WATERLOO -- Cory Booker faced questions on agricultural issues, the challenges facing bigger cities and their low-income and minority residents, and the critics of his perceived coziness with pharmaceutical companies.
It appeared to be a well-rounded Iowa caucus experience for Booker in his first trip here since his Feb. 1 announcement that made his long-expected presidential campaign official.
Booker, a Democratic U.S. Senator from New Jersey and former Newark, N.J., mayor, spent two days in Iowa this week. He held campaign events in Mason City, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City on Friday, and in Des Moines on Saturday.
While this was his first visit as an official presidential candidate, Booker is no stranger to Iowa Democrats. He spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, campaigned for Iowa candidates in the 2018 midterm elections and spoke at the state party’s annual fall fundraiser.
“I just loved (that) there’s just a goodness in the folks here. People are really receptive to learning and hearing,” Booker said. “I just feel really energized by the state, every trip I’ve had since October when I was out here. I just feel really lifted by it."
Booker’s task -- just like nine others’ and many more to come -- is to woo Iowa Democrats with the goal of winning or at least faring well in the 2020 Iowa caucuses, roughly a year from now. He started that process in earnest this weekend.
In a wide-ranging interview Friday while on the road between the Waterloo and Cedar Rapids campaign events, Booker talked about agricultural issues, trade, jobs, the scandals plaguing Democratic state leaders in New Jersey, and whether he’s the right Democrat to face an election fight against President Donald Trump.
Booker also talked about one of Democratic voters’ top issues: health care, including the concerns many Democrats have expressed about Booker’s perceived ties to the pharmaceutical industry.
Booker received roughly $432,000 in donations from individuals and companies with ties to the pharmaceutical and health product industries, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That is the 11th-highest industry, according to the center’s data.
Booker said his record shows he has been willing to take on those companies. He noted a program from his tenure as Newark mayor that aimed to reduce prescription drug costs, and legislation in the U.S. Senate he wrote or sponsored that would attempt to drive down drug costs, import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, rescind patents when companies exponentially raise the price of prescription drugs, and allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.
Booker also said his campaign will not take donations from corporations or pharmaceutical company executives.
“The record speaks for itself,” Booker said. “Anybody who looks at my legislation over the years and my efforts even as mayor will see that I’ve been a champion for driving down prescription drug costs."
On the broader issue of health care, an issue that motivated Democrats in 2018 and many say remains top of mind for 2020, Booker said his ultimate goal is that every American is covered by affordable, quality health care. He said what that looks like, from a policy or legislative perspective, depends on what the makeup of Congress looks like after the 2020 election.
Booker supports a Medicare-for-all program, but said there are also “pragmatic” ways to lower drug costs and improve health care if Congress remains under split party control. For example, he proposed lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 55 and allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
“We need to start talking about affordability. I will stand up before the American people and say, ‘Allow me to lead and I will drive down the costs of your health care, drive down the costs of your child care, drive down the costs of your prescription drugs on a path toward ... having health care for all,’” Booker said.
While in Mason City, Booker heard from northern Iowans who expressed concerns about the prevalence of large animal feeding operations.
The questions gave Booker, an East Coast politician, the opportunity to show Iowans whether he has agricultural chops.
Booker said he highlighted his legislation that would put a moratorium on corporate consolidations, which he said are hurting small farms.
“I’ve learned a lot in my years as a senator about ag issues and really want to become more of a champion and have been trying to be more of a champion for independent family farmers,” Booker said. “Their share of the consumer dollar has shrunk dramatically and we’re driving the American independent farm out of business. And it’s causing just awful anguish and effects.”
Booker is one of 10 Democratic candidates who are officially running for president or have formed an exploratory committee. That number likely will continue to grow, and the list does not yet include the names Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders.
Booker said he hopes to stand out in the expansive field by bringing his “heart” and “passion” to the campaign and by describing himself as a problem-solver and unifier. He will make the case to Democrats that he is the right person to face Trump in 2020, he said, because he has been through difficult elections in his political career.
“I’ve faced down the toughest campaign tactics, the hardest election paths and won,” Booker said. “I’m ready to not let this country get defined by the trash-talking, the Twitter-trolling, the pitting us against each other. We’re defined by our truth that we are a nation that has shown the ability despite demagoguery or demonization we can still come together and do great things. That’s how we’re going to win this election.”