If you take the Watterson Expressway to get to Attica Scott’s home in Louisville’s West End, you travel a stretch of road honoring the late Georgia Davis Powers. She made history in 1967 by being the first woman, and first person of color, elected to Kentucky’s state Senate.
The sign provides an intersection of sorts, because the person you are on your way to visit is another history-maker:
By winning May’s Democratic primary for the District 41 seat in the Kentucky House, and with no Republican opponent in the fall, Scott will become the first African-American woman in almost 20 years to be elected to the state Legislature.
Though Scott won the three-way primary race handily with 59 percent of the vote, it was no small thing for her to prevail over Tom Riner, a conservative Democrat upon whom the expression “longtime incumbent” hung for a generation. He was elected to the House the same year “E.T.” first phoned home, which was the same year Disney’s EPCOT opened, which was also when the first compact disc player went on sale in Japan. If you have to ask, “what’s a compact disc,” that’s OK, because the year was 1982.
And that might have been the problem for Riner, with a challenger like Scott.
At 44 years old, she was born only 10 years before the start of Riner’s extended tenure in Frankfort, and her 5-foot frame hosts a soul and spirit known for speaking up, and showing up, especially when it counts, and even when it’s not about her.
As her first name suggests, from birth Scott’s parents instilled in her an awareness of human rights and social justice that has powered her career choices, her causes and her turn into elective politics. (Similarly, she and her ex-husband gave aspirational names to their 20-year-old son, Advocate, and their 15-year-old daughter, Ashanti — “warrior princess.”)
Scott’s homework on her potential district suggested that her 21st-century political and personal passions — increasing wages, ensuring reproductive rights for women, enacting statewide Fairness and bolstering education, among others — resonated with the constituents in her majority female, almost 50-50, black-and-white district, which stretches from the West End to St. Matthews.
That she could also talk sewers and roads sealed the deal. The potential became real.
When May’s primary votes were counted, there was no repeat of the bruising defeat Scott experienced two years earlier. That’s when she lost the District 1 Metro Council seat she held from 2011-14 to Jessica Green, the daughter of Scott’s predecessor, Dr. Judy Green, who had been removed from office over ethics violations. This time, Scott won.
Longtime supporters praise Scott’s intelligence, work ethic and moxie as traits that got her where she is, and ones which will serve her well in the Legislature.
Eleanor Jordan, a history-maker as the first African-American in Kentucky to be nominated for Congress in a general election (Democrat, 2000), and to serve as executive director of Kentucky’s Commission on Women, recalls their initial meeting years ago. Jordan had arrived first. The former legislator recalled looking out the window and “here comes this little lady walking up 28th Street.” Jordan said from that moment she knew: “I love this kid.”
She described Scott as “a quick study, not a mealy-mouth,” and that learning from people she least expects to learn from will help Scott in Frankfort.
Lawrence Winburn Jr., lead organizer for Laborers Union Local 576, said Scott is motivated more by what’s right and wrong than by party lines. He said she and a handful of other officials stood with Metropolitan Sewer District workers for a fair and binding contract.
“I know her as a fighter for justice and equality,” he said. “The people will have a true voice with her.”
Of her upcoming appointment with Frankfort, Winburn echoed Jordan’s observation that Scott is not intimidated, when he laughed, “I don’t think they’re going to be able to keep her quiet.”
Kentucky Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-34th District, described Scott as “dynamite … forceful, smart, doesn’t flinch, and she knows how to make friends and get along with diverse personalities as well.” Marzian said it takes a few voices to bring people around on issues, and she welcomes Scott to join “other good women who speak their minds in the caucus.”
Chris Hartman, director of Louisville’s LGBTQ Fairness Campaign, praised Scott’s ability to express why Fairness issues are important to the whole community and how they relate to other civil rights struggles. “Her politics came out of her passion for people and lifting many people up,” he said. “She was always there … not just when it benefited her.” He thinks she will bring “a different energy” to the legislature. “Her voice is so loud and clear, so resonant and undeniable, she will be listened to,” he said.
