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Booker pitches 2020 ‘unity’ message

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By Dartunorro Clark

DES MOINES, Iowa — Cory Booker’s voice is shot. Standing on stage before hundreds of potential voters in the state that boasts the pivotal first-in-the-nation caucus, Booker, in a raspy voice that normally booms, is adamant his message of love, hope and unity can win him the Democratic nomination and, ultimately, the presidency.

“They’re going to say, ‘Oh my gosh, more candidates talking about love and hope; oh my God, how are you going to beat Donald Trump with that?’” the New Jersey senator, 49, told the packed venue at his last event in the state following a two-day blitz through five other cities in below-freezing temperatures.

“I want to see that man out of the White House, but I was called to dream bigger than that. … This is a test to see how much we can unite America,” he said.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, speaks at a campaign stop at the Des Moines Social Club in Iowa on Feb. 9, 2019.Scott Olson / Getty Images

It could be a risky message given that a recent Monmouth University poll found Democratic voters prioritizing “electability” over values in 2020. But dozens of potential voters and community leaders who spoke to NBC News as Booker zipped through Mason City, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Marshalltown and Des Moines said they were compelled by his story of turning around a beleaguered urban city as mayor of Newark, his work as a senator and his message of bringing the country together.

Rita Robinson, 63, a member of the Cedar Rapids chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, saw Booker speak for the first time at his stop at the city’s African American museum and made up her mind.

“He is my candidate. He talked to all of us in the room,” she said, noting the crowd was largely white with a few black residents in attendance. “I think they look at Cory and remember when Obama was president — they backed him because they believed in the message.”

Robinson added, “He’s got the vocabulary, the know-how and knows how to throw in a little bit of the hood. … He’s like, ‘I’m different, but I’m not different from you, and I know how to get things done.’”

‘I had to run something’

A question that dogged Booker in his pitch to voters in Iowa is what makes him different from the other Democratic candidates. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Kamala Harris of California have already visited the state, and so far there is not much the contenders disagree on when it comes to hot-button issues like health care, education and climate change.

But at a campaign event in Mason City, Iowa, Booker pushed back on Harris’ idea of doing away with private health insurance to achieve single-payer health care, or Medicare-for-all. He also frequently touted his role in shepherding Trump’s criminal justice reform bill through the Senate last year, even noting how he won over the support of Iowa’s Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.

Former mayors are rarely candidates for the White House, according to a 2018 study in the journal American Politics Research. But Booker plugged his work in Newark as a microcosm of what he can do at the national level. He claimed to have turned around its schools and improved its local economy.

“I’m friends with these folks,” he said of his Democratic rivals in remarks at a packed brewery in Marshalltown. “I’ve written legislation with these folks. But I want to tell you some things unique about me so you just know: I had to run something. And it wasn’t just something — it was a very challenged city. I had to manage it through the worst economic crisis of our lifetime. I had to stand in the saddle and make difficult, difficult decisions.”

Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, speaks to guests at a campaign event at the First Congressional United Church of Christ in Mason City, Iowa, on Feb. 8, 2019.Scott Olson / Getty Images

Booker, who is vying to be the nation’s second black president, also made overt references to race in his first visit here as a 2020 candidate. African Americans make up a crucial voting bloc of the Democratic party and represent 3.8 percent of Iowa’s total population. Booker’s message of unity was often centered on improving race relations in the country, focusing on issues such as income inequality, voter suppression and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

He also discussed at length his family’s struggle to integrate a white New Jersey suburb in the 1960s, saying real estate agents would not sell them homes until white volunteer lawyers worked together with black housing activists to confront the issue.

“We have to be able to talk about race in America,” Booker told a largely white crowd at the brewery in Marshalltown. “You can’t have reconciliation without truth-telling.”

He added, “Right here in Iowa, people meeting in barns, white folk and black folk, built the greatest infrastructure project this country has ever seen: The Underground Railroad,” referring to the network of white and black Americans who aided slaves through a network of safe houses to free states.

“I think he’s got it, he’s like magic,” said 72-year-old Ruth Cody Brewer, who lives in Forest City and works on the Wing Ding committee, a grassroots fundraising effort for the state Democratic Party, after a campaign event in Mason City. “He energized me today.”

Other voters, however, were not completely sold but noted that Booker stood out among the declared candidates.

“I think it’s time for a reformation. Is he a great reformer like the Kennedys or the Roosevelts? I don’t know,” said Mark Suby, a Mason City resident and retired city parks superintendent. “But he’s certainly on my list.”

‘I’m confident in my toughness’

For Booker, another important issue is trying to win over Trump voters, saying “they feel lost, they feel forgotten, they feel even attacked.”

“I believe strongly they voted wrong, but if we don’t speak to their pain, if we don’t talk with our ideas and our heart and our empathy and our policies that will deal with these issues, we’ll never get those voters back,” he said.

He also spoke at events about his friendships with Republican lawmakers, such as former Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of Arizona, and reaching across the aisle in the Senate to get legislation passed.

