The Booths, Jehan and Derrick, have become difference-makers, together and apart.
Derrick Booth and Jehan Gordon-Booth don’t work in the circus. Not officially, anyway, although in their high-profile jobs, some days it may seem so.
Indeed, the husband-and-wife duo from Peoria has become quite adept at juggling. With busy and sometimes far-flung schedules, it’s a necessity.
“There’s no such thing as balance,” Gordon-Booth said. “You make it work.”
Since 2009, much of Gordon-Booth’s work has been in Springfield, where the 41-year-old represents the 92nd District serving the Peoria area in the Illinois House of Representatives. The Democrat was in her 20s when first elected in 2008 and has been rising in the ranks of the Legislature ever since.
A member of the House Black Caucus, Gordon-Booth is now the deputy majority leader in that chamber and speaker pro tempore, leadership positions from which she has crafted and helped enact some significant legislation, including alterations to the criminal-justice reform bill known as the SAFE-T Act. She recently made history by becoming House Democrats’ first Black and female lead budget negotiator.
Gordon-Booth’s husband of almost 11 years, Derrick Booth, 49, has been climbing his own ladder, now serving as director of social and emotional learning at Peoria Public Schools. The program helps local children and adults alike recognize and manage their emotions and channel them into responsible, constructive decision-making, an outgrowth of his previous work as one of the more successful high school basketball coaches in Illinois.
Derrick spent a decade coaching the legendary Manual High School boys’ basketball program, for which he once played. Booth’s teams finished second twice in the Class 2A state tournament (2008 and 2010) and third in Class 3A in 2016.
In a central Illinois that has its share of power couples — Doug and Diane Oberhelman come to mind, as do Andrew Rand and Sid Ruckriegel, among others — the Booths certainly qualify.
“Daily, they both work within their own sphere of influence on strengthening the weakest links in our community for a more humane, safe, exciting and more robust community and economy,” said Peoria Public Schools Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat.
A basketball beginning
Not surprisingly, perhaps, basketball brought the Booths together.
Derrick was working at a local basketball camp. So was Jehan, as a retention coordinator at Illinois Central College helping students with their class schedules while at camp.
“I was doing that and he was looking at me, and he fell in love,” a laughing Gordon-Booth said.
Booth remembers it a little differently. He gave her his email address — the modern-day version of giving someone your telephone number. She never replied. He didn’t think much about it until a year later at a chance encounter at the River City Soul Fest.
That time, Jehan was carrying a clipboard and gathering signatures for a potential state legislative run.
“I was like, ‘Good luck,’” Derrick said.
Booth had better luck getting his future spouse’s attention this time. She apologized for her initial disinterest.
“Honestly, the first time we met, I was so focused on me and wanting to figure out what I wanted to do,” she said. “I just wasn’t in the space at that time that I wanted to be distracted. And then eventually I decided to run for office.
“It was very funny seeing him a year later. Instinctively, I remembered: That dude gave me his email.”
Tragedy and triumph, together
Both Booths smiled at the memory, a common expression for them. “It makes life pretty good when you can laugh,” Jehan said. “The ability to laugh is like medicine.”
Alas, the laughter hasn’t always come easily.
Less than a year after Gordon-Booth took office and only five days before Christmas 2009, her mother, Annie Jo Gordon, died unexpectedly at age 68. A longtime Peoria Tri-County Urban League worker and community volunteer whose name now adorns a Peoria school building, Jehan’s mother was her rock and others’.
As unexpected and perhaps even more tragic was the May 2014 shooting death of Derrick Booth’s elder son, Derrick “DJ” Booth Jr. A budding chef, the younger Booth was killed during a dispute at a Peoria house party. A local man was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years in state prison.
Meanwhile, the Booths’ 8-year-old daughter, Jianna, suffers from a suspected neurological disorder, said her parents. It waxes and wanes.
The couple has managed to make the best of those personal challenges.
“Sometimes, it’s 10 years later where that pain can be inspiration,” said Jehan, who said she’s found plenty of motivation in her tenure in the Legislature. Part of that lies in her hometown, of which she is an unabashed booster. Helping to grow Peoria’s population is among her priorities, but so is nurturing those who already are in town.
Case in point, a few days before Christmas, Gordon-Booth conducted
“A Mother’s Wish,” her annual effort to assist children who are in foster care or whose parents are incarcerated. As that was taking place, Manual and Peoria High were playing the most recent chapter in their storied basketball rivalry. Derrick Booth couldn’t miss the game. But he also didn’t want to miss an event his wife dedicated to her late mother.
“I put some miles on the car, but I covered my bases,” he said. “It was an awesome event, to see those kids get gifts.”
Such back and forth on behalf of community has typified the Booths’ marriage.
Shared identities, personal ambitions
Derrick Booth said his job involves balancing the needs of the lower and higher levels of the Peoria Public Schools spectrum. Whether those efforts remain in the context of the region’s largest school district may be another question.
“A lot of times, you give attention to the most in need, which is understood, but you can’t forget about those doing well,” Booth said. “One of my purposes in life is … to help people. I know that’s a broad platform, but there are other ways I may be able to do that. And I’m open to seeing what those possibilities can be, to be honest with you.”
As for Gordon-Booth possibly seeking higher political office, she’s not ruling it out or in.
“I had one of the lawyers in Springfield tell me, ‘You really have this love affair going on in your district,’” Gordon-Booth said. “She said, ‘Most of that stuff you do, the community stuff, you don’t have to do it.’ I said, ‘You’re right.’ … But I love doing it. It fills my spirit to be able to do it.
“I think that is always going to be in my DNA. I have a deep love for this community because I feel like it really took a chance on this … 20-something young woman who was like, ‘OK, I’ll serve.’”
Wherever life and career lead them, the Booths earn high praise for what they’ve already accomplished.
“When I think of his life’s work, his greatest strength … is being a connector in our community by leveraging resources with an intentional focus of getting families the help they need and getting students … back on track,” said Desmoulin-Kherat. “In 2018, he created the Wraparound Center to provide basic needs like food, shelter and more complex needs involving behavioral health services and trauma-specific counseling services for struggling families. He is clearly an integral part of Peoria Public Schools’ success.”
As for Gordon-Booth, “she is in a class by herself,” said Desmoulin-Kherat. “At such a young age, she fully understands the dynamics of oppression, poverty, lack of opportunities … She is continuing her mother’s community work of fighting hard for good jobs, increasing the quality of education … (and) protecting justice for the people of our community and all of Illinois.”
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker is also a fan.
“Leader Gordon-Booth always puts working families at the forefront of everything she does, and the people of Illinois and Peoria are lucky to have her representing them,” Pritzker said. “Her work as a legislator, leader and advocate for equity and inclusion is unparalleled, and thanks to many of her legislative successes we are ushering in a new era of hope and progress in Illinois. I’m grateful for her partnership and dedication over the years and look forward to working with her for many more to come.”