POLITICS

Progressive Charles Booker Is Running For Senate Against Rand Paul In Kentucky

A close primary loss last year made Booker a rising star. Now he's betting big that a pandemic and racial justice protests have left Kentuckians aching for change.
Former Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker (D) will run for Senate against Rand Paul in 2022. 
Former Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker (D) will run for Senate against Rand Paul in 2022. 

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Charles Booker has an announcement to make, but first, he had to tell his “family.” 

So on Sunday morning, the former Kentucky state representative grabbed a microphone and asked the 25 members in attendance at the church where his mother serves as assistant pastor to add him to their prayer list, even though he wouldn’t quite tell them why that was necessary.

“Every time I step out on faith, to do what God has called me to do, I connect with you all first,” he told the parishioners at the City of Refuge church as an organ hummed in the background. “God has given me this as a home, to prepare me and have folks around me that will love on me. So I’m here again, because this is gonna be a big week.”

The actual announcement is coming Thursday: HuffPost can confirm that Booker, whose narrow primary loss last year in the Democratic primary to face Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) nevertheless made him a rising star in Kentucky politics, will formally launch his campaign to challenge Sen. Rand Paul, the state’s other Republican senator, in 2022.

Democrats have not won a Senate race in Kentucky in three decades, and McConnell’s resounding victory nine months ago will likely cause the national party to prioritize just about every other contested Senate race — in Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona, Nevada and Florida — as they try to protect and expand their majority. Paul, meanwhile, won approval from 53% of Kentuckians in a February poll that also found that 47% of them would hand him a third term.

Booker is among a group of Black Democratic Senate candidates that is only likely to grow in the coming months, as a national campaign apparatus that once viewed such candidates as too risky to run in statewide contests becomes more open and diverse, especially after Sen. Raphael Warnock’s win in Georgia earlier this year. 

Booker has heard plenty about all the reasons he can’t win, and all the ways he won’t. In a state that ranks among the nation’s most downtrodden, the son of two ministers is setting out to spark a good old Bluegrass revival, one that alters the fortunes not just of a beleaguered Kentucky Democratic Party, but of a population Booker says has been ignored, stomped on, and told they weren’t worth fighting for for far too long. 

“If we can encourage the people of Kentucky to believe that things can be better, and that we can achieve them, then we will,” Booker said. “As soon as we believe we can win, we will.”

‘People Are Tired Of Being Tired’

That revival — a term he used repeatedly in a recent interview — will start in the slice of Kentucky that created Charles Booker and then turned him into a late-rising sensation in the 2020 primary.

He will launch his campaign from the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, which sits on a boulevard named for Muhammad Ali in the heart of West Louisville, the mostly Black side of Kentucky’s largest city that in Booker’s eyes exemplifies the most basic theme of his campaign: that the status quo has failed Kentucky from one end to the other, and that fixing it requires dramatic changes that confront the state’s litany of problems head-on. 

“There is a real path to beating Rand Paul,” Booker said, “but we won’t do without doing that work in addressing issues of racism, and poverty and inequity ― which, on the Democratic side, we haven’t done.”

Charles Booker's leading role in racial justice protests that erupted after the police killing of Breonna Taylor helped him s
Charles Booker's leading role in racial justice protests that erupted after the police killing of Breonna Taylor helped him surge in last year's Democratic Senate primary. He and his supporters are betting that the mood for change that the protests and COVID-19 pandemic created hasn't yet passed.

The police killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, in March 2020 forced Louisville — and the nation — to pay attention to at least some of the problems facing Black communities, and the deeper issues underlying them. Massive protests engulfed the city for weeks last summer, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the country. The pandemic delayed Kentucky’s primary elections by a month, and Booker, then a state representative who took a front-line role in the demonstrations, surged in the polls. 

His unabashedly progressive and populist message — Booker favors a Green New Deal-type approach to climate change, “Medicare for All” to expand health care access, as well as a universal basic income and minimum wage increases — already appealed to a certain subset of primary voters. 

His willingness to speak about racial justice and economic injustice, frankly and with a sense of urgency, nearly allowed him to upset an opponent who had outraised him 40-to-1.

