Sen. Cory Booker gave a rousing speech in Philadelphia on Wednesday night — his first public event in Pennsylvania as a presidential candidate. He quoted the Bible and Martin Luther King Jr. He had audience members shouting affirmations as if they were in church and laughing at his decent-for-a-stump-speech jokes.
But of a dozen people interviewed afterward at the Fillmore East, few thought Booker had a chance of winning the Democratic nomination. Fewer still said they’d vote for him if the primary were held today.
“I was feeling it. I mean I really felt like I went to church tonight!” said Elijah Wilson, 22, of North Philadelphia. Asked then if he planned to support Booker, Wilson said: "Well he definitely made it into my top four. Maybe top three.”
Booker had two impressive debate performances this summer, neither of which netted him much traction in the polls. That contradiction seemed present in the flesh at Wednesday’s rally, where 450 people hung on his every word, clapped and cheered and then, when later asked about him, largely said he was a good speaker but not the next president.
“I’m just being honest: I like his ideas. I like what he stands for and he clearly believes it, but I still don’t think he’s strong enough to break through," said Consuelo Taylor, 54, of Media. “He’s bright, he’s brilliant, but I just feel like there’s something missing."
Taylor speculated it might be that Democrats keep looking for the perfect candidate to beat President Donald Trump. “You know what it is? We’re all scared. And we’re all liable to make our Democratic choice based on fear. And that’s a terrifying thing to say, but I do think it feels like everyone’s missing something.”
It’s still six months until the Iowa caucuses. The crowded field has yet to thin — Booker even joked about that, telling the crowd that 2020 isn’t the year of the election, but the number of people running. In a Franklin and Marshall Poll released Thursday, 19% of state Democrats said they were unsure who their first choice would be. In that same poll, 2% of Democrats said Booker was their first choice and 1% said he was their second pick.
In a lot of ways that’s what these early rallies are about, introducing Booker to voters in a setting that showcases his electric speaking style.
After being introduced by the North Philadelphia rapper Freeway and recording artist Bri Steves, Booker started off speaking about gun violence following the massacres in Dayton and El Paso. Earlier in the day he had condemned Trump’s racist rhetoric as fuel for such shootings, and delivered the message at the Charleston, S.C., church where nine people were killed in 2015.
Some of Booker’s most resonant moments during the Wednesday night speech came when he talked about his time as mayor of Newark, a city that like Philadelphia has a gun crisis. He reminded the crowd he is the only U.S. senator who still lives in a “low-income black and brown community,” and threaded his comments with anecdotes about the impact of a local organizer, Virginia Jones.
He recalled unsuccessfully trying to save a young man shot in Newark, pressing his hands on the man’s chest to stop the bleeding and trying to clear his mouth so he could breathe. “I broke," he said. “I felt so angry at us, another black boy dead in America and nobody seems to care."
Jones had comforted him after the shooting, he said, and told him to “stay faithful.”
"She taught me that hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word,” he said. “She taught me that we all have to make a choice right now. We can accept things as they are or take responsibility for changing them.”
Booker said that means the election should be about more than reclaiming the White House. “Beating Donald Trump gets us out of the valley," he said. "It doesn’t get us to the mountaintop.”
The 30-minute address was a fervent rallying call for togetherness, slim on policy but ripe with imagery. “I tell people all the time patriotism is love of country and you can’t love your country if you don’t love your fellow countrymen and -women," he said. "Love says that we are all in this together, that I need to be your ally, your accomplice when it comes to justice.”
“I thought he was a politician,” Jon McCann, 44, of Bridesburg said after the event. “You know how many times he’s probably talked about Mrs. Jones? And then he still had that dramatic pause. But I liked what he said about this needs to be more than just beating Trump. I’ll definitely pay attention to him. I guess that’s the whole point.”
Yorel Presley, of West Philadelphia, has been following Booker since she saw a photo of him in the newspaper in the 1990s. “I said, Who is that gorgeous man?” she said. She likes that he’s “outspoken and brutally honest,” though she said she doesn’t see a clear path forward for him.
“I don’t know if the country’s ready for him," she said. Presley doesn’t think a clear front-runner has emerged. “They’re all mudslinging each other. They’re not talking about their own positives.”
There were, of course, some fervent supporters, including Susan Matulaitis, 67 of Lumberton. “I think he has this vitality and sincerity about him,” she said.
Taylor, the Media resident who said she worries Democrats will let fear of losing dictate their vote, later clarified her “something missing” remarks.