WATERLOO — Sen. Cory Booker said it was his time as the mayor of Newark, N.J., that opened his eyes to what poverty, population loss and an economic recession can do to a community.
The strategies he used as mayor — as well as the legislation he’s proposed while in the U.S. Senate — helped shape the economic plan he released Nov. 6 as he campaigns for the Democratic nomination for president.
Reached on the phone Tuesday evening, Booker said those policies are particularly geared toward smaller cities and rural areas, like Waterloo and Northeast Iowa more broadly.
“A lot of the policies I’ve been fighting for are really targeted toward those communities,” he said. “There are so many counties and communities losing population, and not getting the investment they should get from the federal government.”
Booker’s full economic plan, Opportunity and Justice for Every Community, can be found online at https://corybooker.com/issues/economic-security-and-opportunity/opportunity-and-justice-for-every-community
Booker’s campaign still lags in the polls: He’s in the second tier of candidates polling between 1% and 5%, with Real Clear Politics putting him at an average of 1.7% of likely Iowa caucusgoers. So he’s counting on his economic plan to help raise his standing in the state.
“Iowa and the communities in Northeast Iowa are incredibly important to our path to victory,” Booker said.
Booker answered questions on the phone and, later, via email. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. In the City 2030 Project, you talk about a “national competition to designate at least 50 small- and medium-sized cities for major investment.” How do you envision that competition will work?
BOOKER: “I think that this is where local governments partnering with the federal government is so important. It forces communities to come together to collaborate on plans and presentations, and it fosters better public/private partnerships as well. It will be independent folks evaluating plans, and I’m confident there would be good geographic spread. America cannot compete globally if we are not accessing the genius and worth of all of our country. Otherwise, opportunity begins to be concentrated in a handful of geographic areas.”
If a city like Waterloo is picked as one of those 50 cities, what can we expect in terms of the types of investment that will be made?
“Even if Waterloo is not picked, other elements of our plan to increase access to capital would be in place — from health care to child care — all things we believe can help the entrepreneurial culture to thrive, including infrastructure. But, again, a lot of this is having the kind of grant dollars to fund evidence-based projects that we know would support economic growth in the community — and local communities know the strategies that work best.”
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You talk about “community-run ride sharing.” What does that look like to you, in terms of benefit to smaller communities?
“Transportation is so critical for success, and we’re seeing now often just getting to work is a problem. For us, finding ways and solutions to transportation challenges is really critical. I’ve been a big proponent of mass transit, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. The Eisenhower Highway Act (the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956) was one of the greatest investments we’ve done as a nation. We have to find modern solutions to get people to and from work.”
What, specifically, did you have in mind for communities like ours?
“I wouldn’t want to dictate the strategies; I would want the local communities to figure that out. When I was mayor (of Newark), we figured out a shuttle service that actually, really worked, without them having to walk miles to work. So I don’t feel the federal government should be dictating the contours when the local communities can dictate that. They just need the capital and investments to make it work.”
You also mention broadband access — that’s a big topic in Iowa, as you probably know. The problem, as utilities will tell you, is the cost-per-mile for some far-flung rural properties doesn’t make a ton of economic sense to them. How do you plan to spur this sort of investment and get the utilities to buy in?
“A lot of these companies have made tremendous profits by getting government grants and right-of-ways to be licensed providers, but they haven’t accepted the commitment to go to these areas that aren’t profitable for them. There needs to be more obligations for expanding that service to other under-served areas.
“There needs to be a public-private partnership. I’m on the Commerce Committee (in the U.S. Senate), and we’ve seen it work in Canada, in South Korea — they’ve created public-private partnerships to incentivize and even mandate the service for hard-to-reach communities. This, to me, is a fundamental global competitive disadvantage we have right now — there are so many families and children without access.”
You propose zoning reform in order to allow for greater access to affordable housing. What kind of zoning rules are you talking about doing away with?
“The exact zoning reforms could be identified by each community based on their unique circumstances and needs, but could include things like reducing restrictions on lot size, eliminating parking requirements, or allowing accessory dwelling units and multifamily homes — all interventions focused on increasing the number of affordable units.”
Your plan will likely need new federal dollars to work properly. Fully funding homeless assistance grants, just one part of your plan, is $6 billion alone. Have you put a price tag on all of this yet? How much investment will need to be made and where will it come from?
“The Renters Credit, which is by far the most expensive proposal identified, would provide over $200 billion in benefits each year. It is extraordinarily efficient and well-targeted, and according to researchers at Columbia University, the impact would be sweeping: The credit would benefit more than 57 million people, including nearly 17 million children, and lift 9.4 million Americans out of poverty.
“Throughout the campaign, I have identified new revenue streams to pay for my proposals, including rolling back the Trump tax cuts, reforming how we tax investment income, and increasing rates and exemption levels for the estate tax. We also know that investments in safe and affordable housing have high returns on investment in the long run.”