Capital ideas: How our U.S. senators bring Jersey perspective to Washington

The ROI Interview: Cory Booker and Robert Menendez

By Tom Bergeron
Washington D.C. | Mar 4, 2020 at 4:55 am
From our print edition

As the state’s U.S. senators, Cory Booker and Robert Menendez are two of New Jersey’s leading voices in Washington, D.C. ROI-NJ asked the two Democrats about life in the nation’s capital — and what they are doing there to help their constituents back home.

ROI-NJ: You serve at the federal level, but how do you weigh issues in regard to what may be best for New Jersey as opposed to what may be best for the country?

Cory Booker: I don’t see these things as mutually exclusive. Yes, the people of New Jersey elected me to represent them in the U.S. Senate, and everything I do is through the lens of ‘what is best for my constituents.’ That said, when it comes to some of the biggest challenges we face, like expanding health care, economic opportunity, quality education and reducing gun violence, there is a common pain that unites us all, no matter what part of the country you come from. 

We’re not going to solve our biggest problems by pitting people against one another — we’re going to solve them by rallying behind what brings us together as Americans.

Robert Menendez: I am honored to serve New Jersey’s over 9 million residents in Washington as their senior United States senator, but, make no mistake, what’s best for them and their families and the state we call home is my top priority and is what guides each decision I make and every vote I take.

When I fight for access to high-quality, affordable health care and education, it’s with New Jersey patients and students in mind. When I fight for tougher clean air and clean water protections or to ban drilling off our coasts, it’s with Newarkers and Patersonians dealing with high asthma rates or the health and safety of our Jersey Shore that drives me. When I fight to reform the National Flood Insurance Program, it’s to make sure we make New Jersey communities more resilient and to ensure the problems that delayed recovery for Sandy survivors never happens again. When I fight to crack down on robocalls or hold companies like Wells Fargo accountable for ripping off its customers, it’s to protect New Jersey consumers. When I fight, as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, for human rights and a strong national security, it’s to protect our residents and advance our ideals. I can go on.

ROI: Let’s stay in D.C. You both always have been quick to reach across the aisle to various constituents, but you now serve in a Washington that seemingly is more polarized than ever before — one where you can predict votes based on your political party. What is it going to take to bring more elected officials back to the center and in areas of compromise?

Robert Menendez
Robert Menendez is New Jersey’s senior U.S. senator and has spent nearly 30 years in Washington.

RM: I have never witnessed such polarization in my nearly three decades in Washington. It’s corrosive to our democratic process and undermines the faith people have in their government to work for them. It’s incredibly maddening when popular policies, like universal background checks for gun purchases, that get broad, bipartisan support, sit to die on (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell’s desk, or when I helped lead Senate passage of comprehensive immigration reform with 68 votes in 2013, only to see a Republican House speaker refuse to put it up for vote. I understand people’s frustration.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to achieve common ground and pass meaningful legislation. I worked with Mike Enzi, the Republican from Wyoming, to pass Autism CARES, the federal response that funds research and the development of new treatments and supports for those with autism spectrum disorders. We passed the TRACED Act with bipartisan support to give law enforcement the tools they need to go after robocallers and phone scammers. I’ve partnered with Republicans like Lindsay Graham and Mitt Romney to advance U.S. foreign policy. I’ve built a broad, bipartisan coalition that includes Elizabeth Warren and Marco Rubio to reform the National Flood Insurance Program. Those are just some examples.

Sure, it’s easy to be cynical, but don’t underestimate the power of the people. If you want to change our politics, it starts at home, in our communities and at the ballot box. Elections have consequences. Vote. Stay engaged. Real change happens from the ground up, not from Washington down. 

CB: I always like to say I am a prisoner of hope, especially when it comes to accomplishing things in our polarized political climate. Even in the face of (President) Donald Trump’s hatred and division, I was able to help lead a divided Congress forward to pass into law historic reforms that make our criminal justice system, which disproportionately imprisons poor, black and brown families, more fair. I think this could serve as a model for what can be done when we put the American people ahead of politics. 

ROI: Moving over to policies and regulations: What proposals/ideas are you pushing that will help all residents in New Jersey/the country?

CB: I’m working on so many exciting things, but, to be clear, when we help businesses grow, we help individuals and families, too. When we facilitate access to capital for businesses, for example, we help create jobs and put food on the table for families. Even incentivizing strategic investment like the Opportunity Zones program, while targeting businesses, are creating jobs and improving the quality of life in the neediest communities in the country.

I have also been focused on closing the racial wealth gap. Wealth inequality is at its highest point in decades, which is why I introduced a bill that would give every American child a savings account at birth — called Baby Bonds — that can be used for opportunity-building expenses like college tuition or a down payment on a house. And, of course, we must prioritize investment in our infrastructure, particularly critical projects like Gateway that will help make transportation safe, boost economic growth and ensure our region and nation remain globally competitive. 

RM: I continue to believe we need to defend and improve the Affordable Care Act and work on expanding access to health care coverage. I also believe we need to find a path forward to end the practice of surprise medical billing; legislation is currently stalled in Congress, and it is my hope we can come together on a solution to end a practice that leaves patients — who have insurance coverage — exposed to high medical bills. I continue to work with my colleagues on solutions to address our opioid crisis — which is morphing into a new meth crisis. 

I am also a strong supporter of medical research and believe the investments we make continue to yield results. According to some recent data, New Jersey has $326 million in (National Institutes of Health) funding that supports over 6,000 jobs. We want to continue to be an innovator state that invests in math and science.

