Cory Booker couldn’t sleep. “Insomnia or something,” an aide explained.
And so this Wednesday, the back-to-back Zoom marathon-slash-maelstrom that is a typical day inside the senator’s house, a multi-family home in Newark’s Central Ward that he now shares with his girlfriend, the actor and activist Rosario Dawson, began in the dark, before dawn, around 5:50 a.m. He got out of bed, padded to his office, opened his computer, and started recording videos.
There are always videos to do — a backlog of ‘thank you’ messages and pre-recorded clips for different groups (the Jack and Jill South Jersey chapter, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee) whose events he can’t attend. When Booker’s digital director woke up sometime before 7 a.m., there were 15 videos in his inbox. Next: “text messages and emails, which have piled up considerably.” Next: reading for the Supreme Court hearings set to begin this month.
By then, Dawson was awake. The couple had about 20 minutes together in the kitchen. She made something to eat while Booker, a proponent of intermittent fasting, took out the blender and threw in coffee, pure cacao oil, and organic vegan ghee — his own “bulletproof coffee,” an energy-boosting keto-influencer favorite.
“Breakfast was basically sitting at the table with my cell phone — which is a bad thing to do for a relationship,” Booker said in an interview later that day.
This may be true, but could anyone blame him?
Like most of the country, Booker wasn’t even up last Friday when Trump, around 1 a.m., tweeted that he and the first lady had tested positive for COVID-19, setting off a week of chaos and confusion.
Keeping track of the days since that moment, even from the safe remove of a kitchen table, has been a bewildering exercise, with big, unbelievable developments unfolding with rapid speed in small, incremental updates, flitting casually across a screen. You open Twitter, scroll, then swipe away. You see the president, newly tanned, talking about China and Regeneron-for-all and how “perfect” he feels. By the time you learn that next week’s presidential debate will be held virtually, Donald Trump has already pulled out, and Joe Biden is planning his own televised town hall in its place. There is a vague sense at all times that, somewhere, someone new has tested positive for the coronavirus.
Perhaps you, too, are experiencing a form of “insomnia or something.” Twenty-three days from the election, it is an insane time to be a human in America. It is another kind of bizarre insanity to be experiencing the spiral of government from inside its main deliberative body in Washington, where at least three Republican senators have contracted COVID-19 while the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to plow ahead with a Supreme Court nomination.
“I am literally jumping from Zoom to Zoom, to conference call, to SCOTUS prep — I mean, this is a very intense, compressed time for me,” Booker said. Usually, he would be surfing Twitter or checking push alerts from the New York Times. Now Booker’s chief of staff, Matt Klapper, has had to interrupt him during or between meetings “to let me know, ‘Hey, this colleague of yours has COVID,’” so that in his next Zoom, “people aren’t telling me the news,” he said. “It is almost comical.”
Booker, a hyperactive former mayor of Newark who is up for reelection this year in the Senate, is living a particular kind of insanity — some of it self-imposed, some not. He is running at the top of the ticket in New Jersey, where there are five competitive House races he is “really committed to helping.” He is a surrogate for Senate candidates around the country and has dedicated “chunks” of his day to virtual events for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. In the Senate, he is preparing “a week of really intense hearings” for the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. He is finding co-sponsors for new bills via text message. He is checking on friends who have contracted COVID, such as former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has kept in touch with Booker from the hospital. “There’s been a lot of false rumors out there circulating,” he said. “He is fighting through [that] as well.”
At the same time, Booker’s own campaign is negotiating the terms of a possible debate with his GOP opponent, Rik Mehta, a Trump-styled Republican who, as it turns out, was a guest at the famous Bedminster fundraiser that the president attended hours before announcing he had tested positive for the virus. (Mehta has claimed that Booker, who has never once uttered Mehta’s name aloud during his Senate reelection bid, is “ignoring” him. “I don’t even know who Rick Mehta is,” the state’s Democratic governor, Phil Murphy recently said.)
Also at the same time, Booker just moved in with his significant other.
This is a first for the 51-year-old. The couple has been dating since 2018 but spent most of the pandemic on separate coasts — Dawson helping take care of her father in Los Angeles, Booker doing Senate work from Newark. In late August, with her dad in tow, Dawson loaded an RV with boxes and house plants, and drove the 29-foot-long, 13-foot-tall bus across the country. She resettled her father in New York City and moved into Booker’s home in the Central Ward — a simple house, three stories of yellow-brown brick. Booker has only ever shared it with the 24-hour security detail assigned to him while he served as mayor of the city — with Newark officers occupying the second floor, and Booker living on the third.
“This is the first time in my life I’ve really lived with somebody — and obviously Rosario and I are enjoying and adjusting to that, right?” he said now.
