Digging into a plate of glazed carrots and roasted asparagus at his favorite restaurant in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, Sen. Cory Booker made his case for why his roots in this city make him the right choice to head to the White House.
The meal at Vonda’s Kitchen, a favorite restaurant of the vegan senator, was part of the second installment of “Around the Table," a series bringing together 2020 presidential candidates and voters for a candid conversation centered around the dinner table. Booker invited ABC News Correspondent Linsey Davis and three undecided voters: Bijan Roghanchi, a medical student in Newark; Tria Jones, a returning college student studying nursing and Phyllis Van Amburgh, a dairy farmer from upstate New York.
Booker, who served as mayor of Newark for seven years before being elected to the U.S. Senate, lives in a low-income community just a short walk from the restaurant, and has often said that the vantage point has given him a unique view into the lives of people too often overlooked by Washington.
“The reality is, we need to start talking in a moral sense about eradicating poverty again in this country. Not through handouts, but to give everybody a fighting chance,” Booker told the gathering.
For some gathered around the table such as Jones, who relies on a federal housing voucher and is studying nursing at the same college that her daughter attends, that fighting chance starts with affordable education and housing opportunities.
She asked Booker about his plans to take the stigma away from the Section 8 program, a federally subsidized housing choice voucher program, and how he plans to “create an opportunity where we have programs that are rolled out to get people from the subsidy to the homeowner.”
Jones said she’s familiar with some of the housing programs but feels that they are not working effectively.
The senator agreed, saying “You can work a full-time job and still need a housing subsidy, because your job doesn't pay enough. That is so unjust.”
Ultimately, the senator said it goes back to a wage issue in the U.S.
“People in my neighborhood who work minimum wage jobs should be above the poverty line," he said. "We should have a $15 minimum wage.”
Booker also outlined his “rise credit” plan, which will expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. His plan aims to change the definition of work to include tax credits for home health aids as well as low-income students and family caregivers. Booker says his plan will raise the income of 150 million Americans and will cut poverty by a third.
The New Jersey senator told the voters, "Paychecks help you get by. But wealth equity, having resources -- creates generational wealth."
Access to resources such as clean water also factor into equity, a fact Roghanchi stressed as he pressed Booker on what he has done to bring attention to the lead water crisis in Newark that has affected that community.
For almost three years, the city has attempted to get a handle on issues of elevated levels of lead in the drinking water. Since October, the city has distributed 38,000 PUR filters to Newark residents. And in March, the city began replacing 18,000 old lead pipes, some more than 100 years old, which are leaking lead into drinking water.
The senator defended his efforts, saying, “I've worked with the governor here, I worked with the mayor here, I'm out in my own neighborhood handing out bottled water and carrying cases of water.” He stressed the issue is “not a foreign issue to me.”
Following the water crisis, Booker handed out water in Newark on August 19, met with the EPA Administrator Peter Lopez, and sent a joint letter with several federal lawmakers urging the USDA to assist in administering blood screening for lead.
Booker earlier this month co-authored the Water Infrastructure Funding Transfer Act, a piece of legislation that passed the House and Senate and gives federal funding to communities to assist in removing lead from water. Booker’s home state of New Jersey would be able to tap into $100 million to replace aging lead pipes.
The bill was signed into law in October.
As talk turned to matters of health care and affordability, drug prices were a source of contention during the gathering.
Roghanchi asked the New Jersey senator why did he "vote against the ability of people to buy drugs from Canada?" Booker responded quickly, saying, "that is absolutely not true."
The legislation Roghanchi referenced was an unsuccessful 2017 amendment to lower prescription drug prices by allowing importation from Canada. Booker was one of 13 Democrats to vote against the measure.
Booker wrote at the time that “Any plan to allow the importation of prescription medications should also include consumer protections that ensure that the drugs coming into this country are safe. The amendment I voted against last week didn't meet this test.”
The senator would later back another measure that did support the reimportation of drugs from Canada and sought to lower drug prices with federal safety oversight.
Even as Booker discussed challenges facing urban communities, he told the gathering he is acutely aware of the struggles of voters living in rural enclaves.
Van Amburgh, who lives in upstate New York, stressed the difficulties of living in a community where everyone leaves.
“Everybody is leaving my county. And they're coming to the cities. And why are they leaving my county?" said Van Amburgh, a dairy producer. "They're leaving my county, because agriculture is dying. Industry has left a long time ago. There are no full-time jobs. Everything's a part-time job.”
Booker responded that the issues she’s facing in her community are similar to the issues people in cities face. He added that massive consolidation in the agricultural sector and corporate consolidation is to blame.
“There used to be multiple people to buy your source products. Now Monsanto and others have gobbled up," he said. "You're shifting from independent family farmers to massive corporate factory farms.”
When it comes to tackling economic justice, Booker often talks about being the only senator who lives in a black and brown low-income community below the poverty line. At dinner he sought to call out what he sees as politicians who have created a false perception about other Americans who are struggling to make ends meet.
"I've seen politicians -- from 'Willie Horton' to 'welfare queens' -- all of these stereotypes that are thrown out there to try to gin people up against other Americans."
He said the reality is that we as Americans need to "start talking in a moral sense about eradicating poverty again in this country. Not through handouts, but to give everybody a fighting chance."