POLITICS

Charles Booker’s Movement To Paint Kentucky Blue Is Only Just Beginning

Booker’s unsuccessful Senate bid excited progressives. His next act: an all-out effort to empower “regular folks” in the Bluegrass and beyond.
Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker narrowly lost the state's Democratic Senate primary in June. Now he's launching a new orga
Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker narrowly lost the state's Democratic Senate primary in June. Now he's launching a new organization meant to seize on progressive energy his campaign generated and build a movement that can win in the Bluegrass State and beyond.

Eight months ago, Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker launched a long shot bid to beat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) and become the first Black lawmaker his home state has ever sent to Washington. 

His Democratic primary opponent, retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, already had millions of dollars in the bank, ads running on TV, and the backing of the party establishment. Booker had a sleek campaign launch video, a bare-bones staff, and little else. Plus, he was running, in Kentucky, on a progressive platform that included a Green New Deal and “Medicare For All.”

But in the end, Booker lost the June 23 primary by less than 3 points. He surged in the final weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests over the police killings of Black Americans ― including 26-year-old Breonna Taylor in Booker’s hometown of Louisville ― completely shifted the political landscape. Barely known outside Louisville when the race began, he became a darling of the national progressive movement. Even in defeat, he was tapped as a rising political star.

Booker was numb the day after the results were announced on June 30. But a little while later, a new thought entered his mind. Maybe the reaction to his campaign and the Black Lives Matter protests, which led to significant shifts in white peoples’ views on racism and police violence against Black Americans, had demonstrated how much energy for change there was across the state. 

Kentucky is still a red state. But Booker’s near-success proved that could change. And on Thursday, he is launching his next act: a new nonprofit organization aimed at building on that momentum. 

State Rep. Charles Booker campaigns on Election Day in Kentucky's Democratic primary for Senate in Louisville on June 23.
State Rep. Charles Booker campaigns on Election Day in Kentucky's Democratic primary for Senate in Louisville on June 23.

“It was very clear to me that what we were embarking on was much bigger than a campaign, and that it inspired something new that we could not let go away,” Booker told HuffPost in an interview this week. “Regular people need to win. I think this organization is our way of saying that we did win.”

The new organization’s name is Hood To The Holler, a play on the slogan Booker adopted during his campaign to describe his efforts to unite Kentuckians from the hoods of its major metropolitan areas to the hollers of Appalachia and everywhere in between. 

Check out the Hood To The Holler launch video at the end. 

His aim is to construct a coalition that can end generational poverty, tear down structural racism, and develop what he called “a new Southern strategy” for the left: a multiracial, class-conscious movement that could sell a progressive message in red states like Kentucky and beyond. 

More immediately, Booker wants to pour resources into an effort to ensure that the 150,000 Kentuckians with felony convictions whose voting rights were restored in December actually register to vote and engage in the political process. And he wants to build infrastructure that can both train a new crop of candidates to seek office and empower people to become activists and volunteers to wield influence from the outside.

It sounds quixotic. But Booker nearly pulled off a stunning upset last month because he saw a Kentucky that many political pundits and consultants have long ignored. It was a Kentucky in which Appalachia is more diverse, complex and progressive than it’s often portrayed; in which Black people aren’t just a small block of votes that can be taken for granted but a constituency that deserves to be heard; in which there was deepening anger and urgency ― most visible in the sustained protest movements teachers, coal miners and racial justice activists have generated in recent years.

Hood To The Holler, Booker said, is an effort to ensure that version of Kentucky isn’t cast aside in the future, or in McGrath’s race against McConnell later this year. And, after weeks of questions about what he would do next, Booker is focused on what the “we” who supported and were energized by his campaign will do next.

“There are hundreds of Kentuckians and thousands of folks across the country that are ready to do their part however they can, and we’ve gotta keep that energy going,” Booker said. “This organization is going to be such a powerful opportunity for a lot of new voices and a lot of folks that decided to give politics a chance and get involved in an arena that seems to exclude us.”

‘We Gotta Get Rid Of Mitch McConnell’

Booker isn’t retreating to the sidelines for the race against McConnell in November. He and McGrath spoke recently about ways they could work together in the coming months, and toppling the six-term senator is still Booker’s most immediate priority. 

