'WASHINGTON — It was a political rally on Cory Booker’s home turf, meant to showcase support for the Affordable Care Act. But the chilly afternoon in January 2017 ended in a way the New Jersey senator did not anticipate: with him being heckled by constituents as a pawn of “Big Pharma.”
Rather than ignore their jeers, Booker’s staff invited roughly 10 protesters to join the senator in a hotel conference room across the street from the Newark rally. He sat for an hour, as the progressive activists berated him for accepting more campaign funds from the drug industry than any other lawmaker and for, just days earlier, voting against a symbolic measure to allow American patients to import prescription drugs from Canada.
Finally, Booker asked the question his constituents had been waiting for: if giving back those campaign funds would make them happy. The response was a full-throated yes, capping off a day that was by many accounts an awakening for Booker — and a harbinger of what was to come as he launched his bid for the presidency.
“We can’t solely look at what is in the best interest for pharmaceutical companies and be blind to people dying from the cost of pharmaceuticals in New Jersey,” said Diane Moxley, a local activist who attended the meeting with Booker.
For the past two years, Booker has been repeatedly reminded of that kind of anger over high drug prices — and hounded by criticism that he has an overly cozy relationship with the pharma industry. Last week, the hosts of “Pod Save America,” a progressive political podcast, said he had taken “a bad vote on pharmaceuticals.” A viral Facebook video viewed nearly a quarter-million times questions whether Booker is a “Big Pharma” candidate. And on the left-leaning “Breakfast Club” radio show last week, Booker was pointedly asked whether he could be trusted to hold large pharmaceutical companies accountable.
That reputation, deserved or not, could become a major political liability for Booker, particularly at a time of concern over drug prices and in a race with other progressive lawmakers like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders whose disdain for large drug companies is palpable.
Booker knows his ability to win over Democrats appears to rest, in part, on whether he can convince voters he’s in the same league. But he is also wary of painting the industry with too broad a brush.'
Read more: The ‘Big Pharma’ candidate? As he runs for president, Cory Booker looks to shake his reputation for drug industry coziness
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