By James Wright
Sen. Cory Booker, who has announced a 2020 presidential bid, recently addressed a familiar audience about fighting gun violence and encouraging Americans to reach a middle ground of morality.
Booker (D-N.J.) spoke before a plenary session of the 87th annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, an organization to which he once belonged, at the Capital Hilton in Northwest on Jan. 24.
Booker, who served as mayor of Newark, N.J., before his election to the Senate in 2013, said Americans need to be more intelligent about their actions.
“We need to stop doing what is stupid and expensive and do things that reflect our values,” he said, referring to President Trump’s attempt to build a wall on the U.S. southern border. “It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat a non-fatal gunshot wound and it would be cheaper to give a child an education.”
The senator somberly addressed the public-water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where thousands of residents were exposed to lead-contaminated water.
“Flint isn’t an anomaly but an ongoing reality,” Booker said.
He also spoke about making investments in the nation’s infrastructure, commenting that “other nations are out-investing us in that area.”
During his speech, Booker told two stories that many members of the audience found stirring. The first had to do with a friend who worked at an IHOP restaurant across the street from where he lived and how often she had to decide between working extra hours for money or spending more time with her child on such things as doctor appointments.
The other story dealt with when he first moved to Newark and opted to live in the inner city. The senator said one of the leaders in the community took him to an intersection and asked him what he sought.
When Booker told the female leader he saw blight, crime, poverty and lack, she quickly turned from him and walked away. When he caught up with her he asked why she left him.
“She said, ‘Boy, you can’t help me,’” Booker said. She told him that he looks at the world in a negative lens instead of focusing on its positive side and the chance to make things better.
The senator said that the country faces dark times but “we as a country will rise again.”
“And it will be the mayors that will lead America to the mountaintop,” he said in closing.
The senator served as one of the many speakers at the conference. Columbia, S.C. Mayor Steven Benjamin presided over the meeting as the president of the organization that consists of mayors of cities that have populations of 30,000 people or more.
Kenneth Gibson of Newark served as the first Black president of the organization in 1976.
The plenary sessions and symposiums focused on a range of topics such as gun violence in the cities that featured Gary, Indiana, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and former D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey. While both Ramsey and Freeman-Wilson said community involvement and better police relations with people of color help the problem, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh made it clear that more work needs to be done.
“We need to get guns off of the street and this has to be done now,” said Pugh, whose city had 309 homicides in 2018.
Flint Mayor Nancy Weaver said in a conference on women mayors that she and her female contemporaries aren’t listened to as much as their male counterparts.
“Many people in the political and bureaucratic realm want to see a man in charge and we as women mayors have to work hard to change that perception,” she said. “There have been times when men want to see the mayor and they will go over to my chief of staff. I have to tell them that I am the mayor.”
Chirlane McCray, wife of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, talked about how her city tackles mental illness. She started an initiative NYC Thrive in 2015 that connects residents with the appropriate agency to deal with their mental health challenges.
“We need to get to people who suffer from mental illness a lot earlier than we do,” McCray said.
Some of the conference participants served as mayors such as Adrian Fenty of the District, Shirley Franklin of Atlanta, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore and Michael Bloomberg of New York City.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told The Informer that he enjoyed the conference. Houston ranks as the fourth-largest city in the country with 2.5 million people.
“I really like the panels especially the one on gun violence,” Turner said. “I like coming to this conference so I can learn best practices to solve problems in my city.”
Even small-city mayors found the conference productive.
“It is good to network with people and learn what others are doing in their cities,” said Port Arthur, Texas, Mayor Derrick Freeman. “I am building relationships with other mayors and seeing what they are doing.”
Freeman said he knows of past great Black mayors such as Kenneth Gibson of Newark and Richard Hatcher of Gary and honors their legacy.
“One of my mentors was the late Ronald Dellums of Oakland,” he said. “Dellums pulled me aside at my first meeting and told me what I needed to do.”
This article originally appeared in the Washington Informer.