Introducing the Louisville Six: Progressive, new lawmakers join the fight

For more of LEO’s preview coverage of the 2019 legislative session, go here.

Barreling into the 2018 midterms, predictions were that the blue wave was coming nationally and in Kentucky. Women, teachers and minorities were going to rise up against the chaos of Trumpism and the GOP stranglehold to retake the chambers of change.

In Louisville, at least, some of that happened.

Of the six new state legislators for Jefferson County entering the 2019 session, all are Democrats and five are women, including Kentucky’s first Indian-American state representative, Nima Kulkarni. The sixth freshman lawmaker, Charles Booker, is an African-American from The West End, who said:

“We are all tired of the political status quo, especially those from marginalized communities like my own. No matter where you are geographically or on the political spectrum, there is a consensus that things need to change.”

Three of Louisville’s new lawmakers have ties to education — a response, no doubt, to the public pension wars of 2018, which inspired 51 educators to run for office after many Republicans underhandedly nixed their underfunded pensions in favor of less-desirable savings plans. Fourteen won their races.

Louisville’s six new representatives will join a General Assembly that isn’t nearly as progressive as they are, however. Republicans maintain a super majority in both the state’s House and the Senate, and teachers, women and minorities are still vastly outnumbered.

At least the state’s conservative contingent isn’t operating as a hive mind.

Take Gov. Matt Bevin’s December special session, for example. Republican legislators adjourned the session after refusing to revive their pension reform bill that was slain by the Kentucky Supreme Court, a predictor that 2019 might be contentious.

The mood of this year’s short session hinges on whether Bevin files for re-election, said Al Cross, a Kentucky political observer. He would face a steadily growing army of Democratic contenders if he does. And Cross thinks he will.

The Louisville Six don’t seem bothered that the Republicans will have a clear advantage this year. In a series of answers to LEO questions, they talked optimistically about the coming session, with plans to work with their peers on legislation ranging from commonsense gun reform to the creation of additional sources of revenue for the state. Medical marijuana, anyone?

They shared their thoughts on working with conservative lawmakers and representing Louisville fairly. They vowed to concentrate on what their constituents want, not their chances of success.

“We must have clear priorities and work hard to achieve them despite being in the minority, because the voices of our constituents have a right to be heard,” said Kulkarni.


Josie Raymond, District 31

LEO: What are your top legislative issues?
Josie Raymond: Strengthening families through higher wages, expanded access to healthcare and educational opportunities including pre-K for all and affordable college.

Most people would balk at running for office. Why did you want to?
I’ve been working in poverty alleviation for 10 years. After hearing the same stories about the challenges of living in poverty again and again, I decided to do what I could to tackle the structural and systemic causes of inequity.

What do you hope and, separately, expect to accomplish in the upcoming session?
I plan to introduce several ambitious bills aimed at making life happier, healthier and safer for families in the 31st District. