Booker because he is a Black Republican and a denizen of the farthest recesses of the old now-defunct because they won Democratic Leadership Council.

AS: So as this narrative in the media begins to evolve and further evolves, I anticipate from a media studies perspective seeing all sorts of things trotted out, including the invocation of Martin Luther King and the legacy of the civil rights movement so to justify Booker’s ascent. I wonder if you have any insights or points to raise that would make particularly white people and those who are not savvy with the Black radical tradition better understand why Booker is the complete antithesis of the Black radical tradition that Martin Luther King came from?

GF: There is nothing the least bit progressive about Cory Booker except his public stance on mass incarceration. That is the issue in which he speaks out rhetorically with some force although in substance he’s really no more progressive than a whole bunch of libertarian Republicans. But economic issues, he votes with the furthest right Democrats the bulk of the Republican Party. Just recently for example voted against a bill that would have allowed US public agencies to buy drugs abroad because the US pharmaceutical industry, in probably the most massive price fixing situation that exists in the country, sets these prices so high that American consumers basically subsidize the cost of drugs elsewhere in the world. Why? Because they can, because they control the reins of political power in this country and Cory Booker is right with them.

I was pleased to see that he got outed in terms of his economic views, his pro-corporate views on that issue, but if people want to look into his entire history, they’ll find more and more of that. His record is to the right of even the kind of center that his colleagues in the old Democratic Leadership Council were advocating that the party go.

AS: You’ve been covering Cory Booker for such a long time, I wonder if in closing you have any points you would like to bring up or emphasize?

GF: Well he’s very slick, he’s not as intelligent and talented as Barack Obama, but he’s been adopted by some very talented media people who have in his career created a bunch of films and commercials that are really top of the line, slick presentations. So a Cory Booker campaign would, I believe, match at least in terms of a media splash that which was run around Barack Obama. Despite the fact that he doesn’t have the talents or rhetorical skills of an Obama, you’ve got the right wing corporate machinery to create that kind of feel, the kind of false excitement that corporate media is good at.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.