Chester County Leadership: Debbie Bookman, Democratic Candidate for Chester County Prothonotary and City of Coatesville Councilperson

By
Debbie Bookman

Debbie Bookman, the Democratic candidate for Chester County Prothonotary and a member of Coatesville’s City Council, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in Brooklyn, the lessons on hard work she learned from her parents, who grew up poor in the Caribbean, her interest in music and drama, and what drew her to Chester County.

Bookman also discussed her entry into politics, why she’s running for Prothonotary, and her experiences on the campaign trail.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up, Debbie?

I was born the second of four children in St. John’s Episcopal Hospital and grew up in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn, New York. 

What did your parents do?

My mother was a Registered Nurse for 47 years and my dad worked as a pilot for Pan Am and British Airways. Before I was born, he had a very terrible motorcycle accident in his late 20’s, which forced him to quit his job and do extensive rehabbing. He had to re-learn how to walk, talk, read, and write all over again. The doctors did not feel he would ever recover 100%.

When he did, he had a life-changing moment and wanted to go into the ministry. It was very rough on him, but he didn’t give up. His miracle, which he called it many times, was a testimony for him before he came to be a minister.

When you say you get your foundation from him, what do you mean by that?

Just that story about how he overcame all odds. He is a very driven man. He always thirsted for knowledge and never took anything as it was. He always wanted to know why.

My parents are from St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean. They both grew up poor. My dad used to wash down airplanes as his job. He would watch the mechanics when he was little boy, and they would chase him away, but he’d always come back.

At night, when the mechanics left, he would go take things apart and put them back together. He taught himself to be a mechanic. The foreman caught him one day and was so impressed with his work that he took him under his wing as an apprentice. From there, he worked his way up the ranks before British Airways hired him and then Pan Am.

What memories do you have of growing up in Brooklyn Heights?

As a child, being in church all the time! We lived above the church, so we had to be a good example of preacher kids! Some of my best friends growing up in the church are still my friends today. My parents are Caribbean, so our heritage was very much instilled in us kids. With my parents both growing up poor, they both worked very hard to get what they had and showed my siblings, and I want it means to appreciate what you have.

Did you play any sports when you were younger?

I tried out for the softball team and for track. I never played on the teams, but I never made it past tryouts.

What did you excel at when you were a kid?

Music and drama! I sang in the choir starting at age seven. I played the flute in music class, and one day, my music teacher said that because I like to talk a lot, I should be in the choir.

There was a program that Julliard was running, and my music teacher told my parents to take me to an audition. My dad wouldn’t take me because he wanted me to be a doctor, so he refused to take me! My music teacher took three students, myself included, to the audition on a “class trip.” I got into the Julliard program, but I was never able to go because my dad said there wasn’t a future for me in music.

When I grew up and understood the magnitude of Julliard, I asked my dad if he was crazy! I always thought I was born to sing and act, so I was angry with my dad for a while after that.

How did you get into drama?

I acted in church plays, including the church’s the Easter and Christmas plays. In high school, I was in a spin-off comedy which I wrote called “Little House on PS-91,” which was my school.

What kind of music were you listening to back then?

I loved the voice and sound of Billie Holiday. Whitney Houston was another favorite of mine because of her range. I love Phil Collins and Freddie Mercury too. I have a wide range of music taste! This month, I’m going to the Queen reboot concert. I wish Freddie were there.

Did you have any jobs growing up?

No! My dad always felt that education was most important so the children would go to school and he would provide for us. My first job was not until I was in college in 1991. I worked in the library at my college.

Where did you go to college?

Hunter College in the City. After middle school, I had to apply to high school. I applied to two schools -both performing arts schools. My dad would not let me attend either school, so I went to my zone school, which at the time was considered an extremely bad high school. We had to walk through metal detectors to get in.

When it was time for college, I said I would go to whatever college takes me. My sister was going to Hunter College, so I figured I would go there. Since my dad wouldn’t let me be in performing arts, and I didn’t want to be a doctor, I begrudgingly went to Hunter. I majored in history, which I absolutely loved.

You didn’t finish at Hunter College, right? 

I moved out of my parent’s house and left Hunter. I was living on my own and thought I knew what was best for me. I ended up having my first daughter at twenty-two. I attempted to go back to school, but it was a struggle being a single mom living in New York City. I had a few jobs in that time. I was a telemarketer for a while before going to cosmetology school. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, but I knew I wanted to do something because my daughter Alexandra depended on me.

During that time, I got pregnant with my second daughter. I ended up in a terrible domestic violence situation. In an attempt to leave that behind and give my children a life, I moved to Pennsylvania.

How did you end up in Chester County?

We had a church bus, and my dad was friends with George Krapf, Sr. As a child, my parents would take the bus to Downingtown for oil changes and other repairs. I felt a connection to Downingtown and figured I would move there. I moved to the Fairways in Thorndale.

I got a job at HUP in Philadelphia as the executive admin for the Chief of Plastic Surgery. I had a fifth-grader and a three-year-old at the time. My fifth grader would put herself on the bus and get herself off. I would drop my youngest off at the babysitter in the mornings and pick her up in the evenings. After nine months in this position, I felt like I was missing out on my children’s life. I ended up getting a job in Exton after that to be closer to my children.

Did you get back to college after that?

