Mayor Cory Booker speaks to reporters after speaking at a job fair for U.S. military veterans on the campus of Rutgers University on March 13, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A major controversy among the political classes and Democratic power elite erupted this week after Cory Booker, the popular Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press and, in an unscripted moment, expressed his displeasure about the antics of campaign attack ads “on both sides.”

The tone, pitch and content of his statement would have gone relatively unnoticed by mainstream media outlets but for the fact that Booker is a widely-respected, and hugely popular, African-American politician, and an official surrogate of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

The comments came on the heels of questions specifically related to a newly launched Obama campaign commercial, which questions Mitt Romney’s veracity on “job creation” during his tenure as CEO of Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded and is responsible for the vast portion of his $250 million fortune. The ad features former steel workers of GTS Steel in Indiana, a company Bain Capital acquired, but subsequently dismantled, laying-off workers, loading the company with debt and forcing it into bankruptcy. Romney and Bain executives reaped profits, but workers lost their health insurance and pensions.

Meet the Press moderator David Gregory had asked Booker to respond to the controversy surrounding the ad, which Romney called an example of “character assassination,” and to recently uncovered evidence that a GOP-aligned Super PAC had received a $10 million investment from billionaire and TD Ameritrade founder, Joe Ricketts, and had fielded a proposal to wage a race-baiting war against President Obama, using his former pastor Rev Jeremiah Wright as political fodder.

Booker opined that he found the entire situation “nauseating,” and he went on to defend the practices of Bain as being beneficial to job creation and an example of how capitalism works, both at its best and at its worst.

Immediately, the blogosphere went viral with Booker’s comments. Democrats and Liberals were livid, under an assumption Cory was conflating the two ad campaigns as equally distasteful. “How could, he?” They asked. “And he’s African-American?!” Republicans, meanwhile, were excited. Naturally, they ignored Booker’s distaste for the race-baiting tactics of a GOP Super Pac, and focused their delight at the idea of one of Obama’s closest allies making their argument for big business and an unbridled free market.

The official GOP seized the moment by immediately establishing a website and fundraising campaign under the banner “I Stand With Cory,” which Booker repudiated in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

As a native of Newark, and a graduate of Yale, where Booker also studied, I have known him for many years. So I asked the mayor if he’d be willing to discuss the controversy with me and theGrio. Here is Cory Booker in his own words.

theGrio: How do you feel about the revelations that the GOP Super Pac intended to use Rev. Jeremiah Wright in a race-baiting campaign against the President? You were criticized by liberal media for a false equivalency. Please speak to that.

Cory Booker: There is no equivalence and that wasn’t my intention. Further, the negative Super Pac usage of Rev. Wright is exactly what I was lashing out against on MTP. The Super Pacs will drive the level and volume of negativity in our public discourse to new extremes, obscuring critical dialogue about the substantive issues and challenges facing our nation. And the racially charged attacks on the president should be unacceptable in our national politics – it is dangerous and damaging to us all in a way that is plainly insidious.

How would you clarify the comments you made on Meet the Press?

The point I was making is that the level of rancor and negativity in our discourse has become so loud that it drowns out the most important issues. The real question is how we focus. When attacks become over broad and lack any nuance, and lack the truth-telling that’s really important, we lose the ability to argue salient points. When we start to attack individuals or large segments in our society we begin to get away from what’s truly important: ordinary people. Hard-working Americans.

What do you say to those who say you were speaking politically? Either because you wish to be Senator one day or that as Mayor of Newark—in the state of New Jersey where many Wall Street bankers live—you have been courting private equity and investment banker donations?

I’ve been fighting this fight in Newark for a long time. If people have a cynical view of what I do, as some sort of desire to climb the political ladder quickly, they must be kidding themselves. Anybody who looks at the political challenges I’ve taken on to serve the community I love, knows this has not been easy. After law school, there where are many paths I could have chosen. The people that are criticizing me seem to have amnesia.
For the city I serve, and those like it, I believe the urban narrative has not been sufficiently a part of the national conversation. And when we focus on partisan rancor, we continue to ignore those who are most vulnerable. Look at what I’ve done for the last 15 years of my life. Look at where my dedication and where my focus is. My focus has been on Newark. And the people of Newark. Not Wall Street.

Have there been any private equity firms investing in jobs programs in Newark? Do you court that community?

None that I’m aware of. But there are thousands of companies in Newark and likely they have received private equity money. Private equity guys have made philanthropic donations in Newark to cover things from prisoner re-entry programs to public safety technology. But, no, I don’t court. I work hard to deliver results.

What do you say to those who have questioned your loyalty to President Obama’s campaign or the Democratic Party? Especially many who think your voice may be less effective as a surrogate?

President Obama is providing the strongest leadership in dealing with the issues in my community. From access to health care, to access to education, to job creation, Obama is right for Newark and America. This is why I’ve supported Obama since his early days in 2007 and will continue to support him now and through his entire second term. And, yes, he will have a second term. My loyalties are clear.

What do you say to Republicans who are attempting to co-opt your words as a justification for their own political goals?

My message to the Romney campaign and the GOP is this: I stand with President Obama and in answer to their silly website: if you “stand with me,” you would stand for health care that doesn’t try to turn the clock back on women. If you “stand with me,” you would stand for making a college education more affordable and accessible to hard working students. If you “stand with me,” you would stand for marriage equality for gay and lesbian Americans. If you “stand with me,” you would stand for stopping the flood of special interest cash that Citizens United let loose and that is drowning out the legitimate debate we so desperately need.

Most of all, if you really “stand with me” and want a serious discussion you would take down this intellectually dishonest and completely hypocritical ad campaign and admit you have missed the entire point of what I said.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a columnist, political analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.