Cory Booker strode into a Boulder City living room packed with 4th of July revelers, thanked his hosts, said hi to a baby and made it all of one minute and 16 seconds before mentioning that his mom, Carolyn, lives here.
“I hope people here will be involved in supporting my efforts here in Nevada,” the New Jersey senator urged the sitting-room-only crowd, framed by a picture window overlooking Lake Mead. “My mom, who lives in Vegas, would be very happy about that.”
Booker’s first memory of Las Vegas is playing Zaxxon and Donkey Kong at Circus Circus with quarters given to him by his grandparents during a cross-country road trip in a beat-up Winnebago they called the Green Dream. The neon-drenched city seemed like a “Mecca heaven” to him as a kid, Booker recalled in a recent interview, but now he thinks of it as home.
His aunt and uncle live here. His grandparents, who had lived in Los Angeles, were one of the first families to buy into one of the Del Webb communities; his grandmother helped found the local chapter of the Urban League. His parents moved here in 2013.
“This is where I had Thanksgiving meals, Christmas meals,” he said. “My mom was the last of the siblings to move out here.”
Now a Democratic presidential candidate, Booker isn’t shy about touting his familiarity with the Silver State. He's been here seven times since 2018 with his eye on winning the state’s first in the West caucus, held just after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Those seven visits leave him tied with California Sen. Kamala Harris and one visit shy the state’s most frequent visitor, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro
A win in Nevada can cement frontrunner status for a candidate who scores an early victory in Iowa or New Hampshire, or it can buoy a candidate who finished strong, but just short of the top spot in the first two states, by showing his or her ability to appeal to a much more diverse electorate. (Nevada’s population is 29 percent Hispanic, 10.1 percent black and 9.5 percent Asian American and Pacific Islander; in Iowa and New Hampshire, roughly nine in 10 people are white.)
“Nevada is the first state that really reflects the grand diversity of this nation. You have urban and rural. You have cities and suburbs. You have racial diversity, religious diversity. This is really a gateway to the country in terms of the early primary states,” Booker, 50, said. “As the third contest in this election, it's very, very important to me.”
But Booker admits that his frequent trips to the state from the East Coast are made easier by the fact his mom lives here and his girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson, lives in nearby Los Angeles.
“Let's just say I get double points if I come here,” Booker said.
On the ground here when he visits, Booker is eager to show his understanding of Nevada. Like other candidates, he opposes the construction of a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain and has voiced support for the gaming industry, including preserving the future of online gambling. But in Boulder City, he also laid into rural broadband access issues, the lack of rail service in the West, and the state’s public education system, which routinely ranks at or near the bottom of national rankings.
“You can't have the pursuit of happiness if in a 21st century global knowledge-based society you have — and I hate to call out Nevada, I feel like I can do it because my mom lives here — but you can't have that if you underfund education,” Booker said.
It’s a familiarity he gets, he said, from conversations around the dinner table with his mom, who lives in a retirement community in Summerlin.
“When I go down to dinner with her, I hear current events here everywhere,” Booker said, seated in an armchair beside his mom at her apartment. “I have known about current events from the perspective of senior citizens who live very passionately. I feel like I know the local issues here.”
But Booker attributes his overall approach to politics — exemplified, in one instance, by the 10-day hunger strike he went on as a Newark city councilman to prompt conversation about drug problems and lack of basic public services in his community — to the lessons he learned at his childhood dinner table.
“Growing up — James Baldwin said this — children are never good at listening to their elders but they never fail to imitate them,” Booker said. “My mom did sit-ins. My mom helped organize the March on Washington ... I would hear it at my dinner table, sexism and racism and about all the things they were experiencing. But the way my parents dealt with it, modeled it, was always with this idea of love.”
Carolyn Booker’s story begins in Detroit — where she was born and where her son will return later this month for the second round of Democratic presidential debates — long before there were children or a kitchen table at which to teach them. She was the middle child of three, with a dad who worked on the assembly lines at the Ford factory and was a union organizer and a mom who ran the family’s small businesses.
When she was little, the family moved to Monroe, Louisiana — where her grandmother lived — because of her father’s health issues, which were exacerbated by the cold climate. There, her father finished his college degree, her mom worked as a school teacher and Carolyn attended elementary school in the segregated south. Had they stayed, she would have attended Monroe Colored High School; as it was, when her father finished his degree, the family moved out west to Los Angeles, where she graduated from Manual Arts High School.
