Charles Booker, a life-long Kentuckian from the West End of Louisville, ran a remarkably invigorating first candidacy for federal office this election cycle. Mitch McConnell’s Senate seat is up for grabs in the upcoming November election, and Booker’s run for this position was unlike any other that Kentuckians have encountered in recent years. He received endorsements from organizations like The Sunrise Movement, Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Though his candidacy was cut short after a primary election loss by just 2.9 percent of the vote to longtime politician Amy McGrath, he knew from the beginning that “it was more than just a campaign for office.” He has served as State Representative to Kentucky’s 43rd district in the Kentucky House since January 1, 2019. After the June 2020 primaries, Booker launched his organization, Hood to the Holler (HTTH), to develop a platform to maximize and leverage the voices of the historically overlooked in Kentucky and across the United States. HTTH aims to center everyday individuals and their experiences in the momentum that fuels the fight for justice in 2020 and beyond. Booker wants to remind Kentuckians and Americans alike that, at our core, we are far more united than we are divided. His campaign aimed to break down those divisive misconceptions, and from the perspective of a Kentuckian and an avid politicker, Booker’s ongoing fight for equity and justice has been nothing short of vitalizing.
The Politic: Being a part of the Commonwealth [of Kentucky] is a really big part of my identity. I love this place, but I recognize there are changes that need to be made. Politicians like you make me feel that there is hope! Please tell [the readers of The Politic] a little about yourself—also, what are the five most important facts everyone should know about you?
Booker: Of course! I’m State Representative Charles Booker. I represent the 43rd district in Kentucky, but I also make it a very clear point that when I show up in the halls of our state Capitol, I am doing it on behalf of the entire Commonwealth. It is a very high privilege for me. I’m a life-long Kentuckian from the west-end of Louisville. Louisville is still one of the most segregated cities in the country. I live in a part of the city that is defined by a lot of negative indicators of a good quality of life. There is high unemployment, a lot of health issues, resources have left, industries have left, issues of homelessness, and because poverty is so high and concentrated, we have a lot of issues with criminalization. There is a lot of environmental injustice that is just layered all over this area [of] about 75,000 people. It shaped my lens of the world, and it really lit a fire in me to do the work of fighting for not only my community, but communities like mine across Kentucky! This pulled me into the rural parts of the Commonwealth because a lot of people are struggling.
Five things people should know about me:
1. I come from a really big family. I’m one of 71 grandkids (I stopped counting at 71)! My grandparents had eleven children biologically (just on my moms side!), and they had their home open to foster care for over 40 years—they adopted the last seven. But everybody that has been in the house knows, that’s our family. We have a small town of a family. And so when I go across Kentucky and the country and say, “you’re my family,” I really mean it…I just see that sense of community because I lived through so much of [it].
2. I am a type 1 diabetic. I talk about that a lot in my role as a legislator and on the campaign trail. I have had to ration my insulin because we couldn’t afford it sometimes. I nearly died from it, and it informs a lot of why I push for policies like Medicare For All and lowering prescription drug costs.
3. I also have two girls, Kaylin and Prestyn. They are my inspirations!
4. I am the youngest Black state legislator in Kentucky since the first one. The reason that’s important beyond just [the] historical sense is, there aren’t a lot of people in places where decisions are made that look like me or have a lived experience that is similar to mine. It’s really important to have more voices in the room.
5. Over the past four years, I’ve had cousins murdered each year. It gave me a sense of urgency to push for change because they are not here to speak for themselves. All of those are elements of why I show up the way I do, and my faith is just the foundation of all of that.
Thank you for sharing! I also have a relatively large family, so I know what you’re talking about! It teaches you to really grow close to the people you’re around all the time.
Now that you’ve shared some of your personal experiences in Kentucky and how different injustices impacted your access to resources. What are the key ways we as a Commonwealth could see greater equity, in terms of racial justice, socio-economic justice?
