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Meet the Kentucky Underdog Giving the Establishment A Run for Its Money

Kentucky Democratic State Senator Charles Booker advocates for the passage of Kentucky HB-12 on the floor of the House of Representatives in the State Capitol, Frankfort, Ky.,on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

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Kentucky Democratic State Senator Charles Booker advocates for the passage of Kentucky HB-12 on the floor of the House of Representatives in the State Capitol, Frankfort, Ky.,on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

For most of the Democratic Senate primary in Kentucky,  the politically moderate former Marine corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath seemed like the odds-on favorite to face Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the general election. 

Few Democrats think of Kentucky as a likely pick-up opportunity, but the conventional wisdom had been that even if McGrath’s chances of defeating McConnell were slim, her fundraising prowess would force him and the Republican Party to play defense in a traditionally red state.

But in recent weeks, as protests against police brutality and systemic racism broke out around the country, and particularly in Kentucky, so too did the candidacy of another Democrat in the race: Charles Booker. 

The progressive African American state representative from Louisville has been a major presence at protests that have swept the state, even in majority-white enclaves. He has marched on behalf of members of his own family who have been murdered in recent years and for victims of police violence like Breonna Taylor, whom he describes as a family friend.

I spoke with Booker last Thursday about the momentum he has seen on the ground, the importance of nominating a candidate who is not a “pro-Trump Democrat,” and how his lived experience has paved the way for this new political reality. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Gideon Resnick: You’ve obviously been in this race for quite some time. But I want to ask how the combined global pandemic that we’re experiencing and this movement against systemic racism and police brutality have really shaped this for you in the past couple of months.

Charles Booker: The issues that I’ve been speaking about: System-level change, addressing poverty at a generational level, addressing the root causes that allow so many Kentuckians to struggle, has really been put to the forefront in this moment. You know, dealing with this pandemic, dealing with the heightened racial tension—everything that is happening in my city and across our commonwealth and across the country—it’s really shined a light on the fact that we need leaders that understand the struggle, understand structural and institutional racism, and are able to build the types of coalitions we need to build to actually push for real change. I’ve stood in the streets for the past couple weeks just really out of necessity. This is my family; the people of Kentucky are my family. Here in Louisville, Breonna Taylor was really close to my family. And we want justice and accountability from the agency that we pay for to protect and serve us but we also want to make sure that we’re addressing the realities that allow all this stuff to even happen and keep happening. More hashtags and more George Floyds and more Ahmaud Arberys and more David McAtees. I think leadership is how you stand up in the moment when you’re needed most and I’ve been able to shine a light and cast a vision forward and the people of Kentucky are rallying behind me and the country is taking note. 

GR: And speaking of the country looking in from the outside, what has it meant to be in a state and in a city where you’re actually witnessing firsthand some of these instances of police brutality and violence that the entire nation, if not the world is talking about? 

CB: This is one of those moments where you can feel the climate changing. You can feel the atmosphere changing. You can feel people and you can see them rising up. I’ve told a lot of folks across Kentucky that right now, the country is looking at us to see how we’re going to respond. How are we going to lead the path forward? 

It’s been tough to run a campaign and deal with all of this pain and trauma. I’m grieving, too. This is hard and it’s exhausting to see loved ones continue to be ripped away from you. And to see the pain and the grief and the mourning that’s happening in the streets where people are literally crying out in the streets because we feel like no one will hear us any other way. I think the powerful part in this that I know the country is seeing now is how we’re coming together. You’re seeing people that are marching from all different backgrounds. This is not just about the pain and the agony of people in communities like mine, people that look like me. It is about our collective understanding that if we don’t take care of one another, if we don’t stand up for one another, things will get worse. Folks from all over Kentucky have been calling me to stand with them, to support them, to show love with them but also to help them see the path forward. That is powerful and we’re ready for real change. The momentum is coming behind my campaign because Kentucky knows we need this. And that’s exactly why we’re going to win this race. 

GR: To that point about the race specifically, what have the spate of recent endorsements signaled to you about where this is going Tuesday? 