“The longer-term vision of ending generational poverty and really addressing inequity at a structural level means we gotta get rid of Mitch McConnell,” Booker said. “We’re fully committed to that, because we gotta get him out of the way so that we can do the real work.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell faces Democrat Amy McGrath in Kentucky's November election. Here, McConnell holds a pr
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell faces Democrat Amy McGrath in Kentucky's November election. Here, McConnell holds a press briefing about coronavirus legislation at the U.S. Capitol on March 17.

The focus on voting rights is a major part of Booker’s effort to improve McGrath’s odds. 

While some people with felony convictions voted for the first time in the June primary, many “may not have been engaged, and may not even know” that they’re now eligible, he said. “We want to really lean into doing that work of making sure that their voices are heard in this general election.”

Civil rights advocates have worked tirelessly to reenfranchise such voters, but even when they win, challenges immediately arise: From 2007 to 2018, just 14% of people with felony convictions who’d regained their right to vote in Florida actually registered to do so, according to the Brennan Center for Justice

A deliberate focus on those voters ― Booker set the lofty goal of reaching 100,000 of them over the next 90 days ― could help them overcome the barriers that exist in states like Kentucky, which has restrictive voter registration and ID laws that only compound the struggles. In a race where beating McConnell will require turning out every possible Democratic vote, it could boost McGrath’s chances of an upset, to say nothing of its potential long-term impact on Kentucky politics.

The primary election was a way for us to showcase to the country that regular folks are done being ignored, and we want real change. Charles Booker

In the longer term, the new organization will also seek to train and recruit potential candidates. And it will try to educate Kentuckians, especially those with little prior engagement in politics, on how to become what Booker calls “citizen lobbyists,” so they can advocate for policies that benefit them. He wants to focus especially on people from backgrounds like his own: Booker grew up poor in West Louisville, the side of the city that is mostly Black and where, he said, many people have spent years “not knowing anything about politics because we’re just too busy surviving.” 

“We need to make it clear that if you don’t come from a lot of money, or if you come from the wrong side of the tracks, or that if you look a certain way ― you still matter, and you belong in the spectrum where decisions are made,” Booker said. 

Booker’s campaign set the stage for that work. It excited progressives who’d longed for a candidate to run the race he tried to run, attracted some more moderate voters with its populist message, and seems to have generated unprecedented enthusiasm, especially among Black voters who’ve long felt left out of Kentucky’s political process.

Localized data from Kentucky’s pandemic-era election is scarce, but West Louisville voters helped drive Booker to a huge victory in Jefferson County (the state’s most populous) in the primary, with turnout levels that likely far exceeded the norm. Rural Black voters whom Democrats have struggled to turn out in the past likely pushed him to another countywide win in western Kentucky. 

“The primary election was a way for us to showcase to the country that regular folks are done being ignored, and we want real change,” Booker said. “We have the opportunity, and really the responsibility, to seize this moment.”

None of the ideas behind Hood To The Holler are by themselves revolutionary. Progressive organizations like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots membership group, have long utilized the basic concept behind Booker’s slogan in an attempt to build a stronger movement at the local and statewide levels. Emerge Kentucky, a chapter of a larger national organization, has recruited dozens of women candidates without traditional political experience to run for office with increasing success, and the teacher protests that swept the state two years ago inspired a wave of educators to run, too.

The state Democratic Party has rebuilt and ramped up its voter engagement and turnout operations; political action committees dedicated to beating McConnell have created their own; the ACLU of Kentucky and other groups tried aggressively, before the primary, to get newly enfranchised people with felony convictions registered and to the polls.

Booker's late surge helped generate near-record turnout for Kentucky's June 23rd Senate primary. 
Booker's late surge helped generate near-record turnout for Kentucky's June 23rd Senate primary. 

But Kentucky’s progressive groups have lacked the resources to build the infrastructure necessary to boost upstart campaigns. For the left in particular, Booker’s group could mark an important step in the maturation of the progressive political movement, which has grown enough to generate election wins in New York and elsewhere, but has often ignored states like Kentucky. His national star-turn this spring could conceivably help bring the sort of cash to the Bluegrass State that makes the road to a bluer future at least a little bit shorter.

