The guy in the thick of it
Booker is earnest, yet quick with a laugh; unassuming, yet confident. To spend time with him is to hear a lot about spirituality. A Baptist, he says he becomes "more Christian" by understanding other faiths. So he has studied Judaism and Hinduism and is learning more about Islam. "You see the divine core in all these religions, you see the beauty and the power and the possibilities, then you yourself gain a deeper reverence for God," he says. At Oxford, he was the unlikely president of the l'Chaim Society; a fellow member credited Booker with making him a better Jew.
As an athletically gifted black kid growing up in a virtually all-white suburb, Booker was popular, but he was also "acutely aware" that he was different. From that experience, he says, "I think I learned lessons of compassion." His parents drove him hard--"from him to whom much is given, much is expected" was a familiar refrain--but he was never inclined to rebel, he says: "Even at the earliest ages, I found myself playing the role of the big brother, the guy who was trying to look after people."
He got to Stanford as a two-position all-American and sat on the bench the first year. The academics were also a challenge. "I used to joke that I got to Stanford because of my 1,600 and my 4.0, but it was 1,600 receiving yards and 4.0 yards per carry," Booker says. "So I felt that I really had to apply myself." That, by all accounts, he did. Jody Maxmin, a classics professor at Stanford and a longtime friend, says she could work hard until midnight, but "Cory could make you think you could be going to bed at 2 a.m. and doing two hours more good."
In 2002, Booker would need that determination in spades. Not surprisingly, he had trouble raising money in Newark, where as many as 5,000 voters work for the city government. So he tapped Wall Street bankers, even Barbra Streisand and Oprah Winfrey. His fundraising fed perceptions that he was a tool of outsiders, as well as wild rumors that he was white, Jewish, and gay. This year, running against a state senator, Booker's campaign is more sophisticated. He has courted and won the support of the unions and even hired some of James's former aides.
Yet even with the wind at his back, victory is not assured. Which perhaps is why Booker brings up yet one more of those people who seem to enter his life at just the right time. He was representing an impoverished tenant, suing her landlord over an eviction order. He urged her to settle: They had an attractive offer, and going to trial risked losing all. But there was a principle at stake, and the client wanted to fight. So Booker pushed on, hoping the case would lead to broader reforms. But then suddenly, the woman died, and he despaired that he had been unable to make her case. Until he realized that, once again, he had gotten it all wrong. "I thought God had put me here to help this poor woman, but he had put this poor woman here to help me, to show me what life in many ways is all about," Booker says. "And that is that the real dignity in life is not winning the battle; it's being in the fight."
Born: April 27, 1969.
Education: B.A., M.A., Stanford University; Rhodes scholar, Oxford University; Yale University School of Law.
Quote: "There is a boundless reservoir of power in all of our communities, a power not conferred by the powerful but at ready access to anyone willing to claim it."