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By Dartunorro Clark

DES MOINES, Iowa — Cory Booker’s voice is shot. Standing on stage before hundreds of potential voters in the state that boasts the pivotal first-in-the-nation caucus, Booker, in a raspy voice that normally booms, is adamant his message of love, hope and unity can win him the Democratic nomination and, ultimately, the presidency.

“They’re going to say, ‘Oh my gosh, more candidates talking about love and hope; oh my God, how are you going to beat Donald Trump with that?’” the New Jersey senator, 49, told the packed venue at his last event in the state following a two-day blitz through five other cities in below-freezing temperatures.

“I want to see that man out of the White House, but I was called to dream bigger than that. … This is a test to see how much we can unite America,” he said.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, speaks at a campaign stop at the Des Moines Social Club in Iowa on Feb. 9, 2019.Scott Olson / Getty Images

It could be a risky message given that a recent Monmouth University poll found Democratic voters prioritizing “electability” over values in 2020. But dozens of potential voters and community leaders who spoke to NBC News as Booker zipped through Mason City, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Marshalltown and Des Moines said they were compelled by his story of turning around a beleaguered urban city as mayor of Newark, his work as a senator and his message of bringing the country together.

Rita Robinson, 63, a member of the Cedar Rapids chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, saw Booker speak for the first time at his stop at the city’s African American museum and made up her mind.

“He is my candidate. He talked to all of us in the room,” she said, noting the crowd was largely white with a few black residents in attendance. “I think they look at Cory and remember when Obama was president — they backed him because they believed in the message.”

Robinson added, “He’s got the vocabulary, the know-how and knows how to throw in a little bit of the hood. … He’s like, ‘I’m different, but I’m not different from you, and I know how to get things done.’”

‘I had to run something’

A question that dogged Booker in his pitch to voters in Iowa is what makes him different from the other Democratic candidates. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Kamala Harris of California have already visited the state, and so far there is not much the contenders disagree on when it comes to hot-button issues like health care, education and climate change.

But at a campaign event in Mason City, Iowa, Booker pushed back on Harris’ idea of doing away with private health insurance to achieve single-payer health care, or Medicare-for-all. He also frequently touted his role in shepherding Trump’s criminal justice reform bill through the Senate last year, even noting how he won over the support of Iowa’s Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.

Former mayors are rarely candidates for the White House, according to a 2018 study in the journal American Politics Research. But Booker plugged his work in Newark as a microcosm of what he can do at the national level. He claimed to have turned around its schools and improved its local economy.

“I’m friends with these folks,” he said of his Democratic rivals in remarks at a packed brewery in Marshalltown. “I’ve written legislation with these folks. But I want to tell you some things unique about me so you just know: I had to run something. And it wasn’t just something — it was a very challenged city. I had to manage it through the worst economic crisis of our lifetime. I had to stand in the saddle and make difficult, difficult decisions.”

Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, speaks to guests at a campaign event at the First Congressional United Church of Christ in Mason City, Iowa, on Feb. 8, 2019.Scott Olson / Getty Images

Booker, who is vying to be the nation’s second black president, also made overt references to race in his first visit here as a 2020 candidate. African Americans make up a crucial voting bloc of the Democratic party and represent 3.8 percent of Iowa’s total population. Booker’s message of unity was often centered on improving race relations in the country, focusing on issues such as income inequality, voter suppression and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

He also discussed at length his family’s struggle to integrate a white New Jersey suburb in the 1960s, saying real estate agents would not sell them homes until white volunteer lawyers worked together with black housing activists to confront the issue.

“We have to be able to talk about race in America,” Booker told a largely white crowd at the brewery in Marshalltown. “You can’t have reconciliation without truth-telling.”

He added, “Right here in Iowa, people meeting in barns, white folk and black folk, built the greatest infrastructure project this country has ever seen: The Underground Railroad,” referring to the network of white and black Americans who aided slaves through a network of safe houses to free states.

“I think he’s got it, he’s like magic,” said 72-year-old Ruth Cody Brewer, who lives in Forest City and works on the Wing Ding committee, a grassroots fundraising effort for the state Democratic Party, after a campaign event in Mason City. “He energized me today.”

Other voters, however, were not completely sold but noted that Booker stood out among the declared candidates.

“I think it’s time for a reformation. Is he a great reformer like the Kennedys or the Roosevelts? I don’t know,” said Mark Suby, a Mason City resident and retired city parks superintendent. “But he’s certainly on my list.”

‘I’m confident in my toughness’

For Booker, another important issue is trying to win over Trump voters, saying “they feel lost, they feel forgotten, they feel even attacked.”

“I believe strongly they voted wrong, but if we don’t speak to their pain, if we don’t talk with our ideas and our heart and our empathy and our policies that will deal with these issues, we’ll never get those voters back,” he said.

He also spoke at events about his friendships with Republican lawmakers, such as former Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of Arizona, and reaching across the aisle in the Senate to get legislation passed.