Yeah! Honestly, one of the biggest parts of my platform is Universal Basic Income. I believe our work is about ending generational poverty. When you unpack that, you’re going to see the inequities, you are going to see the racism that is structural, and you are going to see these gross disparities that allow these things to keep perpetuating. It’s a cycle. I just believe we have to invest in people directly—tangibly—so that they, we, the people, can have the tools to do what we do. We are the creators, we are the dreamers, we are the innovators, we do the work.
[But] we have an economic system that extracts all of that, profits off it, and then looks at us and says, pull yourself up by the bootstraps—don’t be so lazy. So any issue, [from] gun violence [to] mental health, ties back to the lack of resources. Also, the factors in our environment that ignore us and keep us sick. The reason why I support Medicare For All is [because] I see it as an economic policy. People being able to have quality healthcare, not just have access [to], but actually have [quality healthcare], will mean that they are able to perform [better] in school. They will be able to be employed because they can keep the job because they will be healthy enough to do it! I mentioned, I’m a type one diabetic, and the jobs that I take largely depend on what the insurance coverage will be. I have to make employment decisions based on how I will be able to afford insulin. And if we take that factor away, it opens so many more doors for people.
And the Green New Deal, that is more of a broader element too. Folks don’t have adequate housing. They don’t have clean water. The soil is contaminated. You have all of these health issues that emanate out of that. The air is toxic, so there are chemicals in our air, especially in [the Rubbertown neighborhood of] Louisville. [The way many people experience it now is,] ‘I’m a good person, I work hard, but I’m breathing in these chemicals, I’m drinking water that does not make me healthy, there’s lead in the paint in our homes! All of those things deteriorate us, our health, our ability to do, to shine, to create.’
We have to begin to see the bigger picture for why we do this—it’s not just to be nice, it’s for our survival. And, it’s the right thing to do.
One last very specific [part of my platform]: because we fund our schools based on property value, if you have an area that is depressed, and the property values are low, and there is an area where there is no economic opportunity, so people don’t have money, you are going to continue to have a school system where the schools in those areas will continue to be underfunded. That is a part of structural inequity that allows poverty to [perpetuate]. All of this is very obvious to me, from living it and taking it in, which is why we need leaders in places where decisions are made who don’t see this as a scholarly assessment, but a lived experience. It makes a difference.
Absolutely. I’ve read so much about redlining, housing discrimination, and loan discrimination. I’ve [spoken] with some soon-to-be classmates on this topic, and they mentioned some parents would move to certain neighborhoods where the houses are worth above a million dollars, just so their kids could get into the right elementary school. It’s so ingrained into our society, that there’s no way to address it until we make tangible efforts, with UBI and with M4A. I’m really glad you recognize that, and I hope more people in government see that as well.
Something you say a lot about rural and urban Kentuckians is how we’re overlooked, and I’ve had that experience. It is the culture that we’re taught, that we don’t have a future outside of our home communities. Would you be willing to talk about your public school experience and how you believe it compared to others?
I could go so many different directions with that. My experience coming from the West End—I was bussed for elementary, middle, and high school. My bus rides would typically be two hours both ways to get me across town. One of the things that [became] very obvious to me, especially in high school—I went to [Louisville] Male High School—[was that] the neighborhood school, right around the corner from me, Shawnee High School, was in a state of disrepair. The third floor of the school was condemned. You just [wouldn’t] go up there. They have an [aviation] magnet program which is awesome, but they didn’t have the funding they needed, and a lot of people in the area didn’t have the resources to take advantage of going into that field to begin with. Even within the JCPS [Jefferson County Public School] district, there are schools that have a lot of resources, a lot of tools, have a very broad curriculum…and then there are schools that don’t have that much at all. And that inequity is a part of the discussion right now [among] JCPS [board members] looking at rate increases to better fund their schools. We have a lot of schools that have expired their life cycle. They have H-Vac systems that are [harmful] and cost a lot of money. [Most] schools don’t have textbooks, or students can’t take books home because they have to share. We have a lot of investment that we need to do in public education. I think what’s powerful when we look at this issue broadly, and a lot of challenges you see in urban areas reflect the challenges of rural areas. [Louisville] deals with high homelessness for students, where for a lot of folks, the food that they get from school is their hot meal for the day.
