Newark Mayor Cory Booker — a leading Democratic Party star and a front-runner for Senate seat from New Jersey — said he's glad the nation is discussing the issues of domestic surveillance raised by leaks of classified documents from the National Security Agency.
"When I see this real fear out there, we obviously as a country have not had the discussion that we need to have about the balance between privacy and security," Booker said at a lunch hosted by Bloomberg View in Manhattan. Booker also suggested that the source of the documents, Edward Snowden, could be seen as a "whistle-blower" — going beyond what many current federal legislators of both parties will say, and suggesting a new strain of Democratic politics that is headed for Washington.
Booker said he has spoken to friends "who say they're afraid of searching on the internet for fear of triggering government intrusions."
"Their very curiosity, which is the seed of innovation, is being stifled because of fear," he said.
Booker didn't commit to a position on domestic surveillance but called for a more open conversation.
"Do I think that we as American leaders are having a robust conversation about this and what the chilling effect it's already having in our country against curiosity, against innovation? I'm not satisfied with where we are today," he said.
As for Snowden, who Booker described as "a whistle-blower — however you want to call him," he noted that "I don't think we'd be having this conversation now" without him.
He said Snowden had broken the law, and that fell short of true civil disobedience because he left the country.
"It's not heroic to be the person who stands up and you blow a whistle and then you sprint out of Dodge," he said. "Stay here in your country — stand up."
Booker invoked "friends who smoke pot and one of them saying to me, 'This is my civil disobedience, man.'"
"Go smoke your joint in front of a policeman and get 100 of your friends to do the same thing," he said.
Booker also said at the lunch that his main cause in the Senate would be bringing issues of poverty to light. He denounced the failure of Democrats to object to a provision that would bar people from criminal convictions from receiving food stamps, a provision he called "abso-friggin-lutely ridiculous."
"For the Democratic Party to remain silent in that specific instance is unacceptable to me," he said.