WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Travel with Sen. Cory Booker and it will quickly become apparent that he has family in nearly every politically important state for a presidential candidate. His mother lives in Nevada. There’s the uncle from North Carolina, and a cousin in Florida.
In Iowa, the most important state to Booker’s campaign, it’s a little different: More than 80 family members live in the Des Moines area.
“I’ve got a very intimidating front row here,” Booker said on Tuesday at a rally in West Des Moines. About a dozen cousins sat a few feet from him, clad in campaign gear. One of them, Marv Allen, rose to ask a question, though he didn’t quite hold his cousin’s feet to the fire.
As the residents of Iowa prepare for an autumnal deluge of out-of-state presidential aspirants chomping pork tenderloin sandwiches and touring farms to claim a slice of the Hawkeye spirit, the senator from New Jersey can, through his relatives, come as close as any candidate in recent memory to an enviable distinction: local.
His many Iowan relatives, who span the political spectrum but have all pledged to support him, give Booker a unique network of organizational support in the essential early state.
Early on in the primary calendar, with high expectations and a two-decade political career that observers have long viewed as destined for a run for the presidency, Booker attracted key Iowa political operatives and quickly hired 50 paid staff members in the state.
Since then, his campaign has basically flatlined, regularly polling just above the margin of error and rarely experiencing the surges of small-dollar donations that drive growth. (One exception: when Booker’s campaign said it would fold without pulling in an extra $1.7 million by the end of the last quarter. It succeeded.)
Better-funded campaigns, like those of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have now passed his in numbers of paid staff members in Iowa. (Booker’s Iowa staff members are particularly dedicated, though; multiple organizers have gotten tattoos of the campaign slogan “We Rise,” written in Booker’s handwriting.)
So, as his candidacy hinges on a top showing in Iowa, Booker’s relatives have doubled as super supporters. They have hit phone banks and lobbied their friends for donations, shown up in great numbers at state Democratic Party events and frequented the Urbandale field office.
“We go there weekly,” said Lori Young, a cousin who works as a community organizer in the area.
“And we’ll often run into each other at events,” said another cousin, Lizz Sharpe.
“Well, Lizz is the one who is on top of everything, notifying everyone in the family anytime something is going on,” said Paula Morris, the daughter-in-law of Booker’s Aunt Alma. “She’s got the phone chain.”
For nearly a century, the Booker clan in the Des Moines area answered to Aunt Alma. She was the unquestioned matriarch, and a big supporter of Booker, hosting him and dozens of cousins during his first swing through the state as a presidential candidate.
“I still remember one of my favorite times, when my Aunt Alma came out wearing her crown at a big Black Caucus event,” Booker said in an interview. “When I stood there speaking to everybody, having my family there in the front row, it really made me feel like I was at home.”
Aunt Alma died this summer, at age 100, but Sharpe and the rest of the cousins have continued the effort.
“When we buried my Aunt Alma, and the family was all in a small black church, it’s special,” Booker said, adding that it was “spiritually uplifting” to be surrounded by so many relatives.
“I won’t deny that I have an incredible amount of committed people to caucus for me right off the bat, and their circle of friends, and they’ve been just great spokespeople for me for really my entire career,” he said.
Sharpe recalled Booker’s visit more than 20 years ago to his Aunt Shirley’s house in West Des Moines, when he first told his grandparents and Iowa cousins about his plan to run for Newark City Council.
“They were just stunned,” Sharpe said. “And I remember I ran back to the bedroom, got my purse, and I grabbed $50. And I came back and I said, ‘I want to be the first one to donate to your campaign.’ And just as soon as I said that, the grandparents and everybody just came alive. And they were like, ‘Oh yes, we’ll donate too!’”
It soon became a family-wide effort. At a family reunion in 2000, after he had been elected to the City Council, Booker had to fill in as a speaker at the church after the mayor of Des Moines canceled at the last minute. Many of his extended family members, unaware that the former football star had political chops, were converted.
“We took up a collection,” Young said with a chuckle. “I don’t know how much we collected, but we passed the bucket.”
Though they all live in the Des Moines area, the cousins make an effort to follow Booker around the state. Marva Frazier-Baggett, who lives in Des Moines, said she was known as the “traveling cousin.” She regularly Googles “where is my cousin Cory Booker” and travels to see him if she can.
In June, she attended the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame dinner. “Kamala came up to me in Cedar Rapids, face to face, and smiled and said, ‘How are you?’” Frazier-Baggett said, referring to another candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California. “I said, ‘I’m Cory’s cousin!’ And then she just left.”
Booker’s relatives share his penchant for peppering inspirational sayings throughout their everyday speech. In a group interview with six of them after Booker’s rally, they seamlessly worked aphorisms like “people have the power” and “your voice is more expensive than what money can buy” into their responses.
That shared communication style is evidence of their family ties.
“Once the genes are in there, they’re in there,” Sharpe said. “It doesn’t matter — first, second, third, fourth cousin — because the genes are there.”
Booker’s Iowa roots date to the early 1900s, when his great-great-grandmother, Adeline McDonald, fled the oppression of Alabama with her 10 children to settle in Buxton, a town in southeastern Iowa founded in 1900 by Consolidation Coal Co.
The company was known to pay workers of all races equally and offered integrated housing. The town of Buxton, where, in addition to mining, black people worked as teachers, small-business owners and as justice of the peace, was commonly known as “the black man’s utopia in Iowa,” according to “Lost Buxton,” a book about the town by Rachelle Chase.
For two decades, African-Americans worked alongside European immigrants in the coal mines, as the town’s population bloomed to 5,000. Yet the mines were stripped dry by about 1920 and the town evaporated, leaving little evidence of its place in history but a small cemetery. The residents scattered, and the Bookers moved to the Des Moines area.
It’s a historical anecdote Booker tells often in his stump speech, a personal example of how the higher ideals of love and unity that he campaigns on have actually worked in the past.
“Why am I running for president?” Booker said in Boone, Iowa, on Tuesday. “It’s because I believe in that. That’s the story I heard growing up. That’s who I know we are.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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