CB: We’ve been putting so much work in to build infrastructure, to really connect people to the democratic process. So many people feel left out and ignored and they have thrown their hands up. And Kentucky is a really hard place. We’ve been one of the most disenfranchised states in the country. So we’ve been putting that work in and building this big coalition with volunteers from Appalachia to the Purchase that are just really fired up. But these endorsements are really the sign that the party infrastructure, the national media, folks on the ground, folks in labor, they see it. And they understand and realize this is a moment we can’t miss. I’m proud to see the big broad coalition of support that is growing now. It makes it clear that I’m not doing this to divide. I’m making it clear that this is about Kentucky. It’s not about consultants. It’s not about political games. We are breaking down silos about how we end poverty; that cuts across divides. I think what we’re showing in Kentucky is that you can build the type of coalition you need to push for real structural change and a lot of folks that voted for Trump are supporting me because they think I’m going to fight for them. 

GR: On the policy front, do you think that right now Democrats in Congress are doing enough on the issue of policing? 

CB: No. I do commend the voices that are growing now that are demanding more accountability; that realize that our civil rights should be protected and we should get rid of qualified immunity, that chokeholds and no-knock warrants need to go away. And that we need more tracking and accountability on how our law enforcement agencies are conducting themselves and training themselves. I’m proud of that but we realize that this problem has been going on for generations. We have not fully invested in public safety. What we’ve invested in is a growing budget year in and year out for law enforcement at the local and state level. And at the federal level we have the military-industrial complex. Now we have law enforcement agencies that look like militarized entities that are treating the community like enemy combatants. 

So we have to get to the root which means we have to completely reimagine police and public safety. I do believe that this moment is allowing clarity for so many of us to see that that needs to be done. I’ve been working on this for years. I think now it’s made clear that we can’t ignore that work. We can’t look away from it. Our campaign is leaning in and building a lot of support to get to Washington and get to work. 

GR: And on the process of getting to Washington, Democrats have this dream every single time McConnell is up for reelection that someone is going to beat him. Why is this the year that’s going to happen? 

CB: There’s a lot of things that come into how this moment has formed for Kentucky. The bottom has fallen out for so many people. We’re dealing with the highest unemployment rate in our history. This pandemic has brought so many things to a halt. And the racial tension that we’re seeing now is not new but it’s triggering a response that is new. Because more people are able to see it and connect to it and feel a sense of responsibility to do something about it. All of those things are creating an opportunity for us to stand like we haven’t before. This has been building for some years. The teachers that organized over the last couple of years that I’ve stood with shoulder to shoulder to protect pensions here in Kentucky, even while Mitch McConnell says states should file bankruptcy—we rolled together to get rid of our own mini-Donald Trump in Matt Bevin. The momentum has been growing for real change. We just haven’t had candidates to catalyze it. We haven’t had candidates that will speak the truth with moral clarity and lean in on these issues and take the fight directly to Mitch McConnell to make it clear that this is bigger than him. That’s my message. I live the struggle. I don’t come from money. Both my parents dropped out of high school. Been on food stamps and free lunch, been homeless, my mom and I. I’ve had cousins murdered the last four years, each year. I’m a type-one diabetic. I’ve had to ration my insulin. When I stand up, Kentuckians know that they have someone that understands them, that sees them. That they actually have a chance to vote for somebody they believe in and trust, not against somebody terrible. All of those things are creating this movement. We will beat Mitch McConnell and there’s nothing he can do about it. 

GR: If you talk to voters right now and they’re still deciding who to vote for—either you or Amy McGrath—what would you tell them? 

CB: I would tell them that we have the opportunity to come together and stand past the political status quo. We have the chance to say that DC outsiders, the DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] is not going to tell us all we deserve is a pro-Trump Democrat. We have the chance to stand up against poverty, to stand up against inequity and we have the chance to rally around a candidate in myself who has worked in every level of public service, who has stood up in the halls of Frankfort to fight for them. Who has stood on the picket lines to fight for their rights, who has marched in the streets with students, stood on the tracks with miners and passed legislation in the midst of all this dysfunction to actually help Kentucky’s families stay alive and thrive. We can choose for ourselves now and we’re not going to miss this moment. And I know when they go out to vote, they’re going to vote for me. When we win this race, we will prove that you cannot just buy us off, ignore us, kick us off the cliff and disrespect us. That regular people are standing to win our future and we will.