As a kid, Carolyn watched her 4’10”, 86-pound mom struggle to meet height and weight requirements to get a job. But her mom eventually got an entry level position with the federal government and eventually rose to executive management, while her dad ended up as chief of the Bureau of Apprenticeship standards for the state of California.
The work wasn’t just on the weekdays either. Her parents owned rental property, and her dad spent his weekends doing maintenance on the apartments and fixing up the rooms for new tenants.
“It's kind of one of those stories where you start from the bottom rebuilding a life you hadn't anticipated and were able to bring you and yourself into the middle class,” Carolyn, now 79, said.
When the kids grew up, left the house and started having kids of their own, they took on the responsibilities of grandparents, including taking Booker and his older brother Cary on cross-country trips. Each grandchild had a specific assignment: One read the map, one kept account of the expenses, one was on lunch duty, and one would make dinner reservations.
“They played a big role in raising my brother and I,” the senator said, adding that the two trips he took with his grandparents helped “shape my understanding of America.”
At home around the dinner table, Carolyn and her husband, also named Cary, shared their stories from their work at IBM, where they were among the first black executives. She worked in human resources, helping employees who were having problems in the workplace or those who managers wanted to fire and didn’t believe they had been treated fairly.
“The kitchen table conversation would be about somebody being unjustly fired or somebody refusing to work for a woman,” the senator said. “It was really planting seeds for me that I didn't realize would blossom in the future.”
But Carolyn was intentional in the way she helped her son translate those workplace lessons to the classroom.
“Our philosophy was, we can always step in and go up to the school, but would you like to try to handle this yourself first with this teacher or this coach and see if you can work the problem? And then we'd talk about things they might try to do and try to say,” Carolyn said. “If you can handle it how much better equipped in life will you be to handle anything that comes along and to represent yourself well.”
Case in point: One day when Booker was in elementary school, Carolyn came home to find bicycles scattered in the yard. When she opened the door, a little boy answered and told her, “Mrs. Booker, don't you worry about a thing. We're going to take care of this.” In the family room, she found her son and his friends making posters and signs. When she pulled her son aside to ask what had happened, he told her, “Mom, it's just not fair. It's just not.”
It turned out that his teacher had promised to take anyone who aced a test to California with him. A young Booker, eager to see his grandparents in Los Angeles, had done exactly that. But his teacher docked him one point for leaving his last name off.
“He tells me this story, and I said, ‘Cory, time out. Let's just be realistic, you know that there's no way that he can take you to California,’” Carolyn said. “I said, ‘Why don't — before you all picket and have the whole school in the newspaper — why don't you just try talking to your teacher and expressing yourself and letting him know the reality here? Maybe there's something else — a party for the class or something like this — that he can hold.”
She said she dropped by the classroom on her way to work the next morning to give his teacher a heads up.
“I'm not upset. It's a great learning opportunity for all of the kids, but they're passionate about what's right,” she remembers telling the teacher. “Here's a perfect opportunity for you as an adult to just admit to these kids that you went too far. Your heart was in the right place to get them to study, but you kind of took it a little too far. You have to apologize to them and offer them something else, and I think you might be willingly surprised that what they're looking for is fairness."
(Carolyn is pretty sure the class ended up having the party; her son can’t remember.)
But Carolyn and her husband had their own — and larger — struggles for fairness, too.
In 1969, the year after the passage of the Fair Housing Act and the year Booker was born, the couple was looking to buy a house in a small town with good schools in New Jersey, but they were told it wasn’t for sale. With the help of the Fair Housing Council, a white couple impersonating the Bookers in a sting operation visited the house — which was indeed for sale — and put in an offer on it, securing the house for the family. (In his retelling, Booker often notes that a real estate agent sicced a dog on his father and punched his father’s lawyer when he realized his family was black, but the law was on their side.)
The senator said that, as a kid, he watched his parents assert their dignity “in a time when people were trying to strip them” of it.
“My father had this idea that there's two ways to go through life — as a thermometer or a thermostat,” he said. “They didn't just reflect the temperature around them, but really were changing the temperature, changing the climate, changing the environment.”
The story of his parents’ struggle to purchase a house as a black couple in a white neighborhood is now at the core of the senator's stump speech for president.
