by Ben Gierhart
It goes without saying – but will be repeated here anyway – that 2020 is perhaps the most significant election year in recent memory. Of course, Donald Trump will be on the ballot, and the role of president is obviously a highly contested spot, with both national and international ramifications whatever the outcome. However, there is someone else’s name who will also feature on that ballot, someone who has served in the United States Senate for 35 years and in that time has subjugated and exploited the people of Kentucky every step of the way. His name is Mitch McConnell, and this election cycle, he is vulnerable.
That’s certainly what Charles Booker believes, a young politician who currently serves in the Kentucky House of Representatives for the 43rd district and hopes to unseat McConnell in this election cycle. “I am a lifelong Kentuckian born and raised in the west end of Louisville,” says Booker proudly.
Booker has overcome a considerable amount of adversity in his life, and he is counting on the strength and compassion forged by these trials to connect with voters and afford him a win. “Louisville is still one of the most segregated cities in the country,” he explains. “Both of my parents struggled so I could eat. I’m a diabetic. I talk about that a lot. It informs a lot of the work that I do. I’ve had to ration my insulin because we didn’t have enough money for it. And I almost died because of it.”
Booker tells that story as a way to elevate Kentuckians who live in that same situation and cites that formative experience and more as not only fuel for his conviction but also one of the main reasons he got into public service. “I always knew that even though we didn’t have a lot of resources that it wasn’t because we were deficient or didn’t work hard enough. I knew early on as a child that there were social inequities that were robbing hard-working Kentuckians, amazing Kentuckians of the chance to do more than struggle.”
There are a few Democratic hopefuls vying for the opportunity to unseat McConnell in November, but Booker feels that he has something they don’t. “What really sets me apart is that I’ve lived the struggle that most politicians talk about. The past four years, I’ve had cousins murdered each year. I carry a lot trauma. I’ve dealt with a lot of things – we don’t hang our heads, we just push through it.”
Booker said he believes that being vulnerable, transparent and telling his story will resonate with Kentuckians.
“I’m able to speak with more authority about the issues we face, to acknowledge structural racism, to acknowledge gross inequity that is robbing so many Kentuckians who work just as hard as I do,” he said.
“Is anyone going to come through?” he asks. It’s a fiery question that serves as the engine to Booker’s campaign, a man who is seemingly tired of waiting. “Is anyone going to come and sit down, listen and elevate [Kentuckians’] voices?”
The elephant in the room, of course, is Mitch McConnell. It’s a shame that his seemingly implacable presence in federal government is such an important consideration in Booker’s campaign – an interesting but dour fact is that McConnell was elected into the senate two weeks after Booker was born. Consequently, most politicians who find themselves a David against a Goliath resort to shrewd sidestepping, forgetting the winning strategy from the story. In a refreshing approach, Booker wants to take the fight directly to Mitch McConnell.
“We’re not going to run away from him,” says Booker simply. “I come from a family that has fought for equity, that has worked hard to fight segregation in Louisville. Someone who always opened his door and his heart. We’ve had a lot of people who play a lot of political games. Or treat us like we’re political poker chips, which Mitch McConnell is a master at. That spirit of fighting and telling the truth and making sure that we hold Mitch McConnell accountable instead of running to some sort of false center or trying to tell people what you think they want to hear instead of listening to them? I think that’s what’s going to set us apart, and I think Kentuckians are demanding it.”
Booker goes on to say, “One thing to consider with Mitch McConnell is that he’s been in office my entire life. He’s been there for so long, and he’s been robbing and really screwing Kentuckians for so long that a lot of folks have yet to see what different could look like.” For Booker, different looks like a campaign where he serves the people instead of the other way around. “This is not just about telling him he’s terrible. He knows it. He knows that we know it. It’s not just about tearing him down: You hold him accountable. You make it clear that he’s been depriving us of healthcare my whole life for myself and for so many throughout the Commonwealth. You call that out. What I’m saying is you beat him by being the antithesis of him and the antithesis of him is a movement of regular folks taking their voices and their power back.”
