Can Booker replicate Newark rebound in rural Iowa?

Developers who point to a modern skyline and business growth in Newark, New Jersey, say Cory Booker played a pivotal role in turning that city from a forlorn punch line — a dismissed patch of the nation — into a rebounding or even robust city.

Now a U.S. senator from New Jersey and Democratic presidential candidate, Booker, the former mayor of Newark, says many communities in rural America are facing the same insults he heard about Newark — that they are lost and leftover reaches of the nation not worth salvaging.

The skill set he brought as a councilman and then mayor of Newark can work to revitalize rural America, Booker said during an interview with Herald Publishing following a recent campaign stop in Carroll.

“100 percent,” Booker said. “You asked me before why a guy from New Jersey, before he was running for president or anything, would get so involved in ag issues. Because I have a chip on my shoulder for any community, rural, Appalachian Mountain, factory town, any communities that are looked down on or left for dead or disrespected or underestimated. That gets my blood boiling. I think that our rural areas have wealth, have potential, have possibility, if we will come to them creatively and think about ways to restore what I think are important parts of our heritage.”

One place that’s happening: Jefferson, Iowa, where Pillar Technology is modernizing a 19th-century building on the town square for a software company scheduled to open this summer with careers paying $70,000.

U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., late last year brought a delegation from Silicon Valley to Jefferson with an eye on using the community as a model for further rural partnership with tech — a way Khanna sees of lessening the separation between rural and urban interests.

“I think it’s the right approach,” Booker said of Khanna’s strategy. “We’ve got to figure out a way that the hollowing-out of the interior of our nation stops and we create more opportunities here.”

One basic fact: it’s hard to have businesses thrive without high-speed internet service, Booker said.

“I like Congressman Khanna’s idea,” Booker said. “There are other things we can do.”

Booker said opportunity zones aimed at promoting investment in lower-income areas can benefit swaths of rural Iowa though lower taxes for businesses and entrepreneurs who invest in those regions.

“We’ve got to get the jobs of the 21st century, the new jobs, much more located here,” Booker said.

Telecommuting from rural areas is another way to boost job growth, he said, noting that he’s spoken to voters in small-town Iowa who work remotely for urban-based organizations.

He’s calling for an Eisenhower-scale investment in infrastructure and proposes “baby bonds,” a program in which every newborn American child gets an interest-bearing investment account of $1,000 with up to $2,000 added from the government annually based on family income. The bonds, Booker says, will not only reduce racial disparity but also boost rural America by making it easier for people to stay in remote places.

“Imagine if everybody in this community had, when they became 18, upwards of $50,000 to invest,” Booker said. “If they invested it here, that means you’re creating more job growth, you’re creating more businesses opening, you’re creating a better housing market for people that love their community and want to stay. So definitely these are the kinds of things that would reinvigorate people who often leave because they’re looking for financial opportunity.”

Within 24 hours, both Booker and U.S. Sen. Grassley, R-Iowa, held town halls in Carroll. Grassley cited work he’s done with Booker on criminal-justice reform. The First Step Act, signed by President Trump, who highlighted it in his State of the Union address, reduces sentences for certain federal offenders by taking aim at the disparity between penalties for powder and crack cocaine and other measures, like more support for vocational programs.

“Is there too much partisanship in Washington, D.C.? Yes, but not as much as you think,” Grassley said.

Booker talked of the interaction with Grassley during the interview with this newspaper.

“It took meeting him, not in a contentious environment, really becoming friends with him,” Booker said. “He is the elder senator. I’m one of the new senators. Going to him with respect. Going to him and sitting down with him, building a rapport. We don’t agree on everything, but because we have a relationship, we were able to find common ground. He is somebody I have treated with the respect he deserves.”

Bottom line: Thousands of people who have been unjustly imprisoned are being liberated “because of two guys who didn’t yell at each other, were able to find common ground, get a bill going,” Booker said.

Booker said he would join with Grassley on legislation that is “win-win” for farmers like wind energy, boosting cover crops and challenging Trump-administration tariffs that have hurt farm states.

At age 49, Booker would be the nation’s first Generation X president. What would that mean, as the generation is wedged between the Baby Boomers and the Millenials?

“We are the computer generation,” Booker said. “We’re like the immigrants who came here first. And then their children were first generation. We are the bridge generation from the generation that in many ways still doesn’t use those tools — there are Senate colleagues of mine who still don’t use email and still have flip phones — to the generation that is digitally native, and that makes us far more creative.”

Booker said he sees ways the government can improve customer service and efficiencies with technology — opportunities he sees as someone who uses tech day to day.

“I’m excited to break that barrier and be the first Gen X president,” Booker said.

Booker’s national political profile came in large part with the release of the 2005 documentary “Street Fight,” which chronicled his unsuccessful mayoral campaign in Newark against old-school machine Mayor Sharpe James, who used colorful language and no-holds-barred tactics. 

Does Booker see similarities between James and President Trump?

“That is one of the more popular questions I get, and I’ve learned not to say anything,” Booker said.

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