Booker and his supporters hope the moment that created his 2020 surge hasn’t passed. Because of the pandemic and protests, many people in Kentucky “have taken off their rose-colored glasses,” said Hannah Drake, a poet and racial justice activist in Louisville who supports Booker. “Many people saw that you can be in a food line tomorrow, that you can lose your job and access to affordable health care. A lot of people are tired, and tired of being tired, and ready for something different.”

This time around, Booker is the apparent favorite to win the Democratic nomination. His exploratory committee raised more than $500,000 in its first month, and no other major Kentucky Democrats have indicated that they plan to enter the race. 

Last year’s race, and everything that has ensued since, has demonstrated to Booker both that change is both possible and urgently necessary.

On one hand, Booker notes, Kentucky responded to the protests by passing “Breonna’s Law,” a bill that heavily limited the sort of “no-knock warrants” police obtained before raiding Taylor’s apartment. On the other hand, he points to Republican state legislatures that have taken aim at voting rights and basic democracy in a way that has largely targeted Black folks, while Senate Democrats have so far failed to mount a sufficient response. (Booker supports the For The People Act, Democrats’ major voting rights legislation, and abolition of the filibuster to pass it and other major priorities.)  

The issues that affect communities like mine affect everybody. If you look like me, there’s a good chance that you’ve been at the bottom. And when you’re at the bottom, you see everything. Charles Booker

Running as an unflinching progressive may seem like folly, given that Kentucky doesn’t look much like the places that have shifted toward Democrats in recent election cycles. The state’s Black population (8.5%) is far smaller than those of Georgia or North Carolina. Its Latino population (4%) barely exists compared to states like Virginia, to say nothing of Arizona and Texas. Its major population centers, Louisville and Lexington, are Democratic bastions but aren’t big enough to swing the entire state, and its suburban shifts don’t appear quite as durable as they have been elsewhere. 

Democratic candidates, all of them white, have for years tried to perform the delicate dance of energizing their base while also appealing to voters in the perceived center, usually with more emphasis on the latter and always with disastrous results: It’s been more than a decade now since a Democrat came within 10 points of winning a Senate seat in Kentucky. 

Booker is exploring a different possible solution to the math problem that plagues Democratic candidates in Kentucky. To win here, he said, he needs to register and turn out every possible Democratic voter in the state. In that sense, West Louisville is a logical place to start. The city’s Black neighborhoods have historically been among the most reliable sources of Democratic strength, but as in other areas of Kentucky with sizable Black populations, they are also home to precincts where turnout often lags city and statewide averages

If a Democratic candidate can’t turn out every potential voter there, they don’t have much hope of solving that math problem at all, the theory goes. But Democrats have struggled to do that in the past because they have taken West Louisville and other areas like it for granted, Booker argues. 

Kentucky’s permanent stripping of voting rights for people with felony convictions also disenfranchises roughly 15% of its Black voting age population; a 2019 executive order restored voting rights to nearly 200,000 people, but many have not yet re-registered and many more remain disenfranchised. Engaging those voters could provide another boost to Booker’s strategy. 

“Folks may be inclined to vote Democrat, but we don’t go talk to them,” Booker said during an interview in Injustice Square, a downtown Louisville park that served as a memorial to Taylor and a starting point for the protests her killing inspired. “We just expect that they’re going to vote the way we think they will.”

That doesn’t just lead to a lack of votes, it also perpetuates the problems those communities face.

“Republicans weaponize [race], Democrats run away from it, which means the problems don’t get addressed,” he said. 

A Black candidate in a largely white state like Kentucky has the power to show “that the issues that affect communities like mine affect everybody,” Booker said. “There is a truth that if you look like me, there’s a good chance that you’ve been at the bottom. And when you’re at the bottom, you see everything.”

‘From The Hood To The Holler’

Booker is not a political outsider in the traditional sense: He has spent most of his professional career in government and politics. But in a state where neither major party has nominated a Black candidate for Senate, he’s “a Black kid from 35th and Market” streets in the heart of West Louisville who, as a diabetic, had to ration insulin when he was younger. He has said that his mother sometimes struggled to pay electricity and other utility bills when he was a child.