“I’m running not just to beat Republicans, I’m running to unite Americans,” Booker said at an event in Mason City.

He added, “At this time in our country, we don’t need to fight fire with fire.”

Chris Peterson, a 64-year-old farmer who was an Iowa delegate for Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, said Booker is going to “take the torch and have courage,” but “unity is only going to go so far.”

“Don’t compromise the issues away to get Republican support,” he said. “Democrats have caved over the years.”

But Booker, a former college football player, told voters he can take whatever is thrown at him, especially if he’s up against Trump, a self-professed counterpuncher.

“There is nobody in this race tougher than me … ” Booker said. “But we have got to stop in this country thinking that to be tough you have to be mean, to be strong you have to be cruel. That is a lie. The most powerful force in this universe is defiant love. And I will stick by that.”

“If we try to fight Donald Trump on his turf, not only will both of us get muddied, but the country suffers as a result. And so I’m confident in my strength. I’m confident in my toughness.”

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Grilled by children, Feinstein tries to teach lesson in politics

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By Dennis Romero

U.S. Sen Dianne Feinstein, D-California, isn’t backing the Green New Deal, and she wasn’t shy about letting a group who does support it know it — even if they are children.

A group of schoolchildren visited the senator at her San Francisco office Friday and urged her to get on board with the renewable energy legislation. But the conversation quickly turned into somewhat of a confrontation, and Feinstein has been criticized online for the tone she took. Edited video of the 85-year-old lecturing more than a dozen kids went viral Friday.

One girl implored the senator to back the Green New Deal and argued that the government can afford it. “We have tons of money going to military,” the girl told the lawmaker.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Feinstein said. “I know what I’m doing. You come in here and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that.”

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Bigger is not better. Small dollars online are gold for Democrats taking on Trump.

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — The most coveted donor for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates may not be a Wall Street financier or Hollywood producer, but a grade school teacher in the Midwest who chips in $25 a month to her favorite candidate.

Small dollars are a bigger deal than ever because they can help organize and engage a large and committed group of supporters who invest more than just money in a campaign.

“Small-dollar donors are going to be a pivotal part of this election, both strategically and practically,” said Erin Hill, executive director of ActBlue, Democrats’ central clearinghouse for online donations. “Small-dollar donors don’t just give — they also vote, volunteer and tell their friends why they care about a candidate.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., proved that his supporters, or at least 225,000 of them, are still committed when he raised a whopping $6 million on Wednesday, the day after launching his presidential campaign.

Rufus Gifford, who served as national finance director for President Barack Obama’s re-election effort in 2012, called the haul “truly remarkable,” noting on Twitter that he was skeptical Sanders could match his 2016 effort: “I was wrong.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., announced raising $1.5 million on her first day in the race, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she brought in $1 million in her first 48 hours. The other candidates have not released numbers, but FEC data shows Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., raised about $300,000 online through ActBlue on New Year’s Eve, when she announced her exploratory committee.

Sanders, of course, had a head start thanks to his previous presidential run, which helped him grow a donor pool the size of every other perspective candidate combined, according to a recent New York Times analysis.

But the good news for the rest of the current field of White House hopefuls is that there is now more opportunity than ever for left-leaning candidates to tap into grassroots fundraising — if they know how to.

“As donors get younger and younger, and people get more and more used to the internet, and campaigns get savvier and savvier, there is very real money available,” said Teddy Goff, who was a top digital strategist on presidential runs by Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Goff recalled that as recently as 2012 people would call into the Obama campaign to make sure it was safe for them to donate online.

Now, thanks to Amazon and everything else that Americans do online, digital financial transactions have become second nature. And thanks to President Donald Trump, Democratic voters are eager to open their digital wallets.

In last year’s midterm elections, ActBlue processed more than $1.6 billion in online donations, up from $782 million in 2016 and $335 million in 2014 — a five-fold surge in four years. (Republicans just last month established their answer to ActBlue after years of false starts.)

And as donating online has become frictionless for Democrats, the party has grown increasingly hostile to traditional modes of funding campaigns and to big money in politics.

For the first time, the Democratic National Committee will allow candidates to qualify to take part in the party’s debates if they can secure donations from 65,000 people in at least 20 different states. In the past, only candidates who registered a certain amount of support in the polls were allowed to participate.

“Because campaigns are won on the strength of their grassroots, we also updated the threshold, giving all types of candidates the opportunity to reach the debate stage and giving small-dollar donors a bigger voice in the primary than ever before,” DNC chairman Tom Perez said in a statement announcing the change.

That’s already altering some campaigns’ strategies, with lesser-known candidates like Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, pursuing that path to the debate stage.

Tara McGowan, the founder and CEO of the Democratic digital firm Acronym, said smart campaigns make donors “feel a sense of ownership” in the campaign and give them other meaningful ways to engage, like by volunteering or posting on social media.

