by Ben Gierhart
There is a great axiom that all great change, no matter the odds, starts within. The saying couldn’t be more true than for the state of Kentucky. For progressive Kentuckians, it is easy to believe that votes don’t matter on the federal level. This current state of affairs can only improve if representation and policies change at the state level first. That’s where Justin Bramhall comes in.
A Lexington native, Justin Bramhall first became involved in politics in 1999 when he was a junior in high school and worked for family friend Scotty Baesler, a former mayor of Lexington and member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing Kentucky. Since then, Bramhall has worked on local congressional, U.S. Senate and presidential campaigns. He has also worked in the Kentucky House as a legislative assistant to Former Speaker of the Kentucky House Jody Richards.
Bramhall will be running for the 79th district seat in the state House of Representatives in 2020 where he hopes to replace Susan Westrom who has held the position for 20 years, and while Westrom is a Democrat, Bramhall believes he is the best choice in 2020: “Our country is based on the principle that all men are created equal. Yet, over the past five years, the Kentucky House has become a harbor for those seeking to strip rights away from any minority that exists. If you’re not a straight white male, you have been a target. This is a fight for the soul of Kentucky’s future, and I can no longer be in the background and watch these attacks continue. I sincerely believe, as political figures and as a society, we must always put people first. That is why I decided to run for office.”
According to Bramhall, if elected, he will be the first openly gay representative in the history of the Kentucky House. As important as visibility is however, it is also worth mentioning that this campaign means more to Bramhall than mere identity politics.
“I had an interest in running for office, but on the morning of March 15, 2016, I got a phone call telling me that my 37 year-old best friend of 14 years (and my partner of only a few months) was shot and killed. … Since his death, at the request of the NRA, the Republican-controlled state legislature in Frankfort dismantled existing gun safety laws, effectively putting guns over the importance of people’s safety and lives,” says Bramhall.
These personal stakes for Bramhall not only invigorate his campaign, they elevate the state political conversation, echoing similar conversations happening all over the country. Bramhall even had the rare opportunity to share his experience with former Vice President and potential 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden.
“When I met the vice president, it was shortly after the death of his son, Beau,” recalls Bramhall. “I first wanted to thank him for being the first person ever in the executive office to support marriage equality. I decided to then tell him Nick’s story. … He placed his hands on my shoulders and put his forehead to mine and quietly said, ‘We have to keep fighting. We have to keep going for Nick and for Beau because that’s what they would have wanted us to do, and if we don’t, we will have let them down. We can’t give up. We have to keep fighting.’”
Bramhall plans to take that passion and instill it into his campaign where he will put people first and hopefully inspire other lawmakers to do the same. “My campaign is focusing on the most important issues facing Kentuckians: higher incomes (raising the KY minimum wage) and higher income job availability, affordable health care and Medicaid, supporting public education and generating new revenue sources,” he says before adding emphatically, “Kentucky’s $7.25/hour minimum wage is disgusting. Twenty states have increased their minimum wage laws, but Kentucky isn’t one of them.”
Bramhall also plans to take legislative action to counteract that taken this past year that has banned solar companies from establishing businesses in Kentucky. “Just imagine the regional impact if a plant for a solar panel engineering company opened in Eastern Kentucky providing 200, 400 or 600 living-wage paying jobs in an area where coal jobs continue to decline and that has some of the highest unemployment rates in the country,” says Bramhall.
As an openly queer politician in a red state, Bramhall has an unenviable balancing act ahead of him if elected. There is an added responsibility to serve as a voice for all queer people in the state as well as fulfill the normal duties and obligations of the role, but this reality does not appear to be something that fazes Bramhall: “Congressman Barney Frank once said, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’ If I am elected, I will be the first openly gay state representative in Kentucky history, and finally the LGBTQ+ community will have an open and outspoken voice to represent them, fairness, and equality.” Bramhall promises to work to educate and influence fellow legislators on issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community and build bridges to defeat harmful legislation if elected. “I will also sponsor legislation that creates acts of equality across various fronts: from housing and workplace rights, to banking equality, to health care guarantees,” he says.
And again, as an openly queer person in Kentucky, Bramhall is unfortunately not immune to threats regarding his sexual orientation. Even after a troubled individual recently accosted Bramhall on Facebook Messenger, Bramhall takes it all in stride. “When I was considering becoming a candidate, I knew I was probably going to get a little more heat not only because I’m gay, but also because I’m not afraid to say what’s on my mind. I was pleased that law enforcement took swift action to take the people into custody. It is sad that people use such violence and hate-bearing tactics to attack those they disagree with, but I plan to stay loud, stay positive and keep being me.”
No matter what, Bramhall pledges to be a fighter for the people of Kentucky: “If the election doesn’t go my way, I’m not completely sure of what my next steps would be, but I know I will still be engaged and involved in a way I think I can make the biggest difference. The amount of support I have received from folks across the state and throughout the country has been a truly humbling experience – the amount of time invested by volunteers, the contributions given by donors, and all the messages of support – it is something I will carry with me the rest of my life. No matter what, we will keep fighting for a better Kentucky.”
And with a couple of big endorsements recently – from Lance Bass of *NSYNC and Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty – it appears as though things are headed in the right direction. Ultimately however, it all comes down to spreading the campaign message and gathering support from Kentuckians who wish to see their state change for the better. “I believe if you do politics the right way, you can make people’s lives better,” says Bramhall. “And that’s what I intend to do.”
To learn more about Justin Bramhall’s positions on the issues within this piece and on other issues as well as to volunteer, get periodic campaign updates or make a contribution, please visit JustinBramhall.com.