I think investing in our schools as community hubs and as anchors in our neighborhoods, as opposed to something that is simply there, and [investing] in it as a launchpad for families, we can really transform communities. And there are cities across the country that see that more than we do, that invest in schools as anchors to drive the economy. [Those schools] help to support local businesses, they serve as active community spaces, they are holistic learning spaces for parents, family, and children—there is more of a community feel, and we need more of that.
Both my parents dropped out of high school. There are a lot of challenges, like parents working multiple jobs, that makes it hard for parents to get involved in their children’s learning experience. We can leverage education in our public school system as an infrastructure, even as [a part of the already-]built infrastructure, that can address someone’s barriers for families.
I completely agree. Education can be such a tool for social mobility, and the way that it’s not equally accessible is a really big failure of our public education system. Especially in light of decisions by people like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, to force students back into these environments that will not be completely healthy as before this pandemic. It’s disheartening, but there are people making positive strides, like you and other young activists! Which brings me to my next question—can you talk a bit about your run for Senate, and what it taught you?
Absolutely. I just want to circle back and mention, the way that I like to talk about education is we need to fully and equitably fund our public schools. Everything we talk about now is about investing more into public schools. I see a lot of folks in politics who want to use those dynamics as a reason to put public dollars towards charter schools, or to not address paying teachers a higher wage, and all of those things are counter to the bulk of the work we’ve got to do to break down barriers for folks. I just wanted to circle back and tie a bow on that point. When we talk about fully funding public schools, it needs to be equitably funded too.
In terms of the Senate run, it was really powerful. I knew from the beginning it was more than just a campaign for office. We need to look at our politics different. It’s not just about the interaction at the ballot box. That is really important, but we’ve got to do so much more than that. In the last several years, where things have become so polarized, people don’t listen to one another. We don’t see one another, our divisions are being weaponized, especially by people like Mitch McConnell, and certainly Donald Trump. We have forgotten how connected we are and it’s reflected in our politics, and my campaign said we’re gonna bust that up, because we’re family. And maybe our family has had a big rift for generations, but we’re still family.
This campaign was really about elevating the voices of people and letting Kentuckians tell our story. I lead by example on that—I would tell my story and be very vulnerable sharing who I am because I wanted to inspire more Kentuckians to see themselves in this arena, but also to let folks know no matter where they come from, what they look like, how much money they have, what pronoun they use, what they believe, whether they walk or use a wheelchair, [or] what part of Kentucky they are from, that they matter. And if we can inspire more people to see their worth and their power, then we can change things. We don’t have to allow things to be diminished into a Democrat versus Republican framework. Truth to the matter is, the majority of people agree on the majority of things. Everyone wants clean water, everyone wants to take care of their children, no one wants to have to decide between paying for prescription and paying for rent, and these are very fundamental things that we tend to see through lenses of division because of politics. We just threw that all out the window.
I did a Green New Deal (GND) tour in eastern Kentucky because I wanted to take the politics head on. The Green New Deal [had turned] into some[thing] scary. By letting people like McConnell tell that type of story, they are exploiting the fears and pain of people and using [it] to convince folks that the best things they can do is to stay in the space they are in. Meanwhile, people are suffering. People are dying. And so when I talk about issues of clean water, high utility costs, loss of infrastructure, [and] jobs leaving, I [say] let’s not call it a GND—let’s have a Kentucky New Deal, and let’s do this for us. People said, we need it! And the campaign really helped to magnify that it is possible. And that’s why I launched this organization, Hood to the Holler, to continue that. It’s all about inspiring people in the forgotten places—honestly the majority of us—to realize our individual and collective powers, then to have the tools to use that to become citizen lobbyists, to run for office themselves, and push for the types of change we want to see to empower people.