“You run the risk of thinking of digital outreach as an ATM for the campaign,” she said. “You’re missing a real opportunity to help amplify your message if you’re not engaging people who are already raising their hand.”

Meanwhile, big donors simply aren’t as valuable as they once were, excluding groups that can take unlimited contributions like super PACs — and almost every major 2020 candidate has sworn off them already.

For Democrats, big checks also can come with a political cost, especially if they’re written by people who work in certain industries that have been targeted by the left, such as finance, fossil fuels and pharmaceuticals.

While large donors may expect something in return for their largesse, from a photo-op with the candidate to an ambassadorship to France, someone who gives $5 is not counting on much more than a feeling of connection to the candidate and solidarity with other small donors.

For instance, Warren has recalled how during her first run for the Senate in 2012, a young man approached her on a subway platform late one night to tell her he was working extra hours to donate to her campaign every month.

“I felt as if he’d hit me with a spear right between the ribs,” Warren wrote in her book, “A Fighting Chance.” “Good Lord — this kid was working until nearly 11 o’clock on a Saturday night and he was sending me money? I smiled weakly and said something along the lines of: ‘Uh, I’m doing OK in the campaign. Maybe you should keep your money. I’ll be fine. Really.'”

But she says he looked back and replied: “No, I’m part of this campaign. This is my fight, too.”

The first big fundraising test for every candidate will come at the end of March, when they have to file their first quarterly reports to the FEC. Early fundraising numbers are heavily scrutinized by party insiders and the media as a sign of a candidate’s strength, and historically they have been a better predictor of success than early polls.

As Democrats fight their primary race and chase small-dollar contributors, they’re not alone.

Trump’s forces have spent more than $4 million on Facebook ads since November alone to expand their list of supporters, and 75 percent of the money his campaign raised in the most recent quarter came from donors who give $200 or less.

“Realistically,” ActBlue’s Hill said, “our nominee is going to need to be primarily funded by grassroots donors in order to beat Trump, who already has widespread small-dollar donor support.”



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Cohen said to be providing new information to federal prosecutors in NY

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 / Updated 

By Tom Winter, Ken Dilanian, Jonathan Dienst and Monica Alba

President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen, facing jail in just over two months, has been speaking with and providing information to federal prosecutors in New York, according to three people familiar with the matter.

According to those sources and public statements, Cohen was questioned about a donor to the president’s inaugural committee, Imaad Zuberi, who is a political fundraiser with a history of donating to both Republican and Democratic candidates.

In addition, the sources said Cohen has discussed matters relevant to the Southern District of New York’s investigation into certain members of the Trump Organization and the Trump Inaugural Committee, investigations that have previously been reported publicly.

The New York Times first reported the discussions, which sources confirm occurred in January, on Friday evening. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.

Lanny Davis, an attorney and spokesperson for Cohen, said in a statement to NBC News: “We cannot comment on any matters that are still under investigation by the Special Counsel or the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.”

However, Davis added, “I can say that Mr. Cohen is interested in cooperating with and assisting the SDNY team in any way they believe is helpful.”

An inaugural committee spokesperson declined to comment.

The White House referred questions to the Trump Organization, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Michael Cohen leaves Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 21, 2019.Susan Walsh / AP

Zuberi has previously been mentioned in reports surrounding the investigation into the Trump Inaugural Committee. His spokesperson has previously told the Washington Post that Zuberi’s funds did not come from a foreign donor and that the money he gave was his own.

Friday’s revelations have to do with a proposed consulting agreement between Cohen and Zuberi, an agreement Zuberi’s spokesperson said was never completed.

Steve Rabinowitz, a spokesman for Zuberi, said his client “received what I would call a speculative contract from Cohen to consult on a new, small private New York real estate fund they had spoken briefly of, but that never came to be.”

Rabinowitz said his client issued a check to Cohen as part of initiating the agreement and said Zuberi recently searched his records and found a $100,000 handwritten check to Cohen that was issued in February 2017.

“The check was never cashed and by March [of 2017], Cohen and Zuberi would not speak again,” he said.

“Imaad [Zuberi] did not pursue Cohen; it was the other way around,” Rabinowitz said. “And their would-be relationship fell apart when Zuberi didn’t sign the contract, not when Cohen didn’t cash the check. And how could he? They didn’t have a deal.”

Cohen, who pleaded guilty on charges related to tax evasion and campaign finance fraud, faces a three-year sentence and is expected to report to prison May 6.

Cohen pleaded guilty in August 2018 to the charges brought by federal prosecutors in New York — six counts related to his personal finances and two related to campaign finance violations involving hush money payments to two women who said they had affairs with Trump.

Federal law allows prosecutors to seek a reduction in a jail sentence post-conviction and even post-sentencing for cooperation in an ongoing investigation.

A public court filing from prosecutors indicating that Cohen is cooperating or indicating that they seek a reduction in his sentence has not been made, and there’s no indication that there’s a formal agreement.

Cohen is expected to testify before several committees of Congress next week.



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