Sen. Cory Booker stopped at the corner and looked down Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd., in the midst of a rare silence between police sirens and ambulances in the city of Newark.
“Right here, last year, Shahad Smith was shot and killed with an assault rifle,” Booker told "Nightline" co-anchor Byron Pitts. “I’m tired of walking around cities like mine that have shrines of teddy bears and dead kids. Teddy bears and candles and places where the murders happen.”
Earlier in the day, Booker had released an ambitious gun reform plan. His campaign team calls the plan "the most sweeping gun violence prevention proposal ever advanced by a presidential candidate."
The plan would create more oversight of gun manufacturers, and require gun purchasers to submit to a comprehensive background check as well as gun-safety courses in order to obtain a gun license. It would also give families who have been affected by gun violence more resources to challenge manufacturers in court.
Gun violence is one of the issues the former mayor of Newark has zeroed in on through his political career. As mayor, he joined a coalition of over 1,000 mayors that advocated for gun law reform at the local and federal level. Earlier this year, he co-sponsored Senate bill 66 which aims to ban selling, manufacturing, transferring and importing assault weapons.
As Booker walked down the boulevard, a half-dozen people said hello to him, and he responded in English and Spanish.
“I love my city. It’s an incredible mix of black and brown, immigrants,” said Booker. “It’s a great mix here.”
Jason Smith, 34, stopped to talk with Booker across the street from a new housing unit where the Brick Towers projects once stood. He used to live in the same tower as Booker.
The Senator gave him his cellphone number and said he’d help make sure he knew how to apply to live there.
“Cory Booker is very much a people's person,” said Jason Smith. “Ever since I've known him when he used to go back and forth from the projects, living in the projects with us, he used to stop and come see us, come sit with us in the lobby, ask us what we as into, do we need help with anything, how is our family doing?”
Booker acknowledges that the city has a long way to go, but boasts about the changes he helped bring to the city. On the trail, he often says that Newark’s population is growing for the first time in 60 years.
In the crowded democratic field of presidential contenders, candidates have been crisscrossing the country and trying to appeal to progressive voters. Some critics have questioned the partnerships that Booker had with corporations as mayor of Newark.
Booker defended his record when asked by “Nightline” about his previous relationship with Bain Capital and other Wall Street-linked entities, saying that some of those partnerships created many jobs. He boasted about bringing Panasonic and Audible.com to Newark, and said he was appealing to progressives for his record of never voting in favor of Wall Street interests while in the Senate.
“But when I needed to build the first hotel in this city in 40 years, and when we needed capital to do it, we had to find partnership with institutional capital to get them to invest in our city. You know what, that created jobs for a lot of people that didn't have them -- it created apprenticeship programs for our kids.”
The senator’s ties to pharmaceutical companies came under scrutiny on the left in 2017, after he voted against an amendment to the budget sponsored by now-fellow Democratic contenders Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota that would allow to cut prescription drug costs by importing them from Canada. Booker initially opposed the amendment because he said it lacked enough safeguards for consumers, but later supported updated legislation that met his criteria.
Several pharmaceutical companies based in New Jersey have also donated to him throughout his career in the Senate. After launching his presidential campaign, the senator pledged not to take money from pharmaceutical executives and PACs.
Last week, Booker was one of three presidential candidates who questioned U.S. Attorney General William Barr when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.
“He has burned through any credibility he had in that role and he should resign,” Booker said.
During his interview with “Nightline,” Booker would not say if President Trump should be impeached, but he outlined three steps Congress must take in order to reach a decision.
“Number one, we should have an unredacted report. Number two, Mueller should come before open hearings so we can further the investigation. Number three, we should see the underlying documentation for that report so Congress can do its job in a sober non-partisan way to see if there is reason to move forward with impeachment.”
He also slammed the president’s “foreign policy by tweet” approach to dealing with dictators.
“The problem with the president in general with foreign policy is that he is far more bluster than he is strategy that is coherent. And with North Korea, with Putin, with Duterte he has this almost astonishing way of wanting to buddy up with dictators while he alienates our allies,” Booker said.
Although he has been in the political spotlight for over 20 years, at 50 years old, Sen. Cory Booker’s personal relationships have been mostly kept private, until recently. In February, he revealed he is dating actress Rosario Dawson, reportedly having met her during a fundraiser for Maryland Gov. Ben Jealous in 2017.
Asked why he has never been married, Booker responded, “Look I don't want to psychoanalyze my past relationships but let's just put it this way: I am definitely at an age where I've realized that, you know, life is long and having a partner makes you better,” he said. He added later that Dawson is transforming the way he looks at the world and making him a better person. “She's challenging me to be the best me, and I'm not talking about my professional life, it's just in my personal life,” he said.
After launching his campaign in early February, Booker received the support of 2% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning respondents in two separate national polls released last week, conducted by Quinnipiac University and CNN, respectively.
Back on the street in Newark, Booker was asked if he could charm America the way he has charmed some people in the city.
“I don’t think our country needs a charmer; I think our country needs people who are authentically themselves. I broke in this city many times, and it’s tough terrain,” he said. “I’ve always said, if America hasn’t broken your heart, you don't love her enough. But you break down, you break open, and this city has put me back together. I love this city more than I could ever pay back.”
“I love you,” she told him.
“I love you too,” he replied.