Cory Booker won’t say if he’s running for governor of New Jersey, but when I ask if he’s going to challenge Republican governor Chris Christie next year at the Democrats’ LGBT caucus meeting Thursday afternoon, he answers with a nervous laugh.

Booker, the popular 43-year-old Democratic mayor of Newark, isn’t so coy in his address to the few hundred gay Democratic activists here. He praises Democratic state senator Loretta Weinberg’s efforts to pass a gay marriage bill through the New Jersey legislature.

“If God is willing, I will be there on that day as that bill is signed,” Booker says. Then he pauses and breaks into a smile. “I might even have a very good seat when it gets done.”

The crowd knows what that means, and they start chanting: “Cory! Cory! Cory!”

Booker is undoubtedly a rising star in the party. When he enters the caucus room moments before his speech, the crowd immediately begins whispering excitedly. Someone shouts out, “It’s Cory Booker!”

The young, black, affable mayor of New Jersey’s most populous city is well known for his direct engagement with constituents on Twitter and his heroic exploits—Booker recently garnered national news headlines after rescuing a woman from a burning building. He’s also regarded by some as a business-friendly, centrist-leaning Democrat. That was demonstrated by his appearance this past May on NBC’s Meet the Press, when Booker criticized the Obama campaign’s attack on Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capital, calling one ad “nauseating.”

“I’m not about to sit here and indict private equity,” Booker said then. “If you look at the totality of Bain Capital’s record, they’ve done a lot to support businesses who’ve grown businesses.”

But on social issues involving the gay community, Booker appears squarely in the progressive camp of the party. In his speech to the LGBT caucus, he refers to his hope that New Jersey will “join the states of enlightenment to pass marriage equality” and connects the legacy of the civil rights movement to the current fight for gay rights.

“It was Americans, black and white, Christian and Jew, gay and straight, that went down and marched with Martin Luther King,” Booker says. “We all were there once. There was a time when Irish would face signs that said, ‘no Irish need apply.’ There was a time when Jews would see signs, ‘No Jews or dogs allowed in the store.’ And there was a time when Latinos were treated as a second-class citizen…I’ve seen what happens in Sikh mosques when bigotry and hatred is allowed to go unfurled and unfettered.”

“Hatred is hatred,” Booker continues. “Bigotry is bigotry. And we need to wake up America to understand that inequality is inequality.”

The audience is on its feet frequently while Booker speaks—more so than for fellow LGBT caucus speakers Jill Biden, Hilda Solis, and Al Franken. The excitement in the room ratchets down to near silence as Booker recites lines from a Langston Hughes poem, with one strategic edit.

“Oh, let America be America again,” Booker says. “The land that never has been yet. The land where everyone is free: the poor man, the Indian, the Negro, and the LGBT.” The crowd leaps to their feet again.

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