“I’m running not just to beat Republicans, I’m running to unite Americans,” Booker said at an event in Mason City.

He added, “At this time in our country, we don’t need to fight fire with fire.”

Chris Peterson, a 64-year-old farmer who was an Iowa delegate for Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, said Booker is going to “take the torch and have courage,” but “unity is only going to go so far.”

“Don’t compromise the issues away to get Republican support,” he said. “Democrats have caved over the years.”

But Booker, a former college football player, told voters he can take whatever is thrown at him, especially if he’s up against Trump, a self-professed counterpuncher.

“There is nobody in this race tougher than me … ” Booker said. “But we have got to stop in this country thinking that to be tough you have to be mean, to be strong you have to be cruel. That is a lie. The most powerful force in this universe is defiant love. And I will stick by that.”

“If we try to fight Donald Trump on his turf, not only will both of us get muddied, but the country suffers as a result. And so I’m confident in my strength. I’m confident in my toughness.”

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Giuliani says he has ‘nothing to do with’ oligarch at edges of Trump-Ukraine affair

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President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani on Monday denied being involved with a Ukrainian oligarch whose ethical issues have dovetailed with the ongoing impeachment inquiry into the president.

Giuliani also told NBC News he was not planning on visiting Dmitry Firtash, who is currently wanted on corruption charges in the U.S., during a trip to Vienna he planned last week. He said he could not speak for his two Soviet-born business associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were arrested last week on campaign-finance charges in Virginia as they were about to board one-way flights to Vienna. Giuliani has said their similarly timed Austrian trips were not in conjunction.

“I wasn’t planning to go see him,” Giuliani said. “That was the last thing from my mind on why I was going to Vienna. There was a very important reason I was going that I’m not at liberty to disclose right now that will make it quite clear [Parnas and Fruman] were not fleeing. And I don’t know, I can’t speak for them, they have their own businesses. I actually do two things with them. I represent their company, and they help me find people. But I’m pretty sure they were going just for the purpose I knew about.”

Giuliani insisted he has “nothing to do with Firtash,” whose legal team includes Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, the pro-Trump husband and wife attorneys who Fox News reported were “working off the books” with Giuliani as part of his Ukrainian venture.

“So, Firtash, I know nothing about,” Giuliani said. “I’m not going to answer any questions about because I’m probably going to get it wrong, and you can ask them.”

Giuliani also said he has “never” brought up Firtash’s extradition battle with Trump.

“I’m not even sure the president is aware of him,” Giuliani said. “I think if you asked the president ‘who is Dmitry Firtash?’ He would say ‘I don’t know.’ As far as I know, we’ve never discussed him.”

One of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessman, Firtash has battled extradition charges to the U.S. for the past two years as the Department of Justice seeks to prosecute him over allegations he bribed Indian officials to land a lucrative mining deal. Federal prosecutors labeled him as an “upper-echelon [associate] of Russian organized crime.” Firtash has denied that label and the charge, fighting them from Vienna, where he has lived for the past five years.

Parnas has been working for Firtash’s legal team as a translator, a spokesman for DiGenova and Toensing told NBC News. The spokesman denied that Parnas’ Vienna trip involved Firtash.

As NBC News reported last week, Parnas and Fruman sought to change the leadership at Ukrainian state-run gas company Naftogaz at the same time they were working with Giuliani to uncover information related to former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s Ukrainian business ties, an effort that is now the subject of the House impeachment inquiry. Naftogaz’s existing leadership was hostile toward Firtash’s past energy dealings. Giuliani last week denied any involvement with the efforts aimed at Naftogaz.

House Democrats subpoenaed Parnas and Fruman for documents and testimony as part of the impeachment inquiry, which began soon after it was revealed that Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart in July for “a favor” that included probing the Bidens and investigating a conspiracy involving the 2016 election

Giuliani has repeatedly highlighted an affidavit former Ukrainian Prosecutor Viktor Shokin filed in behalf of Firtash in which Shokin blamed his ouster on his investigation of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company affiliated with Hunter Biden. Backed by much of the international community, the former vice president pushed for Shokin’s ouster over his ineffectiveness at cracking down on corruption. The probe of Burisma had been dormant for more than a year by the time Shokin was fired and there has never been evidence that either Biden acted inappropriately.

Giuliani told NBC News he had “nothing to do with the preparing of the affidavit” and said he has more evidence to base his claims about Biden on than that document, including an interview with Shokin.

“This is a smear job. The Firtash thing is a smear job. I have nothing to do with him. The president has nothing to do with him,” Giuliani said. “The fact is, I know his case because it’s very famous. I know the contending positions on both sides of the case, but I have no involvement in it beyond hearing about it and obviously being given an affidavit.”

“And all I did was outline the parts of that affidavit that pertain to me,” he continued. “I have no idea if the rest of the affidavit is relevant, truthful. I do know the parts of the affidavit that I put out I can support with independent evidence, plenty of independent evidence.”

