Kentucky Politics

Former Democratic state Rep. Charles Booker launched his 2022 campaign for U.S. Senate earlier this month. He’s trying to build off his 2020 Senate bid, which was cut short after he narrowly lost to retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath in the primary election.

Booker surged to prominence during racial justice protests last year and created an advocacy organization called “Hood to the Holler,” named after his campaign slogan and attempt to build an urban-rural coalition in the state.

If he wins the Democratic nomination next year, he would likely face Republican incumbent Sen. Rand Paul, who was first elected in 2010 and is running again.

Paul made several appearances in Kentucky ahead of Booker’s campaign announcement, saying he wasn’t worried about Booker’s challenge because he didn’t think Kentuckians would support “defund the police” policies and reparations.

Booker served one term in the state House of Representatives, from 2019 until 2021. He also worked as an analyst for the Legislative Research Commission, as director of administrative services for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, and as a policy analyst for the Louisville Urban League.

You can listen to the full interview here:

Here are some highlights from the conversation:

On what makes this race different than his last one in 2020:

“I’m really inspired this time around because we laid the foundation for what’s possible. In that previous run, a lot of folks didn’t think a coalition of Black, white and brown Kentuckians from Pikeville to the Purchase could really organize and tell a story about unity and hope, even in the midst of a pandemic.

“That fighting spirit is bigger than any one politician, and we’re fighting to transform our future. And folks cannot stand Rand Paul. I mean, honestly, there’s an understanding that our government is not working for us, and every time he opens his mouth he’s making a mockery of us.”

Policy positions:

“The foundation of my platform and my vision for Kentucky is making sure we’re not handing poverty down to the next generation. And I look at that in the holistic sense. Everywhere I go across Kentucky, these same concerns are lifted up. Folks want to make sure they can put food on the table, have a roof over their head, be able to afford their utilities. We’re seeing the stories in Martin County, where the utilities are being raised nearly 12%, folks are turning the faucet on and brown water’s coming out. Making sure we have sustainable infrastructure like internet, broadband, making sure people have good-paying union jobs, that they have financial freedom to invest and own and create. Those are very fundamental for me. 

“The policies I speak to that go to the core of us pulling up the roots of inequity are: Making sure everyone has health care. That’s an economic policy as much as a health care policy. Financial freedom through policies like universal basic income. And dealing with not only saying we need to address our climate crisis and our indices are declining in Kentucky, but I’m going to be rolling out a vision I’m calling a ‘Kentucky New Deal,’ which will speak to addressing our environment, our sustainable infrastructure, building new economies, and also dealing with health in a holistic sense.

“Out of that, we’ll be able to build the foundations of a strong society, strong commonwealth, then as we make democracy mean something, breaking down barriers to the ballot box, we’ll have new leaders. And it all starts right now, and I’m excited to do that work.”

On politics:

“What we’re seeing in our politics, and it’s really painful to see, is we have politicians like Rand Paul that are choosing to stoke fear, to weaponize hate, to use our fears, our concerns, our frustrations against us. And, man, they’re putting down the dog whistles and picking up bullhorns. In my rollout, my launch, Rand Paul sent an email out right after I launched that said he’s running against a ‘racial left candidate.’ I don’t even know what that is. Every time my name is brought up, Rand Paul will say ‘I don’t know who Charles Booker is, but he supports defunding the police and critical race theory and all these things.’ What he’s really trying to do is distract from the fact that he’s done nothing for the people of Kentucky.”

Lessons from recent Democratic losses and Beshear’s 2019 win:

“I give Gov. Beshear a lot of credit for, even in his campaign, investing more and organizing to go to places that have really been ignored for a long time and starting the work of saying we can lift up voices across Kentucky. We can do the work of knocking on every door and talking to our neighbors. We really need to invest in that. We’ve seen a playbook, typically on the Democratic side, where our candidates sort of run away from the deeper structural issues like racism and inequity and don’t really lift up a vision of the future that meets the needs of where people are.

“The thing about what we’re doing now is there has never been a candidate like me, that comes from the struggle, that’s stood in the streets fighting for justice, that’s stood in the halls of government working in a bipartisan way, that can speak about the ills of structural racism, but also talk about how we address it and heal together. This is a powerful moment for us to do something different, for us to not just play the same old political game that has allowed us to lose time after time. And it’s going to allow us to build a coalition of folks that are registered Democrats that hadn’t voted in a long time, are registered Republicans that realize we need to make real change, and folks that have never voted at all. This is a moment to do something different. And we will, we’re ready.”

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.