He currently lives with his wife and two daughters — with a third on the way — in Russell, a historic but neglected neighborhood that sat at the center of last summer’s protests. The house that generated the warrant that led to Taylor’s killing is in a part of Russell slated for gentrification, and national guardsmen shot and killed David McAtee, a popular local BBQ vendor, in the neighborhood during the demonstrations.

As he steered a red Ford sedan through West Louisville last weekend, Booker pointed to a memorial to McAtee that lines a chain-link fence at the site. A few minutes later, he spotted a dilapidated building with the windows boarded up: “Ali boxed there as a kid,” he said. He regularly passes the corner where a younger cousin was shot and killed; when he was canvassing in the neighborhood several years ago, he met the family of the shooter, and talked with them for a half-hour about the roots of the city’s violent crime problems. 

Russell today ranks among the poorest areas in all of Kentucky, one of the poorest states in the country. The median household income is roughly $17,000, according to 2018 data from the University of Louisville, about one-third of the citywide total. Just 4% of its 10,000 residents, 89% of whom are Black, have a college degree, and more than half live below the poverty line. 

Across West Louisville as a whole, rates of high school graduation and median incomes are far below state and national averages; unemployment, food stamp use, and other measures of poor economic and health fortunes are typically far higher. Environmental problems, especially pollution from factories, are rampant: The air in West Louisville is more toxic than in any U.S. city of a comparable size, one recent study of Environmental Protection Agency data found. 

Early in his 2020 campaign, Booker settled on a mantra: He wanted to unite Kentuckians “from the ’hood to the holler,” to bring together Black Kentuckians from neighborhoods like Russell and (mostly) white folks from the hollers of the Appalachian mountains in eastern Kentucky to realize that most of their problems are the same — and most of the causes are, too. 

He’s a contrarian. He never looks to do anything. He doesn't care about people. Charles Booker, on Sen. Rand Paul

Kentucky’s mountain economy cratered with the steady collapse of the coal industry, and the toll of poverty, environmental devastation and opioids were all devastating epidemics, of sorts, before the coronavirus pandemic began. Booker’s hope is that his up-close view of the politics of neglect in his own community can help him connect with voters in Kentucky’s rural and mountain areas, and convince them that they have more in common than they may think. He also believes it will allow him to avoid shying away from racial inequities in a contest where he needs to attract support from white rural voters.

“There’s an opportunity to talk about the challenges that people face that are common. That’s a way to bring us together,” Booker said. “That, to me, is another reason why we need someone that understands the struggle in the Black community, and that also deeply cares about and is in tune with the struggles that we see across Kentucky. Because we can’t really get the healing that we want to see as a commonwealth without doing both.”

Much of Appalachia is home to ancestral Democratic communities that have abandoned the party in droves. In 2016, Elliott County, the most reliably Democratic county in America, voted for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time since its founding in 1872. Many of these areas still vote for Democrats on occasion: Gov. Andy Beshear did well in the mountains’ traditionally blue areas in 2019. But in federal races, even getting them back within the margin necessary to pull off a statewide win will prove a difficult task. Paul overwhelmingly won all but two counties in Appalachia on his way to reelection in 2016, albeit with Donald Trump providing a boost from atop the ballot.

While some Democrats take their strongholds in Kentucky for granted, Booker said, they have also “conceded” rural areas of the state to the GOP: “We haven’t done the type of organizing and engagement with folks beyond asking them to vote,” he said. “We don’t ask folks what’s important to them. We don’t mobilize actions to address those concerns.”

“When people look at the government, they don’t see an institution that’s going to do anything for them besides exploit them, dismiss them, rob them, and make life harder for them,” Booker said of residents in both West Louisville and Appalachia. The Green New Deal and other ambitious policies Booker has backed are his pitch to those voters that the government “needs to make the investments to atone for the problems it has caused.”

A Conservative Opponent In A Deep-Red State

Paul typifies the problem, Booker argues.

