During an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition on Friday, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker announced that he will be pausing fundraising from pharmaceutical companies, a move that comes after months of activist criticism for his vote against allowing drug reimportation to the United States.
NPR’s Rachel Martin prompted the news by asking about his funding from the industry. “You’re in politics so you know that optics matter. You yourself have faced some criticism for taking donations from drug companies. Last month, you suggested you might give some of those back. Have you done that?”
“We’ve put a pause on even receiving contributions from pharma companies, because it arouses so much criticism, and just stop taking it,” he replied, adding that he would prefer to focus on pulling in small donations from regular people.
As Booker noted, he received “much criticism” specifically for his January vote against drug reimportation and his heavy fundraising from the industry alongside it. Both support for, and opposition to, drug reimportation has long been bipartisan — and the divide is more about financial backing from the industry than party. And that financial backing is largely correlated with whether Big Pharma has a sizable concentration of jobs and industry in a particular state. Booker’s New Jersey has a heavy concentration of the pharmaceutical industry. “I come from a Big Pharma state,” said Booker, “and I understand that pharmaceutical companies are making innovations that are life-saving, but something has become terribly twisted if you can go to other countries who can buy drugs that are made and innovated on in the United States and find them for dramatically less costs.”
In that previous vote, an amendment authorizing drug reimportation by Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was voted down 52-46. Thirteen Republicans joined a majority of Democrats to support it, but 13 Democrats opposed it.
Booker first faced a backlash on social media, where he repeatedly defended his vote, saying that he supported the issue in concept but had issues with the particular amendment; he also was confronted by Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman days later at an inaugural event where he continued to defend his vote against the bill.
Sanders also implicitly criticized Booker for his vote. “The Democratic Party has got to make it very clear that they are prepared to stand up to powerful special interests like the pharmaceutical industry and like Wall Street, and they’re not going to win elections and they’re not going to be doing the right thing for the American people unless they have the guts to do that,” he said. “That 13 Democrats did not is disappointing. I absolutely hope that in the coming weeks and months you’re going to see many of them develop the courage to stand up to Pharma.”
A month later, Booker surprisingly announced that he would be co-sponsoring a drug reimportation bill with Sanders — a major turnaround from the position he held in January.
Booker’s latest move is a sign that the pressure from activists is working. Not only did he reverse his position on the issue, but he also has backed off of fundraising from the industry — although it remains to be seen how long this “pause” will last.
For now, Booker has some awfully strong words for the industry that was once among his biggest backers. “We need to open up transparency and do a lot of things that a lot of these folks who are profiting off the backs of the sick are not going to like,” he said.