“Back 50 years ago, they would show up and a real estate agent would see a black family, and they would lie to my parents,” he told the Boulder City crowd. “You want to know what I’m about? Growing up at an American table with American parents telling me, ‘Hey we worked hard, but we got here because of the people that understood that patriotism is about love, and even though we were a different race and in some cases a different religion, Americans stood up for you.’”
The Las Vegas years
After years of visiting family for the holidays, the Bookers decided to move to Las Vegas in 2013. Booker’s grandmother, who was living here, was in her 90s. His father had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and they wanted to be close to the Lou Ruvo Center, the outpost of the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas dedicated to the treatment of brain diseases.
The plan, Carolyn said, was for them to be snowbirds and split their time between Las Vegas and Newark.
“The thought of being able to live someplace where your loved one who's going through more difficult challenges is also right there with you, and you can see them on a daily basis, really appealed to us,” she said.
But 48 hours after they moved to Las Vegas — in the middle of Booker’s primary campaign in a special election for the U.S. Senate — the unthinkable happened. His father had a stroke. Carolyn told her son that his father would want him to keep campaigning and win the primary, and that he could come out to visit between the primary and general elections. So Cary had a different visitor: then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“I'm not even the Democratic nominee, and I get this call from Harry Reid who said, ‘I hear your father's fallen ill. Where is he? What hospital?’” the then-mayor of Newark recalled. “He came to visit him, sat by my dad's bedside, called me to reassure me that he was doing all right. As soon as Harry Reid comes to the hospital and visits you, everybody there is suddenly very, very attentive.”
Reid, in an interview, said he would’ve expected Booker to do the same.
“If it had been reversed and he had come to wherever my dad was and visited my dad, I would’ve felt pretty good about that,” said Reid, who remains in regular touch with Booker’s mother and aunt.
Carolyn also said that Reid brought her husband two books — both written by Reid.
“He said, ‘If you need to get some rest, try reading one of these. It'll put you to sleep,’” she said.
Reid said that’s one of his standard lines — “only because it’s true.”
(Booker said the best compliment Reid ever paid to him was informing him of the results of an informal survey he had conducted of people who work in the Capitol — “the people that folks don't pay attention to” — of who the nicest person in the Senate was. Reid told him that everyone had told him it was Booker. “He stuck out his hand [and] he said, ‘Keep being nice,’” Booker said. “I said, ‘Okay, Harry.’”
Reid said some senators can be “obnoxious” to the young Senate pages, but not Booker. “To have a senator pat them on the back and say, ‘Where are you from?’ talk to them just for a minute, boy that means a lot to those young men and women,” Reid said. “They can call home and say, ‘I had Senator Booker talk to me today.’”)
Booker’s family didn’t sit idly by in the community, either. At 90, his grandmother, Adeline Jordan, helped found the local chapter of the Urban League. His uncle and aunt, Limuary “Butch” and Marilyn Jordan, have served in various community organizations including the local chapter of the Links and the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. His uncle is even neighbors with Gov. Steve Sisolak in Las Vegas.
Booker said he knew his family had “gone native” when his grandmother got upset at President Barack Obama for saying that corporations using federal bailout dollars shouldn’t “take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer’s dime.”
“I said, ‘I know things are bad when the 90-something-year-old black woman is mad at the black president for dissing this town,’” he said.
But Booker said he feels like he has been pulled into the Las Vegas community in a “great way” since he was first elected mayor of Newark.
“I just love this community,” he said. “It is what my parents told me we should always strive to have in America, is a beloved community.”
Asked whether Nevada’s ties give Booker a leg up among his fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls, Reid said it “certainly doesn’t hurt him.”
At an immigration event last week, Booker was asked whether he’d be back to Nevada. He said he would — because his mom lives here — and that if they have any issues with him, they should let her know. It's a place filled with memories for the senator, including his final days with his father, who passed away six days before his son was elected to the U.S. Senate.
With seven months until the Iowa caucus, Booker admits that he doesn’t even have time to see his mom on every trip out here. But Carolyn said she doesn’t mind sharing him.
“He's got a mission that's very important,” she said. “You teach your kids certain values and certain ways of doing things, and you tell them the sky is the limit. You have no idea where they'll land in that sometimes. Sometimes it's perhaps even more than you anticipated or expect … I'm just proud to be here to see it. I know his father would be proud of him, too.”