Let’s listen now. Following are excerpts of an interview conducted with Scott, shortly after her election when the conscientious former candidate was flanked by collected campaign signs stacked on her front porch. We start with people urging Scott to run for the District 41 office immediately after her Metro Council loss in 2014.
LEO: That must have felt great.
Attica Scott: It really did. It was a sense of realizing that I don’t belong to just me. My opportunity to serve on Metro Council opened me up to many different communities of people who needed and wanted a voice that reflected a very strong social justice platform and agenda, advocacy for people who don’t often feel as if they have an advocate.
LEO: You ran for the Kentucky House on fairness, social justice and increasing the minimum wage. How did you decide what your main issues would be?
AS: They’re my personal values and beliefs … and those values reflected the district. I did my research before even filing to run, and this is a district that is 71 percent Democrats, 62 percent women. These are issues that resonate for women. I need to make sure I am reflecting [them]. From the east to the west, I have people who are struggling from paycheck to paycheck, who believe in fairness, who are LGBTQ.
LEO: What advice have you gotten already about going to work in the capital of Kentucky?
AS: Reginald Meeks gave me some advice years ago. I think he saw me in Frankfort before I saw myself there. He said one of the things he did when he first got to Frankfort was visit all 120 counties with the legislators in the House from those counties, to get to know them and the issues in their county, and to build those relationships. I thought that was a great idea. It takes a while, but it’s worth the investment.
LEO: One of your allies said, ‘I don’t think they’re going to be able to keep her quiet,’ and that you don’t break along party lines: You’re about right and wrong. How will that help you, or send you into turbulent waters?
AS: Well, that’s true. One of the ways we were able to get unanimous Ban the Box legislation passed on the council is working across the aisle. [Editor’s note: The Ban the Box ordinance generally bars the city and many of its vendors from asking about convictions on the job application.] That wouldn’t have happened if I decided, oh, I’m the primary sponsor of this bill, and I’m only going to get Democrats: I’m not going to bother to talk to Republicans. For me, that’s not the way you govern. It says a lot when you have a unanimous bill passed. That means we all supported it — rather than, years from now, a Republican deciding we need to change this, or roll it back, because we never supported it in the first place. That doesn’t cause turbulence. That makes sense to me.
I know what it’s like to work across the aisle, and hold people accountable. I have to hold Democrats accountable, because Democrats aren’t always there on issues that matter to people I meet with on a day-to-day basis. Democrats aren’t always there on immigration, and sometimes we need to be pushed. Democrats aren’t always there when it comes to police accountability, and sometimes we need to be pushed.
LEO: How have Democrats, who have been in charge of the city for a while, failed the community on, say, gun violence?
AS: The failure to speak up, first and foremost, goes back to what [Lawrence Winburn Jr.] was saying. Some people you can’t keep quiet, because we know we have to be the voice. We know that not everyone has a platform, and not everyone is going to be able to be heard in the same way. So those of us that are in positions, need to speak up. If the [National Rifle Association] is coming to your city, and you don’t speak out about that, that’s a problem. I live in an area where gun violence seems like it’s regular. And even if it’s not gun violence, it’s gun shots. It’s regular. If you fail even to speak out and say, ‘I prefer they not be here. I wish they weren’t coming here.’ If you fail to do even that much, then you continue to fail us.
LEO: How has city leadership failed the people who are afraid of this?
AS: Not being willing to be bold: For our mayor to actually say [recently] in essence that he wouldn’t bother to go to Frankfort to get any gun legislation passed … Well, why not? Why not make Frankfort talk about it?
LEO: You challenged him publicly on that.
LEO: Did you ever hear back?
AS: No. I didn’t expect to.
LEO: The vast majority of Louisville’s 84 homicides last year were committed with guns. In the first three months of this year, 102 people were injured by gunshots in Louisville. What has to happen to at least slow these numbers down, and how will you use your new seat in Frankfort to do that?
AS: We must address the role of community, and police, in keeping our neighborhoods safe. We have to address factors like family and social support, and what is missing that is driving so many young people to gang life. We need to look at the drug and gun culture that has permeated some of our most vulnerable neighborhoods — places that have been weakened by poor public policy, including access to quality education, affordable higher education, gainful employment, etc.