Tom Winter contributed.



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John Leguizamo endorses Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro

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Ahead of Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, Julián Castro picked up an endorsement from actor John Leguizamo, was mimicked by ‘Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and took his own comedic turn at his twin brother’s expense.

Leguizamo, most recently nominated for his performance in the docudrama “When They See Us”, has been on national tour with “Latino History for Morons,” his one-man show that uses his comedic and acting talents to educate the country about its Hispanic and Latin American history. The show also was a Netflix feature.

Although the endorsement was announced Monday, Leguizamo had made his Democratic presidential candidate preference clear over the summer when Stephen Colbert asked his choice.

“Julián Castro. I love that cat. I met him 10 years ago. He was what 30 back then? He was so brilliant, so smart, so composed. … I want him to win, plus he’ll make Stephen Miller so angry,” Leguizamo said. Miller is a policy adviser to Trump behind much of the administration’s hard-line immigration policies.

On Monday, Julián Castro’s campaign released a list of 58 endorsements which include Latina actor and comedian Cristela Alonzo, current and former state and local legislators, former White House officials and community activists.

Castro’s campaign is struggling; though his campaign said he has had his best fundraising quarter, he has not met the polling requirement he needs to qualify for November’s debate.

Castro will be among the 12 Democratic candidates participating in Tuesday’s debate in Ohio.

His campaign announced that on Tuesday, hours before the debate, Castro would visit a Mennonite church in Columbus, Ohio, and meet with Edith Espinal, an undocumented immigrant who has been in the U.S. for 20 years and is facing deportation despite support from the community and some elected officials. She has sought sanctuary at the church and has asked the 2020 presidential candidates to meet with her.

An ‘SNL’ ribbing, roasting his twin

Monday’s endorsements followed a weekend of activities and some media attention, including some ribbing from Lin-Manuel Miranda who portrayed Castro on “Saturday Night Live” and pitched himself as “young, diverse. I’m Latinobama.” Miranda’s appearance followed criticism of the show after it did not include Castro, the only Latino candidate in the race, in a debate sketch during the season premiere on Sept. 28.

The Castro brothers spoke Sunday at The New Yorker Festival, an event held by New Yorker magazine. Julián Castro walked onstage to “My Shot,” a song from “Hamilton,” created and starring Miranda.

Castro got in the act himself over the weekend, but rather than mock himself, he chose the next closest thing, his identical twin, Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas.

Castro helped the Society of Professional Journalists, San Antonio, raise money for journalism scholarships with an appearance in the 2019 Gridiron Show that was themed “Enemies of the State.” The satirical show pokes fun at current events and newsmakers, and Castro and his brother have participated in previous years.

The 2020 presidential candidate mocked the media at the Saturday night event for regularly confusing him and his brother, The San Antonio Express News reported. When MSNBC confused the two recently, Joaquín Castro called out the mix-up in a tweet and asked whether he needs a face tattoo to help people tell them apart.

Julián Castro read a top 10 list of face tattoos his brother should get. Among the recommendations, “The word ‘impeachment’ to remind Congress what the right thing to do is.” His top recommendation was “Rosie” — their mother’s name — because he’s a momma’s boy.

Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.



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Bolton wanted White House lawyers alerted to Ukrainian efforts, called it ‘drug deal,’ witness tells Congress

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Former national security adviser John Bolton was so disturbed by Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to get the Ukrainians to investigate President Donald Trump’s political opponents that he called it a “drug deal,” former White House official Fiona Hill reportedly told Congress on Monday.

Hill, the former top Europe expert in Trump’s White House, testified that Bolton told her he wanted no part of the effort by Giuliani and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, a person in the room for Hill’s testimony told NBC News.

The New York Times first reported details of Hill’s testimony Monday night.

“I am not part of whatever drug deal Rudy and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Bolton told Hill according to the testimony, the Times reported.

Bolton was fired by Trump in September.

Hill testified that Bolton told her to report the situation to the top lawyer at the National Security Council, John Eisenberg, according to the person in the room for Monday’s closed-door hearing. Bolton also was said to have referred to Giuliani as a “hand grenade.”

Hill told lawmakers she considered what was happening to be a clear counterintelligence risk to the United States, the individual in the room for Hill’s testimony told NBC News.

Requests for comment to the White House, Giuliani and Bolton were not immediately returned Monday night.

Also Monday, correspondence between the White House deputy counsel and Hill’s lawyers show the White House tried to limit what Hill could say to Congress in its impeachment inquiry.

The letters, obtained by NBC News, illustrate that while the White House did not try to block Hill from testifying, it did tell Hill’s lawyers about four areas that could potentially fall under executive privilege.

Hill testified under subpoena on Monday to the House. Previously, she agreed to testify at Congress’ written request.

The House has launched an impeachment inquiry over matters that include Trump’s communication with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that involved a request for an investigation by that country into Biden and his son.

There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden.

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