In the Democratic primary for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat last year, a relative unknown came within 15,000 votes of defeating the heavily funded favorite, Amy McGrath.
No longer unknown, Charles Booker hopes to parlay the profile he built in the 2020 campaign and as a voice for social justice to possibly challenge U.S. Sen. Rand Paul when he comes up for reelection.
“I’m strongly considering a run for United States Senate in 2022 because I believe our work is not done,” says Booker. “We have the ability to tell a new story for Kentucky, and I want to do my part in that.”
Seeing Victory in Defeat
Charles Booker is a native of West Louisville and a graduate of the University of Louisville. He was director of personnel and administrative services for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in the Steve Beshear Administration. In 2018 he was elected to the state House of Representative.
Booker was serving his first term as a state representative from West Louisville when he entered the race to challenge then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He faced a 10-way Democratic primary in which McGrath, who had massive funding and the support of the national Democratic establishment, was the clear frontrunner. He also had a platform that included the Green New Deal and universal basic income, which many pundits saw as too progressive for Kentucky voters.
But a series of events upended the race. The COVID-19 pandemic hit and all but shut down traditional campaigning. State officials then delayed the primary elections from May 19 to June 23. And Louisville police shot and killed Breonna Taylor while serving a no-knock warrant, leading to weeks of protests across the commonwealth.
Booker’s prominent role in many of those demonstrations helped boost his profile in the crowded Senate field, and the delayed primary gave his campaign more time to cut into McGrath’s lead. Soon the race was too close to call, and in some polling Booker even edged ahead.
But in the end, the former Marine Corps fighter pilot won with 45.4 percent of the Democratic vote to Booker’s 42.6 percent. Still he told his supporters they had achieved a crucial victory.
“We inspired people to believe that things can be different,” says Booker. “Folks that had never voted before were banging on the doors to vote. People that had voted for [President Donald] Trump, people that had given up were realizing that if we fight together, if we lean into our love for one another and not hate and division, if we acknowledge racism and come together anyhow, that we can do big things, even in a place like Kentucky.”
Uniting People from the Hood to the Holler
In the wake of that campaign, Booker formed a nonprofit organization called the Hood to the Holler, which he describes as a “barrier breaking, coalition building, people-powered movement” to unite urban and rural Kentuckians and transform politics. In just eight months, Booker says the group has signed up 11,000 volunteers from every county in the state.
“It’s realizing that the voices of people in forgotten places – the hood where I’m from, the hollers in Appalachia, and everywhere in between – that those voices are a pathway to a brighter future,” says Booker. “So we’re lifting up new leaders, we’re training folks to get involved in the democratic process.”
Booker says politicians talk at Kentuckians more than they listen to them. He contends that’s one reason why former President Donald Trump proved so popular in the commonwealth. It wasn’t because of racism or bigotry, according to Booker, but because Trump was able to speak to the economic pain that many Kentuckians feel.
“He was talking about the coal industry and he was saying he’d bring the jobs back,” says Booker. “He was lying, but he was acknowledging that people are suffering. So how do we do that but not lie to folks?”
Beyond building a base among Democrats, Booker says he wants a coalition that transcends political parties and elects more rural people and Americans of color to political office who can demand real structural change.
“Both parties have been implicated in ignoring a lot of the challenges that we face,” says Booker. “We have unique struggles but we’re in it together, and as soon as we acknowledge that, we can do big things.”
A Political Progressive in a Conservative State
In addition to organizing a grassroots movement, the Louisville attorney is working on a memoir, and he and his wife are expecting a third child. A documentary on his life is also in the works.
Although some have encouraged Booker to run for mayor of Metro Louisville, he says he’s ruled that out in favor of potentially running again for the U.S. Senate. Booker says he feels pulled to statewide office since the challenges that Louisvillians face, such as multi-generational poverty, structural racism, and a lack of good jobs and health care, impact Kentuckians as a whole.
“I’m doing my research and doing my planning right now to make sure that when we make a move, that we do it right and we honor the people of Kentucky,” he says.
The Democrat says he’s humbled that people want him to run, and that whether he stays in politics or not, he will always fight to make Kentucky a better place for everyone to live. And if he does run, Booker says he doesn’t care about or fear how Republicans or centrist Democrats would label him because of his progressive ideas.
“When you come from the struggle, you know what it’s like to be disrespected [and] dismissed,” he says. “I’ve been called a lot of names, I don’t really care what people say, I’m fighting for Kentuckians.
“We’ve just allowed national politics to dictate the narrative, and people like Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul have told us we’re divided. But we aren’t. We’re unified in our fight to heal, to take care of our family, and to take care of Kentucky.”
The question still remains whether an outspoken Black man with a liberal platform can win in the commonwealth. Unlike Georgia, where voters of color helped elect two Democrats to the U.S. Senate in runoff elections in January, Kentucky has a far smaller minority population. There’s also the challenge of running against a well-funded Republican incumbent.
“The most critical factor in any sort of push for change is how we activate people,” Booker says, “Money cannot replace people that are fired up.”
As painful as 2020 was, with a pandemic raging and racial tensions erupting across the nation, Booker says he sees reasons for optimism in 2021 and beyond. Instead of giving in to fear, he says people came together to examine and address the inequalities that have plagued Americans for generations.
“I’m seeing a sense of resolve across Kentucky that gives me hope,” he says. “All we need are people that are going to be in elected office to give a damn about us and to fight for us, not against us.”