Carolyn Booker can’t recall the exact day her son said he was thinking about running for president of the United States, but she remembers what she told him.
She didn’t want to reveal her opinion about what he should do; that was his decision to make. Instead, she quelled his fears about the effect it could have on the family.
“But the biggest thing that you have to do is to know yourself well enough,” she said. “Is this the work you want to continue to be involved in?”
Now, at 79, Carolyn Booker is watching her son, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., campaign for the White House from her apartment in Summerlin, where a family portrait hangs over her bed.
“You know, my mom is one of those people who just believes that service is the rent you pay for living,” the senator told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “And so that became, you know, sort of my life aspiration, is to try to make your life worth something, that you owe a debt you can’t pay back. So every day you’ve got to work to pay it forward.”
A history of activism
Carolyn lived through the civil rights movement and integration. As a student at Fisk University, a historically black school in Nashville, Tennessee, she helped push the fight for civil rights forward.
She kept a watchful eye on the courthouse, where activists were being tried around the clock, she said. When they were jailed, she helped with homework and class notes.
The sound of gunshots on campus was not uncommon, she said. Carolyn also recalled the day civil rights attorney Z. Alexander Looby’s home near campus was bombed.
In the early 1960s, she took a job with IBM, where she and her husband, Cary, were among the tech giant’s first black executives. Leadership was honest. They didn’t know what to do with the Bookers, she said.
“But knowing that integration was coming, they were willing to try to figure it out if we were willing to be the noble experiment to help get them there,” she said.
IBM offered Cary a promotion, and months after Cory’s birth in 1969, the Bookers moved to New Jersey.
While searching for a home, they found one they liked in Harrington Park. When the Bookers went back the following day to visit, they were told the house was not for sale.
“And we just didn’t buy that, so we decided to use the services of the fair housing organization to see if that were true.”
The organization arranged for a white couple to tour the house in a sting operation, eventually leading to the Bookers purchasing the home.
Those experiences influenced the way Carolyn Booker raised her children. They were going to be brought up with love and an understanding of the importance of community. She and her husband wanted them to do things out of respect for others and be able to address their own problems by talking to a variety of people.
“I was raised in a family where I (was) taught that in spite of segregation, which was the law of the land at that particular time, that I had opportunities,” she said. “That I got the opportunity to define who I was and to determine what I wanted to do in life and I could do anything that I wanted to do, OK?”
She passed that along, too.
Carolyn has since watched Cory go from playing football at Stanford to being a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University to graduating from Yale Law School. She watched him climb the ranks from the City Council in Newark to being the city’s mayor and later to the Senate.
And now, he is one of many Democrats on the campaign trail vying to take on President Donald Trump next year.
“It’s, it’s …” Carolyn stammered, breaking into laughter. “Surreal?”
Cory Booker said he was raised seeing his mother’s example of kindness in everyday interactions.
“These are just small things I witnessed on a daily basis growing up, and they’ve really just basically made me who I am today and really inspired me to do the work that I do today, which is about the affirmation of the dignity of all Americans, of all people, and working to have a nation that elevates that dignity and divinity of all people,” he said.
Even in retirement, his mother ran an organization in Atlanta that reunited homeless people with their families, he said.
He recalled the love and acceptance he experienced as he was growing up and also watching his mother give a speech at a fair housing organization. The room was large, and she had a grip on the audience.
“I just remember dreaming that one day maybe I can do something like that,” he said.
The move to Las Vegas
Carolyn and Cary Booker moved to Las Vegas in 2013 in part to give Cary access to medical care for Parkinson’s disease.
“So man plans and God laughs,” Carolyn said. “We were here 48 hours, my husband had a stroke, and that was in July.”
Cary Booker died in October 2013, days before Cory Booker was elected to the Senate.