MASON CITY, Iowa — Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign began here in earnest Friday, in a 27,000-person city in Northern Iowa where vicious winds made the minus-8 temperature feel like minus-30.
More than 1,100 miles from gritty Newark, N.J., the former mayor and now-New Jersey senator launched his first campaign swing as a declared candidate, racing across Iowa to meet with Democratic voters. It was a day that showed how his campaign will hinge on biography and inspiration more than ideology.
At his first event, where an audience of more than 100 met him in the basement of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, there were glazed doughnuts on a table and “Booker 2020” signs taped to a green chalkboard.
Booker opened with his personal story — telling a tale he would repeat throughout the day, nearly word for word, as the centerpiece of his pitch, more prominent than any specific policy.
Booker, who is black, told the nearly all-white audience about how real estate agents excluded his family from suburban Harrington Park, N.J., until his parents took part in a sting operation to expose the discrimination. When the Realtor realized what happened, Booker said, he sicced a dog on the senator’s father. (“Every time my dad would tell the story, the dog would get bigger,” until his father was fighting a pack of wolves, Booker said at every stop, drawing laughs each time.)
The attorney who helped them, Booker said, had been inspired to aid the civil rights movement after seeing a TV news report of marchers beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. And that, Booker said, led to his being on a path that has now put him in a position to run for president. He called it “a conspiracy of love.”
The audience was rapt, and one woman called out “oh” as Booker brought the point home. He cited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s saying that people are tied “in a single garment of destiny.”
“I am running for president because that garment, that fabric, has been ripped, it has been torn, and we must repair it,” Booker said. As he concluded, he drew some of his most enthusiastic applause by saying, “I don’t think that you are going to win back this country by talking about what you’re against. You have to talk about what you’re for.”
His prepared remarks never directly mentioned President Donald Trump. He frequently, however, told the crowd that he played college football and that his grandmother was raised in Des Moines, the Iowa capital.
He delved into policy as well, flexing his campaign muscles on local and national issues.
At one point, Booker talked about putting more rules on CAFOs (pronounced “K-foes”), or “confined animal feeding operations,” often called “factory farms” by opponents. The facilities are common in Iowa and are blamed for runoff pollution.
“I was super-impressed,” said Sarah Willis, 50, who previously worked for an all-natural meat company and was surprised that the New Jersey senator had an eye on such a rural concern. She also praised Booker’s upbeat tone. “That opposition message, that negative message, pointing fingers at each other, is tired.”
The stop in Cerro Gordo County was the first event of six in the state Friday and Saturday before Booker travels to South Carolina, a state vital to his hope of winning the nomination. Iowa’s caucuses, as ever, will present the first test for a still-growing Democratic field.
“I’m shopping,” said Dianne Stoltenberg, a 72-year-old Mason City Democrat who came to the church.
Most of Booker’s Iowa trip centered on urban areas rich with Democratic voters. Stops included a community college in Waterloo and an African American museum in Cedar Rapids.
Cerro Gordo County, however, supported Trump in 2016 after twice backing Barack Obama. It was part of a national swing that saw rural regions with Democratic roots break away from the party, and the kind of place Democrats hope to win back if they are to capture vital battlegrounds such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
“It’s a huge field, and they’re mostly on the same page on the issues,” said JoAnn Hardy, the Democratic committee chair in Cerro Gordo. So to stand out, a candidate has to “be inspiring, be somebody that we want to work for, that we want to see win."
In Mason City, Chris Lauritsen, a retired representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, began the questioning by telling Booker he could only support a candidate who backs a $15 minimum wage and “works his ass off” for single-payer health coverage.
Booker is on board with the minimum wage hike, and has cosponsored a Medicare-for-all bill, but suggested that smaller steps might be more attainable.
“We’ve got to start looking at what our goal is: full coverage for everybody. And if we don’t have the vote in the Senate, how do we build the kind of coalitions necessary” to get there, he said.
Lauritsen later said that “if you speak politician, he didn’t answer about single payer.” But he still said he was leaning toward Booker, though he also likes Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind., Vt.), with whom he sided in 2016.
Asked about college costs, Booker called for allowing students to refinance their loans, and said more apprenticeship programs could help people who don’t want to attend college. He pledged to be “a champion for public schools," although he embraced charter schools in Newark. He urged more preschool programs and job training programs for older workers.
At one point, when a questioner said his wife couldn’t be there, Booker reached into the man’s shirt pocket, grabbed the phone, and made a video to say hello to her, showing a retail touch that might help him in Iowa, where voters prize seeing candidates up close.
He said he was rejecting super PAC spending and the influence of money in politics, but faced questions from reporters about a college classmate, Steve Phillips, who as recently as Thursday sent out an email seeking donations to his super PAC to support Booker, Dream United.
“That’s really frustrating to me,” Booker said. “I don’t think super PACs should be in this campaign for anybody, including Donald Trump, so I don’t support the super PAC.”
For the most part, Booker received a positive reception from the Democratic audiences. An Iowa poll in December found him at the bottom of the top tier of candidates, according to Ann Selzer, who did the survey. National polls have generally found Booker in a similar position.
Still, many of the Democrats out Friday had heard of Booker before, from the documentary Street Fight that chronicled his first run for mayor, from the story about how he ran into a burning Newark building to save a woman, from the hearings on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, or from Snapchat.
Dozens waited in lines for selfies with Booker at each stop, and he stayed to oblige, one picture at a time.