Whatever “adjustment” period might normally take place during such life events has, in this household, been somewhat tabled until Election Day: “I think we both realize that this is a ‘batten-down-the-hatches,’ ‘get-to-Nov.-3’ kinda thing.”
Booker’s description of remote work, where days can seem both endless and compressed into arbitrary divisions between work and life, takes on its own frenetic pace: mornings with Dawson are short, rare, bursts together in the kitchen table; evenings are “crashing with Rosario”; small blocks of time in his daily schedule are reserved for “PERSONAL TIME.”
Dawson, a hard-line progressive who backed Bernie Sanders until the bitter end of the Democratic primary in 2016 before supporting Booker in his own presidential bid last year, is busy with her own Zoom calls. “She’s in the bedroom recording, but both of us needed silence, so I’m in my office, trying to talk more quietly than I normally do on my Zoom, and she’s in the other room recording a long PSA for Iowa congressional candidate J.D. Sholten, in Spanish. It’s happened multiple times, where we both just need quiet because we’re both doing reams of work. So I think we’re both bonding in that.”
She’s unpacked her clothes and immediate belongings. But elsewhere in the house, there are still boxes waiting to be opened.
“We already know we’re not gonna get to it until after the election,” he said.
Meetings and calls began again after breakfast: a conference call with reporters for the Biden campaign ahead of Harris’s debate against Vice President Mike Pence; fundraising “call time”; a Supreme Court prep call; more pre-recorded videos. “In some ways, the unique circumstances of this year have enabled Sen. Booker to do more events for more candidates,” an aide said, citing a single day in August where he did a virtual tour of the country, joining six Democratic candidates for events in states ranging from Virginia, to Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Nevada.
From Booker, this is not a surprising approach. His tendency is to meet an intense moment by redoubling his own intensity, which can overwhelm his staff and occasionally overcomplicate any given situation. As mayor, he worked from City Hall during the day and shadowed police patrols through the night. As senator, after reporters and critics questioned the veracity of some of the stories he told on the campaign trail, he wrote a memoir in part to excavate his own life, collecting “recorded testimony” from various “sources” to corroborate his biography.
On Wednesday afternoon, Booker was still on calls, but had relocated from his home office to the fenced-in yard. Technically, the senator is quarantining in Newark “out of an abundance of caution,” an aide said, since he attended a Judiciary Committee hearing last Wednesday with Sens. Thom Tillis and Mike Lee, both of whom now have COVID-19. (Booker did not come in close contact with either senator and tested negative on Monday, the aide said. He planned to take a second test on Friday.)
As a result, he hasn’t been able to take Dawson around the neighborhood much. The 41-year-old actor is now a registered New Jersey voter, according to Booker.
Outside, still on the phone, Booker did laps in circles around the yard.
Booker is as enthused as any politician by the personal interaction that comes with the campaign trail. In a normal year, Booker would be on the Hill, at a rally or a field office. These days, largely confined to his house in Newark, the closest he gets is “shouting out ‘hellos’” to postal workers and delivery workers and handing out masks to neighbors. He did this for a few hours on Wednesday afternoon, he said, sometime before Trump’s doctor released a letter about Trump’s antibody count.
“And I did get 10,000 steps in, I want you to know that, before like 2 or 3 p.m. I was very proud of myself.”
Four hours before the start of the vice presidential debate, Booker was back inside for a long call with the Judiciary Democrats. Then more calls, a meeting with the New Jersey chapter of Planned Parenthood, an interview on MSNBC. Dawson was making an early dinner. They ate together for about 30 minutes. “No cells on the table this time,” Booker said. “I have not done that, really, as a bachelor, where I actually sit at a table and just, like, breathe and eat a meal. And just set a table — I can’t tell you how rarely do I set the table as a bachelor, you know, as a guy living alone. So it’s just really nice to set a table, have somebody to say grace with, before a meal. It’s just those small things really are, I’m finding, incredibly enriching.”
The rest of his night was “locked into Zooms” before the debate. At some point, he said, he would “crash with Rosario,” and go to bed.
Outside Booker’s house, a White House security staffer was reported to be very ill with the virus. A top Marine tested positive. ABC News reported that a FEMA memo showed 34 people connected with the White House — more than previously known — had the virus. And the vice presidential debate rolled on, with Harris and Pence separated by sheets of plexiglass.
“I just want you to know this has been a difficult news cycle to keep up on the hourly details,” Booker said. “It was already an unsustainable pace.”
Later that evening, about an hour after he hung up the phone, Trump tapped out a new tweet to his followers.
“Biden supports Cory Booker’s Bill that will force low income housing in the Suburbs,” he wrote.
“If Dems win, GOODBYE SUBURBS!”
It’s not clear when Booker saw it. ●