I did not get back to college until 2012. My daughter Alexandra was graduating from high school and told me that even though I work hard, I need a degree to get the paycheck I wanted. I listed off all the things I needed to do to ensure they were taken care of. My daughter looked at me and said, “mom, you can be anything you want to be.” That propelled me to get moving on finishing my education.

I enrolled in Delaware County Community College because they had a hybrid online and in-class program. When I finished there, I went on to Wilmington University, and finally completed my education in Organizational Management in December 2017. After the election, I plan on going back for my Master’s in public health.

Who were the people who helped you get you to where you are today?

When I was in New York, right before I moved to Pennsylvania, I worked for Dr. Richard Bruno, the Vice President of the Emergency Department at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Dr. Bruno would attend risk management and quality meetings. Afterward, we would talk about them. After a while, he invited me to the meetings and encouraged me to participate. I was sitting with CEOs and Directors, and I began learning the medical language. My dad was proud!

What did Dr. Bruno see in you, Debbie?

I think Dr. Bruno saw my potential and care for people. He felt that I would make an amazing nurse and more than just an executive admin. Doctors can be a little detached, but nurses give a lot of one-on-one care.

Who else helped you along the way?

My younger brother Paul Forbes who I look to as an older brother. He was born extremely smart and driven, and he is a used inspiration to me. When he talks, it makes me want to go and learn more on my own.

I am the only one of the four of us who is married with children. The rest of my siblings are married to their jobs. My sister is a principal in an East Harlem school. My brother is the director of a mentoring program called ESI (Expanded Success Initiative), which Mayor Bloomberg initially funded out of his own pocket.

How did you get into politics?

In 2011, my now-husband lost his son to gun violence in Coatesville. I met him a few months after his son’s death. During that time, I had come out of a domestic violence situation where myself and my older daughter were stabbed multiple times by my ex. When we met, we realized we had a lot of healing to do, and wanted to do it together. We saw the kids in Coatesville and their struggles, and we wanted to give back to them and the City.

We joined the Parks and Recreation Commission, which needed to be slightly resurrected at the time. I was approached by community members to run for City Council, which I thought was crazy because I didn’t even have a degree at the time! I went to a few meetings and decided to run.

I didn’t know that I had to submit my documents to Voter Services as well as the City. The incumbent found out that I had not submitted all the proper paperwork to the City, and she took me to court to be removed from the ballot.

I was devastated, and once again, my daughter said, “show them you can do it. And if you don’t win, show them how much you tried.” She was right! In 2017, my husband and I went to events, knocked doors, and mounted a winning write-in campaign. We beat everyone on the ballot. I was still in school full-time, so the victory was just that much more important to me.

I was learning about local politics as I went to the meetings. I was speaking with a leader of the Democrats in Coatesville when she told me she wanted me to run for Prothonotary. She told me the seat was made for me.

I thought back to my experience in the Prothonotary’s office. When I moved here, I went to get a PFA from the Prothonotary, and I remember the woman in the office, unable to help me. She pointed me to the law library, where again, a woman told me she could not give me any legal advice. After two hours, I walked out of the courthouse, defeated with no PFA.

I didn’t know anything about the office when I was asked to run. I know Matt Holliday, the current Prothonotary, has made some changes, but I know I can come in that office and make a difference. I believe in the continuum of care. I look at other county’s, and there are so many links to resources. I have networked and created many relationships with these groups that help people, and I think I can extend those resources to those who need in Chester County.

I understand what those people are going through because that was me. I know what it’s like to not be able to pay for certain things and made hard decisions. I’ve been taken to court. I understand what it’s like. I want people to say, “because of Debbie Bookman, I know I can be somebody.” That’s why I’m running.

What has been the best experience you’ve had on the campaign trail so far?

Canvassing. I didn’t think I would like going door-to-door, but I’ve met incredible people across the county. They invite me in and want to talk to somebody. It’s been so rewarding to meet these people.

What’s the biggest surprise of the campaign thus far?

Honestly, the depth that people will go to discourage you. I’ve had some experiences that I think if I weren’t the person I am, I would have dropped out of the race. Some people did not believe I would win the Primary. I got 75% of the vote without an endorsement.

Why do you think you were able to gain such a large majority in the Primary?

I think people saw me and felt my passion. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to help someone. I believe this opportunity is the gateway to do more advocacy for those who do not have a voice. People saw my raw honesty and authenticity.

What do you and your husband do in your free time?

What free time? Ha! This year, we agreed that we would make sacrifices for this election. If I work for it and don’t get it, at least I can say I did my best. When we aren’t campaigning, we like to travel, especially to the Caribbean. We sit and listen to music, watch comedies, talk. We like to spend quality time with one another and with our chidren.

I’m very busy with Coatesville City Council, and I’m very active on the Board of the CYWA. We just made some critical leadership changes, which was not an easy process. It’s been a month, and we have moved mountains. I am so excited about the future of the CYWA. We will have sustainable, effective programs, and do the work that was intended to be done.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten? 

When I was nine years old, my dad said, “Learn as if you live forever and live as if you die tomorrow.” We were sitting around our dining room table reading the Bible, and he said that. At that time, I didn’t understand it, but as we grew older, it set in. I catch myself saying it to my kids now, and I laugh because now I have seen it through life experiences. I want to do as much as I can to leave footprints on my life and other’s lives.

Editor’s Note: Vista Today will publish Republican Candidate for Chester County Prothonotary Matt Holliday’s leadership profile on Thursday.

Publisher’s Note: Laura Wagoner contributed to this leadership profile.

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