Big picture for me—I don’t think I’ve run my last race. I know that your voice is critically important, I know mine is, I know we have a part we have to play to help transform our future, and I’m committed to that for those five reasons and others—so don’t be surprised if I call and say we have another run to do. I’m excited about this organization and about what we did in our campaign. I’m proud of Kentucky.
I dedicated myself to watching those poll numbers and votes come in, and I’m still so hopeful because it was an amazing turnout [this past primary]. I’m interested in learning about Hood to the Holler, and giving a voice to communities that are not seen enough. My community is very predominantly white. As someone who was born in a different country and is a Muslim, I’ve felt somewhat ostracized being here as a result of that. And I just want to make sure every Kentuckian can still feel like a Kentuckian. [Could you] expound a little on the goals of HTTH, and how can someone get involved?
I love what you said and [it’s] why Hood to the Holler is so important to me, because I want to make it clear that I’m a Kentuckian. When people talk about Kentucky nationally, and a lot of times within our leadership here, they only see a certain definition of Kentucky. In many cases they don’t see me. And when I was running for Senate, I was asked so many times how someone like me [can] connect with the voters of Kentucky.
Are you kidding me? I’m a Kentuckian! I’m telling my story, I’m listening to them, and it was very obvious because I was Black, (people asked, ‘how could you run in Kentucky as a Black person?’) and that’s why ‘Hood to the Holler’ became a chant, a rallying cry, and it became obvious to me that we have so much in common. So much in common, that it is offensive to ask, ‘how can we work together?’ It’s offensive to assume that someone who looks like me or looks like you can’t have the support of Kentuckians, when we are Kentuckians! We’re really just taking that [concept] on, looking it in the face.
Essentially what I want to do with HTTH is tell all my secrets. I’ve worked my way to every level of government. I’ve worked with governors, members of Congress, presidents, [Louisville] metro council, mayors, and I’ve seen all of these rooms. I’ve seen how it can work for regular people, I’ve seen how it doesn’t work for regular people, and I’ve seen the walls that are built up around it that block people out and it sort of fortifies itself. It perpetuates the status quo that allows it to continue to live, for the people in power to stay in power, and I look around [thinking], we can definitely change this. And it’s really simple to me!
I talk about, in HTTH, creating a new southern strategy, like the history of our politics that shapes the Republican Party as it is today. But HTTH is not about party, just like honestly my campaign was not about party. There were folks that voted for Trump in ‘16 that were helping our campaign, and a lot of it was part of the populous message. I was telling a story, I was elevating their voices, telling a story that was real to them. With this organization, I want to help equip folks to start seeing opportunities to change things and influence positive change in our community as much more realistic. For instance, what’s happening in Louisville with Breonna Taylor, David McAtee—my cousins—certainly now, in the height of racial tension, there are people that are stepping out and getting into the streets that have never done it before. They just feel the urgency, just like the teachers at the capitol building, or the miners, and then after that I realized I need to do something. So how do I push for long term change, how do I begin the work? So once we go home tonight after we’ve been in the streets. We’ll go back in the streets tomorrow and the day after that, but what else do we do?
I want folks to be able to see their ability to activate the networks they already have, their ability to frame messaging, and their ability to build coalitions. So we’re going to have a fellowship program that trains folks on doing what I’ve had to do. I was the director of Fish and Wildlife, and I worked with folks that probably had said the n-word before. The way that I was able to get work done is, I leaned into our common values but I didn’t back down on what’s important to me. As a legislator I talk about structural racism and inequity. I stand up for women’s rights, and LGBTQIA+. I would be the one guy on the house floor who would speak up against the bills to ban abortion. I would speak from a historical standpoint and a position on faith. How can we use our common bonds to dig on these kinds of issues?
So faith can be used as a wedge a lot, but…we can push back on that. I can show up in my faith and say my faith teaches me to love everybody and see the humanity of all people and I’m not going to back down on that, but I love you anyhow. And if you disagree with me, I will let you know why I vehemently disagree on this—but here’s how we can work together. There is a way that we can engage these conversations—not with everybody, I’m not a fool, it’s not like this will work with everybody—but it will work with a lot of people. I think that if we can just activate folks to start seeing that, they can plug into organizations and help push the work, because they realize, ‘Oh, I have something to offer. My voice needs to be accounted for.’