The power of the People is a recurring theme in both Booker’s personal philosophy and campaign messaging, and the main method by which Booker hopes to give people agency is by listening. As a state representative, Booker has already done quite a bit of listening. For example, Booker says he is the only candidate in the Kentucky Senate race who has signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, which as it sounds is an agreement to refuse all fossil fuel checks that Booker believes McConnell sold the state out on years ago.
“I went out to Eastern Kentucky and sat down with the miners. Coal miners in large measure have known that the coal industry is declining. They knew that those opportunities were leaving. I’ve spoken with some of them who say that they’d love to go into something else, but that this is all they have and all they know. Instead of listening to Kentuckians and elevating their voices, what we had was people exploiting them and lying to them and selling them snake oil. Donald Trump ran on acknowledging that the system is broken, which is true. But then he used that to exploit and demean and rob folks. He said he was going to bring the coal industry back. And then Kentuckians across the board are seeing that he’s selling them snake oil, which gives us a chance to speak the truth. I was proud to sign the pledge. I don’t have a lot of money, so this has to be proof that the power is in people. We’ve been sold out for too long. I’ve made the pledge that I’m not taking money from fossil fuel executives because I’m standing with these coal miners.”
Booker knows that it isn’t as easy as all that though, that at the end of the day there’s a long battle ahead of him, and several more after that one. But he hopes that the ultimate ends of empowering the People and listening to them will be an end to monolithic societal woes like intergenerational poverty, discrimination and inequity. Even if it doesn’t end with him, he wants to set things in motion. “We have communities all across the commonwealth that are marginalized and discriminated against. They are deprived of opportunities to be honored in their humanity, to be seen as individuals with amazing potential. Instead, they have doors closed on them. They’re demonized and minimized and disregarded. That’s why when I go in, I want to say it doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, who you love, what your pronoun is, where you come from, how much money you have in your pocket… I’m making it clear that we are changing that narrative. People throughout the Commonwealth need to feel and know that their voice matters no matter who they are.”
As a state representative, Booker has endorsed statewide fairness each session. For Booker, the issue boils down to a matter of pragmatism and inequity across the board. He believes truly all Kentuckians should be afforded the same opportunities whether it be access to money to start a business, marry the person they love or simply exist in a home or job of their choosing. Seeing more cities each month that are passing city fairness ordinances fills Booker with hope, not an anemic hope, but one filled with vigor: “I know we’ll get there. I know that we will only get there if we do this movement. I’ve also supported the bills for banning conversion therapy. We can’t wait for Mitch McConnell to think it’s a priority or for someone else to look and see what the polls say. Each session we get more cosponsors [for statewide fairness.] It won’t be easy. We have folks who are weaponizing hate. That’s a fact. The person who was representing Kentucky as governor last was a case and point of that. It’s not about parties. Seeing the humanity in others, it’s not partisan thing. I know the support is growing, and I’m committing my life to this work.”
Booker’s record does speak for itself, but he also recognizes that for many who have been silenced or ignored for so long, it’s not going to be easy to garner trust. “We have to do the work of building the relationship, “ he says. “We don’t often have those kinds of conversations when it comes to policy. It’s certainly not a priority. What I’m offering is the work I’ve already done: proof of my conviction of being dedicated in the long haul. For me, it’s not about just any one issue. I know hate is going to evolve, which means that we have to constantly be vigilant and constantly fighting it. I’m asking that Kentucky hold me accountable and that Kentuckians lead. I’m asking, what solutions do you have for the problems that you see? What makes you proud? What’s the future that you want to see? I earnestly am proposing to build Kentucky with Kentuckians. It has to be an inclusive process because that’s what Democracy is about. I’m going to show what I’ve been doing, I’m going to keep showing up. I’m going to honor my humanity and honor the humanity of all the people around me. These are the battles that Dr. King inspired and urged for in understanding our common humanity. I feel a responsibility to keep that work going, and we’re going to win.”
To learn more about Charles Booker and his campaign as well as to volunteer and/or donate, please visit https://bookerforkentucky.com/.