I will fight for stronger gun laws in Frankfort, and other local and state elected officials must do the same. Mayor Fischer can push for more local gun control by working for change in Kentucky law. I will use my position, and my voice, and my commitment as a mom, to demand action on an issue that can save lives.
LEO: The sense of right and wrong, not going along party lines, being conscious of the past but being about the future — where does all this come from? What made you, you?
AS: My parents, starting with my name. They named me after the Attica prison. I was born about three months after the uprisings in 1971. [Editor’s note: Prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, rebelled for better living conditions and political rights.] That was their human rights event. My name has been a lifelong call to action. If people at Attica prison could stand up for their rights, the least that I can do is to stand up for mine, and the rights of others.
LEO: How are you going to create a slipstream for other people to follow your history-making change?
AS: I’ve already committed to all of my Emerge Kentucky sisters [whose group identifies, trains and encourages women to run for office, get elected and to seek higher office]. From now until November, I’m here to knock on doors, to make phone calls, to help fundraise [and] put me to work. If it’s just about me, then that’s not OK. It has to be about lifting up other women, and young women, and other women of color. There’s another black woman who is running for state representative [Democrat Tobie Brown, District 55], and I want to help her in every way possible. I want to see her win in November, and then we have to do the work to get other black women and Latinas in office.
LEO: How do you do that? There are 21 women out of 132 representatives and senators in Frankfort. It’s been so bad for so long.
AS: Emerge Kentucky is a fantastic program. We had a 100-percent win rate on primary election day. Eight women won. That was the first time ever. Every year, I am always recruiting, and I specifically focus on black women and Latinas to go into the Emerge Kentucky, because I know that’s where we have a gap in electoral leadership in Kentucky.
LEO: You have mentioned Eleanor Jordan as an important mentor. As I was coming here part of the highway was named after Sen. Georgia Powers. Can you share anything they said that you might take with you to Frankfort?
AS: I haven’t really thought about it in those terms, but I’ve had more than one person say to me: You know, there’s something spiritual about Sen. Powers dying this year — and then me getting elected to office — that we need to sit and think about what torch I’m carrying to Frankfort, and what legacy and history I’m taking with me.
I had an opportunity to be in the same space with Sen. Powers more than once … the Daughters of Greatness at the Muhammad Ali Center and … my campaign for Metro Council in 2014, and my daughter has a picture with Sen. Powers they took at the Women’s Political Caucus, when she was the guest speaker. But in 2014, when I opened the mail, and there was a donation check from Sen. Powers to my campaign …. well, I didn’t ask her. I was too intimidated. I’m happy she spoke to me! But there was a check. I didn’t have to ask. She wanted to invest in my campaign. She wanted to invest in that next generation of leadership, and that was huge.
LEO: So you really feel you’re not going alone.
AS: I know that I’m not going alone. Eleanor Jordan has been there with me since I first started serving on Metro Council. This year, she didn’t hesitate to sign on with Mary Lou Marzian to the letter of support to the district that they wrote for me. In fact, she got her sister to sign my filing papers.
LEO: Is there a teaching you try to live by?
AS: Fight the power, because I’m a big hip-hop fan. I’ve learned we need people to fight the power on the inside, and on the outside, and I’ve realized that I need to be one of those people working on the inside. I need to be, as much as possible, working in the system. Not necessarily of the system, but in it.
LEO: So that doesn’t make you establishment.
AS: I would never be establishment. I would never be accepted! And that’s just fine.
LEO: When you get to Frankfort, what are your priorities? What’s the first thing you’ll put up in your office?
AS: The first thing will be a picture of my kids. The first thing I want to do is get to know my colleagues.
LEO: Have you met Gov. Matt Bevin?
AS: I look forward to meeting the governor, so I can ask him about women’s vaginas, and how he can dictate what we do with our personal selves.
LEO: Are you going to ask him that?
AS: I am going to ask him that. •