Two weeks before Mitch McConnell defeated two-time Democratic incumbent Walter “Dee” Huddleston in an election that gave him ownership of the Kentucky Senate seat he now holds, Charles Booker — the man looking to unseat the 35-year Senator and five-time incumbent — entered this world. McConnell narrowly won the 1984 well-matched race against his moderate opponent by less than .05 percent of the vote, flipping a temporarily blue seat, red, and ushering in more than three decades in the halls of Capitol Hill.
But on November 3, Booker, a Kentucky House Representative and the youngest Black state lawmaker, hopes to put a stop to that streak, terminating McConnell’s tenure and capping the career of the longest-serving Republican leader in U.S. Senate history. Before he squares off with the man self-dubbed the “Grim Reaper,” he must first win the Democratic nomination — and that won’t be easy.
In addition to having a fierce competitor in former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, today’s primary election in Kentucky is already projected to be a “disaster.” Civil rights and voting rights activists note that polling locations have been cut drastically throughout the Commonwealth, and in Louisville, Booker’s hometown, voting venues have dwindled to one. But for Booker, who proudly shares, “I don’t come from politics, I come from the poorest zip code in Kentucky,” it is issues like this that move him to serve.
“Kentucky has been one of the most disenfranchised States in the country,” Booker tells ESSENCE days before the Kentucky primary. “A lot of folks have just given up, they’ve given up on politicians, who they know don’t care about them, especially Mitch McConnell. And they’re just too busy trying to survive. That’s why this campaign, my candidacy, is so important because I’m making it clear that this is not just about beating Mitch McConnell. It’s about getting him out of the way so that we can transform our future.”
Creating an equitable, just and environmentally sound future is of the utmost importance for the husband and father of two. It’s the reason he says he is running. “They saved my life,” Booker confesses of his daughters aged 12 and four. “They helped me see that the world is big, and I’m doing this specifically because I want this place to be better for them.” A part of that, he notes, is addressing structural issues and openly talking about generational poverty. “I’ve felt a lot of weight on my shoulders as a father to make sure that I’m not passing down the same types of struggles that my grandparents handed to my parents and that they, as hard as they have fought and worked so hard, still passed to me.”
Systemic struggles are something Booker says McConnell simply wouldn’t understand. In fact, he says it’s something none of his opponents understand. “I’ve lived the challenges that a lot of politicians talk about, candor and tweet about, and that Mitch McConnell denies even exist.”
Booker is the son of two high school dropouts, grew up underprivileged in the west end of Louisville, and says he’s nearly lost his life twice trying to ration the medication needed for his type one diabetes. “For me, this is really about survival,” the Medicare For All supporter says of his determination to represent the state of Kentucky in the Senate. “I use my pain and my trauma and my conviction… and I’ve been able to use the issues that drive me to affect change in legislation.”
As a member of Kentucky’s House of Representatives, Booker has introduced and helped pass bills to provide more availability to prescriptions. He’s also pushed for cash bail reform and expunging records and was the lead sponsor on a bill allowing over 150,000 Kentuckians the right to vote. Booker says in his role as a legislator he’s constantly thinking about ways to put more resources into economic opportunities for marginalized communities: How to invest in the communities that were ravaged by the war on drugs? How to reimagine policing and establish a system review board that tracks how law enforcement agencies are actually conducting themselves?
“I think Kentucky is seeing that I mean what I say,” Booker insists. “I’ve stood on the picket line, marched with them, standing in the front lines, on the streets, getting hit with tear gas myself and they want someone they know is going to fight for them.”
Following George Floyd’s death, and in wake of the law enforcement-involved deaths of Breonna Taylor and David McAtee, Booker has been a mainstay at Louisville protests. He says his work speaking to local and state leadership as a legislator, coupled with his conviction and vision, has given a grieving community the belief that they can move forward together. He believes that at this moment, as the country is dealing with a global pandemic and the height of racial tensions, it’s clear that Kentucky and the nation need leadership that “understands structural racism, that is not blind to inequity, and that can get the job done, that can get results.” Booker says that Kentucky is putting the country on alert that they are filled with inspiration, hope, and resolve. They are ready for change.
The road to victory won’t be easy for the Louisville native who bills himself to be everything McConnel is not, but he says he’s ready to redefine what electability means. “I’m making it clear that if you have lived the struggle and you come from the wrong side of the tracks, the things that you have experienced, the things that you’ve seen, the adversity you’ve overcome, is critically important to the type of leadership we need to actually change those things.”
Booker is happy to be that voice of change and shine a light on the need for visionary leadership and courageous leadership that will stand on the front lines, and that will speak up for a structural and systemic change, for system-level change. He’s happy to elevate the voices of people like him who have been demanding justice, accountability, equity, and the opportunity to do more than just struggle. He says his growing momentum is “showing that our voices matter and we’ve been ignored for a long time.” The people in Kentucky who have felt invisible, finally feel like someone is hearing their concerns.
Today Booker expects a higher turnout than normal. “I believe that there’s a heightened sense of urgency and there’s a very pervasive sense of desperation, that people feel the pressure of knowing that if we don’t take a stand, that things will get worse,” he says. The University of Louisville graduate is banking on that fervor to propel him to a win. And given the chaos that is projected to ensue at the polls, he’ll need it. Justice and accountability aren’t likely to come from a man who has spent 35 years representing Kentucky without representing the interests of Kentuckians, Booker says. But voters will be the ones who decide if it is Booker who is the best person to enter the halls of Congress and speak for the people.
“I’ve had family members enslaved in Kentucky. My ancestors were lynched in Kentucky. My grandad fought for desegregation here in Kentucky,” Booker proudly proclaims. “I am honoring that history and that responsibility so that more people can know that they deserve to lead at the local state and federal level. That’s happening in Kentucky. And I hope the whole country keeps their eyes on them.”
Charles Booker may be 35, and he certainly does not have as many years in service as a career politician like Mitch McConnell. But the “Black man from the wrong side of the tracks” says he’s put in the work and he has what it takes. “I have the vision and the ability to bring people together in a moment where we have to stand in order to change things,” Booker declares. “And I’m proud, I’m proud of that. And I look forward to looking Mitch McConnell in the eyes and telling him it’s time to go.”