I think one last point: we did a lot of relational organizing in the campaign. So we had folks who canvassed their families, their team, their youth group, so they started actively engaging them. They would send information, a text event, a virtual event, phonebank them, and before you know it, they had activated their network. And then the folks within their network would do it. And before you know it, you have a universe of people that if you want to push on an issue, they would all help rally the troops. This is the type of stuff you’d like to see party structures do, but they’re not even designed for that.
The website is hoodtotheholler.org—we are planning a big re-enfranchisement effort to register Kentuckians and focus on former felons. We want to give them tools—this is the political process, this is why the race is important, this is what you can do!
Find us on social media, too—@hoodtotheholler. We’re excited to get this off the ground!
I will be sure to spread the word! I really thank you for making sure all Kentuckians are seen as Kentuckians! We shouldn’t be ashamed of Kentucky—I used to hate feeling isolated in this community, but it’s really taught me to love it more. I know that [Kentucky] can still be better. One final question—on the topic of the police presence in Louisville and Breonna Taylor. I did a lot of research earlier regarding divesting from police funding, investing [instead] into education, and the punitive systems that are currently in place in schools across the United States. Could you talk a bit about the current state of Breonna’s case, how the Louisville Metro PD will increase or decrease in funding, and what would the benefits of diverting some of LMPD’s funding to education be? [What will it be like to separate] the two institutions—even though for so long, urban schools have been tied to police presence and it’s just not to the student’s benefit at all.
And on that last point, you’re so right. We all know now that there is a school-to-prison pipeline, and we know communities are overly criminalized. Part of our work is turning those places where education and enlightenment happen, into places where people can realize and surpass their dreams—as opposed to feeling like they are in a prison, feeling like their humanity is being washed away, their story is being washed away, [and] their trauma is being ignored. Which is why I stood up in the state legislature to oppose having armed officers in schools.
I think Breonna Taylor’s life and what happened to her opened the doors to many structural conversations, about the history of policing, how we police certain communities over others. It looks at the fact that we criminalize a plant, and that we criminalize drugs in a way that does not make communities safer. Her case brings up gentrification, it brings up years of inequity, it tells a really broad story. It tells of how policing has been used to protect property at the expense of people. It reminds us of our history [when] certain people were considered property. The idea of no-knock warrants where you can bust in someone’s home and be justified in killing them, it’s calling all that into question. It’s shining a light on our constitutional rights being deprived. It’s shining a light on militarized law enforcement, and it’s helping to make the case of reallocating our resources—our tax dollars—into actually making us safer.
When I’ve done interviews with national media, [I’ve said] we need to fully fund public safety. Because when people talk about defunding the police, that’s being turned into a scary place. No one wants to live in a world where if your door is being kicked, you can’t call and get some assistance. What we’re saying is that we need to empower our communities so that, if someone’s having a mental health crisis, an officer with a gun is not the solution. If someone is homeless and on the street, sending an officer with a billy club is not the solution. If children are having a fight in school, instead of dealing with the mental issues and restorative practices, having officers treat them like criminals doesn’t make things better. [We must put] more funding into community policing, mental health services, [and] education—directly investing in people. [We must account] for our history of injustice [originating] from slavery, that has allowed communities to have no shot at anything but struggling for generations. So how do we repair that, how do we provide justice for those who help build our economy that have never been compensated for that?
I am devastated that she’s gone, and she was really good friends with my cousin TJ, who was murdered on Easter Sunday in 2016. Losing her was like losing him over again. And as hard it has been for me, I see this as an opportunity to honor her legacy and her life by digging in on these deeper issues. Our law enforcement budget is greater than all the other agencies combined, but we’re not safer because of it. We have a lot of work to do. I think people are fired up to do it—they feel the sense of urgency. And I’m hopeful that we can make some real change now.