I’m also working to guarantee affordable high-quality child care for all of our families. I’ve introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act with a number of my Democratic colleagues to ensure that no low- or middle-income family has to spend more than 7% of their income on high-quality child care.

New Jerseyans are known for our grit, resiliency and toughness. There hasn’t been a challenge we’ve faced as a state that we weren’t able to pull together as one and overcome.”
— Cory Booker, U.S. senator

ROI: Of course, the biggest thing to help New Jerseyans may be reversing the limit on state and local tax deductions. Despite the best efforts of many, little was changed. Is that effort over? Is there realistically anything that can be done?

RM: Let me be clear: I will never stop fighting to reverse this vindictive tax policy that was imposed by Donald Trump and his Congressional Republicans primarily to punish the people of New Jersey and other ‘blue’ states that voted against him. I introduced the ‘Stop the Attack on Local Taxpayers,’ or SALT Act, to permanently repeal the SALT cap and allow New Jerseyans to write off all of their property and state income taxes, without limit. 

But, realistically, Sen. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans have a majority in the Senate and have refused to even bring my bill up for a vote. And, since I don’t think they’re going to change their minds anytime soon, we need to send them a message in the next election by electing women and men who will repeal the SALT cap and provide tax relief for middle-class families. 

CB: The Trump tax cuts have overwhelmingly benefited big corporations and the wealthiest Americans rather than everyday American families. Ever since they were signed into law, I’ve worked hand-in-hand with Sen. Menendez to fix the SALT rules that have burdened thousands of New Jersey families and raised their taxes. While the Trump administration has fought us every step of the way, we won’t give up, and the fight is only getting started. 

ROI: Affordability is a key issue when it comes to postsecondary education. And, when it comes to postsecondary education, the proper job training always comes up, too. Give us your thoughts on both of these issues.

CB: I’ve introduced legislation to allow individuals carrying crushing student debt to refinance their college loans, simplify the student loan process and expand child care at community colleges and minority-serving institutions. These are all policies designed to help hundreds of thousands New Jerseyans and, at the same time, help to prepare the workforce of tomorrow. 

RM: As a recipient of Pell Grants and other Federal Student Aid, I am fighting to ensure that every student has access to an affordable higher education. In addition to supporting Federal Student Aid through the annual appropriations process, I also support the America’s College Promise Act, which would provide significant federal funding to states to help them make two years of community college free for all students.

I believe the federal government should encourage job training that meets the needs of our 21st century economy and workforce. To that end, I have introduced legislation that would create a competitive tax credit for job training programs involving partnerships between businesses and higher education institutions that fill skills gaps in the workforce and a separate tax credit for businesses that hire the long-term unemployed for a job requiring a certain type of certificate or other training credential. A well-trained workforce is what will power our country through this century and well into the 22nd century. 

ROI: Let’s talk about your home bases. First, Sen. Booker, discuss Newark — the city you helped revive locally and nationally appears to be growing in stature and significance with each passing month/year. Newark has come a long way; how far can it go on a national scale? 

File photo
U.S. senator Cory Boooker helped create the Opportunity Zones program.

CB: There are no bounds to Newark’s potential. Newark is the largest city in New Jersey, and located just six miles from the largest city in the country. It’s home to several thriving colleges and universities, a growing business district to which several major multinational corporations have relocated their headquarters recently — almost winning the bid to house Amazon’s coveted second HQ. The interest in residential, corporate and nonprofit sector investment in Newark isn’t just indicative of the city’s potential, it’s evidence that we’re well on our way to realizing that potential. 

ROI: Next, Sen. Menendez: Hudson County has grown so much and in so many ways in the past two decades. When you look at the next 10 years, what do you see for the county?

RM: I’m proud to call Hudson County home. It is one of, if not, the most diverse in the country —a vibrant mix of cultures and traditions, peoples of all faiths, colors and nationalities living and thriving together. The growth we’ve seen is a testament to a robust mass transit system I helped fight to expand when I served as mayor of Union City and continue to push for at the federal level. It’s no coincidence that we’ve seen economic development and revitalization in neighborhoods near the PATH and Light Rail. That access to transit has helped lure companies, including many in the financial sector, to relocate from Manhattan and create jobs and opportunity on this side of the Hudson. And I genuinely believe the best is yet to come. 

If the current trend holds, I see more, especially young people, moving away from the suburbs and exurbs and into Hudson County, attracted by walkable communities, great schools, parks, good jobs and easy access to transit. As more companies and residents get priced out of places like Manhattan and Brooklyn, more will inevitably see Hudson County as a viable option. I don’t see the construction boom along the Gold Coast stopping anytime soon. If anything, I see it expanding outward. Have you seen what’s going on in Harrison? From redevelopment of the Bayonne Marine Terminal to the eventual expansion of the Light Rail to Jersey City’s Westside and into Bergen County, I only see more growth and opportunities over the next decade and for years to come. 

ROI: Last question. New Jersey can be the butt of many jokes. But those in the know realize it has as many positive attributes as any state in the nation. How have you found New Jersey to be perceived around the country — both in Washington and out on the campaign trail?

CB: New Jerseyans are known for our grit, resiliency and toughness. There hasn’t been a challenge we’ve faced as a state that we weren’t able to pull together as one and overcome. I’m reminded of Superstorm Sandy, when neighbors were helping each other to rebuild their lives, and strangers were rushing to the assistance of one another. This is who we are, and folks across the country recognize that sense of pride. It helps that we have such a great presence on Twitter, too — here’s looking at you, @NJGov.

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