December 3, 2020

Charles Booker Says Progressives Should ‘Show Up and Listen’ to Deep Red Districts

For most of his Senate campaign in Kentucky, Charles Booker was considered a long shot. He was running in a Democratic primary against Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who had the support of the party’s establishment and had raised over $40 million.

But Mr. Booker, a state representative who had run a progressive campaign focused on “Medicare for all,” the Green New Deal and addressing structural racism, experienced a surge in support in the final month of the race. He received widespread attention for marching in protests spurred in part by the police killing of Breonna Taylor in her Louisville home, just blocks away from the neighborhood Mr. Booker grew up in, and the race tightened significantly as voters gave him a closer look.

In the week it took for the votes to be counted — a wait that Mr. Booker said felt like “purgatory” — Ms. McGrath and Mr. Booker each took the lead at various points. In the end, Ms. McGrath won, though Mr. Booker came within about 15,000 votes of clinching the Democratic nomination. Ms. McGrath will face off against Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, in November.

Progressive candidates outside liberal states have struggled this year, in both statewide races and presidential Democratic primaries. Oftentimes, the ideas on which these candidates campaign are broadly supported, but voters worried about electability choose more moderate Democrats to represent them.

The New York Times talked to Mr. Booker, 35, about what he thinks progressives could do to win in more conservative areas of the country, and what others could learn from his campaign. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

It took a week for all the votes to be counted in your race. And during a lot of that time, it looked as if you were in a position to win. What was that week like for you?

It was the full spectrum of emotion. Waiting for those results was like growing up and being in my grandma’s house, and we were waiting for midnight to strike on Christmas so we can run to get our presents. It felt like being in purgatory. But during that period of time I got so much hope from people that were reaching out to say that no matter what happens, what we’ve done is so much bigger than this election.

You enjoyed a lot of voter and media attention in the final weeks of your race. Looking back on it, is there anything that you wish you had done differently to build your support earlier?

We came into this race understanding that we had to climb an incredible mountain. Even the idea of running against Mitch McConnell, in and of itself — he’s an institution. He’s been in office my entire life, literally. And so we knew that it wasn’t going to be easy.

But we did the work of creating infrastructure for more people to get involved, even folks that aren’t used to the political process or don’t trust it, or felt like it never mattered. We empowered them to take the lead and organize.

What happened here in Louisville and the heightened racial tensions in our country shined a light on the work we were doing. It helped people to see who was on the front lines, and showed why we need the type of leadership that understands institutional structural racism and gross inequity.

I wouldn’t change a thing. We did this without money. We did it without selling out. We were vulnerable. I cried all over Kentucky telling my story, and Kentuckians were right there with me crying too. I’m so proud, I wouldn’t change a thing, beyond asking the national media to pay us attention, and maybe asking the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to not discount a Black person running in Kentucky. I would have asked them that.

ImageMr. Booker greeted voters at a campaign stop in Pikeville, Ky.
Credit…Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader, via Associated Press

Progressive candidates have struggled this year outside liberal cities and states, from the presidential race to congressional ones. What would it take for progressives to build a winning coalition within the Democratic Party?

Regardless of what your political ideology is, especially in a place like Kentucky, everybody’s broke and everybody’s struggling and everybody’s trying to figure out how to keep food on the table, keep the lights, take care of their family and protect their livelihood.

What I tell folks is that, honestly, we should take some notes from a Donald Trump — being careful when you do. He called out that the system is broken, and he spoke to people that, for a long time, felt like nobody even knew they existed. Now, he was stoking hatred and racism and weaponizing it, but one of the truths there is that the system is broken. And if we go to those places that are deep red, and we show up and listen, but lean into our values, you can build relationships that way.

But there still weren’t enough progressive voters to get yourself and other candidates to victory. So how do you broaden your base in a way that makes people show up to the polls?

The real determinant in our race was money. It wasn’t building support in rural parts of Kentucky. I spent the majority of my campaign explaining how a Black person can win in rural parts of Kentucky and how the issue of rationing insulin is not partisan. And so when I tell my story of nearly dying from diabetic ketoacidosis, and explaining that’s why I fully support Medicare for all — because nobody should die because they don’t have money in their pocket — people get it.

I was in Estill County, a place that’s over 90 percent white, and they asked me to come to talk to them about Black Lives Matter and to participate in demonstrations. I was just being me, and explained how structural racism creates an environment where poverty is generational. And they knew what that was about, they related to it. It wasn’t about changing the message, but it was really about showing up with love.

But the reality here, in our primary, was that we were up against more money than essentially any other race in the country, as far as a primary is concerned, and still we came within 15,000 votes of pulling it off. That’s one of the things I want to help shine a light on, too, is that we don’t have to twist and curtail our message to bring more supporters on. If anything, that pushes them away.

Do you think that Amy McGrath will beat Mitch McConnell in November?

I think there is not any one person that would beat Mitch McConnell. It will take a movement. That was my message for the whole campaign: that he’s an institution. Beating him is not even the end goal. We need to get him out of the way so that we can do the work of transforming our future for Kentucky.

That’s why I reached out to Amy McGrath, to see if we can work together. My hope is that we can be on the same page. This isn’t just about turning him down, but inspiring people to believe things can be different.

So does that mean that you’ll campaign for her?

I’m campaigning for the people of Kentucky. I’ve got to make that clear. I am reaching out to the McGrath campaign to see how we can be helpful. I’m going to be committed to the work so more people can be heard at the ballot box, more people understand their power to organize and become citizen lobbyists and push issues. And most importantly, help make sure that everyone gets out to vote to get rid of Mitch McConnell. I’m on the front lines for that.

A focus of your campaign was addressing voter suppression in Kentucky. Are you concerned about voting problems and ballot access in November?

I am. We all should be. Kentucky has been one of the most disenfranchised states in the country, we’re dealing with a pandemic, and all of these things mixed together creates an environment where we have to be mindful that our job as Americans needs be to make sure that everyone can be heard at the ballot box. We need to make it easy for people to vote.

I’ve pushed for no-excuse absentee ballots and more in-person voting. But there were a lot of issues and confusion. In Jefferson County and Louisville we had one polling location for hundreds of thousands of people. We have to do better. I am doing everything I can as a legislator, and as a concerned Kentuckian, to make sure we do better for November.