Beating back McConnell’s GOP machine in a state he’s turned increasingly red over the last 40 years requires more than just beating McConnell in November. Democrats and progressives need to win back seats in the state legislature and on city councils, and races for county executive and the school board. It took McConnell a generation to totally win Kentucky; it might take just as long to flip it back.

“It means more people are in the fold for local office,” Booker said. 

‘A New Southern Strategy’

While Hood To The Holler will focus its work in Kentucky, it will also aim to show that Booker’s campaign and the broader strategy it used is viable elsewhere, too, especially in the deep red Southern states.

It’s a “new Southern strategy,” he said, referencing the Nixon-era GOP’s open weaponization of racism in an effort to win over white Southern voters. Booker, by contrast, wants to build a broad, multiracial coalition of voters who, in his mind, should be united by what they share in common instead of divided by what makes them different.  

“Our common bond is that this system of winners and losers has determined that we don’t get to win,” he said. “And if we come together, if we listen to one another, if we tell our story, we will see that we actually have so much in common, and we can use that collective power to change things.”

Booker and Hood To The Holler won’t shy away from the big, sweeping ideas on which his campaign rested, even if specific policies like the Green New Deal to address climate change, Medicare for All to expand health care access, and a universal basic income won’t be its central causes. He wants to focus more broadly on creating organizing opportunities to address ― and educate Kentuckians and others about ― economic and racial justice and poverty, and how it exacerbates everything from poor access to health care and good jobs, the lack of accountability for police who kill people like Breonna Taylor, and the environmental degradation that leaves Kentuckians without clean water. 

Booker arrives at a campaign stop on the day of the primary election in Louisville on June 23.
Booker arrives at a campaign stop on the day of the primary election in Louisville on June 23.

“I am sick and tired of poverty,” Booker said on the phone this week. “The status quo is legitimately killing us. The status quo is actually kicking our door in and actually killing us in our home. It’s actually looking the other way while we die in the midst of a pandemic. And I think it’s clear that the urgency is just really present.”

When he was considering a run for Senate, Booker said, at least one Kentucky Democrat openly dismissed the idea that a young, Black man could win in Kentucky. But on the trail, Booker found that his story could resonate even in parts of the state written off as Trump Country. 

During a tour of Appalachia this spring, he told voters that he grew up in Kentucky’s poorest ZIP code; that his neighborhood had been racked by pollution and systemic poverty; that his family had struggled to keep the lights on; that he had rationed insulin to manage his diabetes because drug costs were too high. 

As he knocked on a door in Inez (population 700, 99% white), an older white woman came outside to find Kentucky’s youngest Black state representative standing on her porch. She cast a skeptical glance at Booker, and then his campaign flier.

Booker launched into his spiel, and she cut him off mid-sentence after “Medicare for All” left his mouth.

“I’m for that, too,” she said. 

‘There’s A Lot More Good Trouble To Cause’

The idea that Booker’s strategy could work in a state like Kentucky defied belief as recently as two months ago, when he was 40 points behind McGrath, struggling to raise money and barely a factor in the race. But the protests that erupted in Louisville after police killed Breonna Taylor, and the front-line role Booker took in the demonstrations, ignited his campaign. The protests eventually swept the state, and Booker drew crowds, even in places like Corbin, an Appalachian town where white mobs violently expelled Black residents just a century ago. 

That’s led to speculation about his future political plans as well. 

Sen. Rand Paul (R) is up for reelection in 2022. A campaign for mayor of Louisville is possible that year, too. Whenever Rep. John Yarmuth retires, the race to replace the only Democrat in Kentucky’s congressional delegation will draw a long list of contenders. Booker, whose term in the state legislature expires at the end of this year, could be among the favorites for the seat. 

But Booker said he’s not ready to seriously consider any of those options yet. 

“What I can tell you,” he said in response to a question about his future plans to run for office, “is that I know for a fact that I’m not done.” 

“I call myself a good troublemaker,” Booker said. “And there’s a lot more good trouble to cause.”