Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) is trying to capture the Democratic nomination for the 2020 presidency by painting himself as the nice-guy-racial-minority-progressive who can heal a fractured country. One key part of this calculated formula may not go over as smoothly as he hopes, however. The progressives with whom he has already chosen to identify himself actually have serious trust issues with Booker due to his long-standing corporate ties and, most especially, his past record of raking in the dough from the pharmaceutical industry.
New Jersey is home to several Big Pharma corporations that have wielded huge influence – some would say control – over Garden State politicians for decades. Booker showed no noticeable discomfort over this cozy situation as he collected $454,441 from pharmaceutical donors over a period of years ending with the 2016 political cycle.
But as he started contemplating a 2020 presidential run of his own, Booker realized the liability his local industry loyalties would have with Democrats on the national level. In a June 2017 interview with NPR, the senator stated, “We put a pause on even receiving contributions from pharma companies because it arouses so much criticism and just stopped taking it.” Those words don’t sound so much like the zeal of a convert railing against the scourge of corporate money as they do the lament of a scheming pol who is sadly aware that he can’t run the same operating manual on the big stage, that works so well back home.
Booker has been publicly critical of his former pharma pals since taking severe heat from progressives for opposing a 2017 non-binding Senate resolution on allowing the importation of cheaper-priced prescription drugs into the U.S. He has joined with the Democrat consensus of demonizing Big Pharma for its perceived greed at the expense of patients’ welfare. “We have an industry right now that has been able to stop the government from negotiating fairer prices,” Booker said in January, while pushing legislation to lower the price of prescription drugs. “Everything that we’re seeing right now that’s jacking up prices should be unacceptable.”
New Path or Misdirection?
Democrats are left to ponder whether Booker’s newfound wariness of this powerful lobbying group is truly sincere or nothing more than rank opportunism by a man who wants to be president. Booker himself still seems rather conflicted on the issue. Remembering where he still hangs his hat for the moment, he told STAT News in an interview that Democrats don’t need to come down too hard on an industry that most grassroots party members abjectly loathe.
“I live in Newark, a low-income community where people work for pharmaceutical companies,” Booker said. “They might be the lab assistant, they might be the secretary, and they value those jobs. And even they know that we can have fair pricing and still have thriving companies. This is not an either-or. And right now we have practices going on that are abusing this nation and constituents of mine.”
For their part, pharmaceutical representatives are completely understanding of the game the senator has to play to win a national Democratic contest. “[Booker] has already positioned himself in anticipation of the attack that someone from New Jersey is too close to the drug companies,” Earl Pomeroy, an ex-congressman who now serves as a health lobbyist for Alston & Bird, told STAT News. That comment makes it appear that Booker’s well-heeled former friends see his recent attacks as nothing more than empty strategic posturing. “It would be a mistake … if Democrats, in their zeal, have a litmus test that anyone who drives by a drug company building is suddenly disqualified from the race for president,” Pomeroy added.
It certainly doesn’t sound as if Big Pharma is fretting too much about diminishing returns on their expensive long-term political investment. And why should they? They’ve got over 400,000 reasons to remain blissfully undisturbed about the current machinations of the nice guy progressive who wants to be president.
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