He ran in 2010 as a libertarian outsider staunchly opposed to the Bush-era GOP and big government, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a position he has since tried to explain away. That played well in a state dominated by its social conservatism, even if it clashed with Kentucky’s economic reliance on government aid. And over the last four years, Paul has adopted a brand even more popular in the Bluegrass State, shapeshifting into an all-out Trump fanatic willing to peddle lies and conspiracies about last year’s election, and wage a bizarre war on Dr. Anthony Fauci over COVID-19 policies and vaccines. Paul has said he won’t get vaccinated, and, as Booker noted, also voted against President Joe Biden’s pandemic relief package that sent millions in benefits to Kentuckians and as much as $4.2 billion in new funding to state and local governments in the commonwealth. 

GOP Sen. Rand Paul has fashioned himself into an all-out Donald Trump ally, and has spent 2021 spreading conspiracies about e
GOP Sen. Rand Paul has fashioned himself into an all-out Donald Trump ally, and has spent 2021 spreading conspiracies about election fraud and COVID-19 vaccines. He has maintained positive approval ratings in Kentucky, with 47% of voters in the state favoring his reelection in a February poll.

Paul’s libertarian streak still drives him to break with party orthodoxy at times. The senator last year introduced the federal version of “Breonna’s Law” to ban no-knock warrants. He has also criticized the hypermilitarization of local police departments and called for making it easier to fire abusive officers. To Booker, though, he’s not much different from the rest of the lawmakers who have pandered to and exploited cynicism and fear instead of fighting for the people and places they’re supposed to represent.

“He’s a contrarian, he never looks to do anything,” Booker said. “Every once in a while, he’ll say something that’s like, ‘OK, well, I understand that.’ But what are you actually gonna do? And that’s when he disappears.” 

“He doesn’t care about people,” Booker added later.

Paul responded to Booker’s announcement with a statement heavily coded to inflame racial prejudice. “I just don’t think defunding the police and forcing taxpayers to pay for reparations will be very popular in Kentucky,” Paul said

Booker has tweeted about support for reparations but has not made it a central focus of either campaign. He told HuffPost that he does not believe the country can “arrest ourselves to a safe, healthy society,” and that he supports reallocating some funds that currently go to traditional policing to invest in “community safety.” Many police officers he’s talked to, Booker said, support changing the way mental health crises, domestic disputes and other incidents are handled. “We put too much on men and women in uniform that aren’t trained to deal with all these issues,” he said. 

“Hood to the holler” is not just a slogan, Booker says: In 2019, he protested alongside miners as they fought Blackjewel Coal’s refusal to pay them after the company filed for bankruptcy protection. Last year, as racial justice protests swept the nation, he marched alongside demonstrators in Whitesburg, an Appalachian town in a county that’s 98% white. 

The nonprofit organization he formed in the wake of his primary loss has held training sessions for organizers and campaign workers, and attempted to build on his prior campaign’s efforts to link Kentucky’s urban centers to its rural populations. After historic floods hit southeastern Kentucky this spring, Booker said, the organization pulled together volunteers, many from West Louisville, to raise money and make calls to local residents to see what they needed and how outside organizations and citizens could help.

Still, the type of change Booker talks about will have to happen fast if it’s going to propel him into office. From the mountains to the western coalfields, Kentucky’s rural counties only turned a deeper shade of red in 2020, as Trump helped Republicans solidify supermajorities in the state legislature. And while Paul cannot boast the level of insider power that helps bolster McConnell’s political strength in Kentucky, he still appears far from vulnerable, especially as many Republican voters demand more Trumpism, not less. 

So why is Booker so certain he can win? The short answer goes back to that sanctuary in downtown Louisville, where his mother is the assistant pastor and his church family cheered for the announcement he didn’t quite make but that they understood all the same. 

“We’ve faced so many impossible times, and without faith, those impossible times would just crush you,” he said. “Faith and hope and trust in God is like that fuel, and that sense of protection, that will help you see impossible times as things you can overcome. And so now, with cynicism and doubt and hopelessness so high, we have to embrace faith as a way to not just weather it, but to change it. Otherwise we’ll be paralyzed by that fear.”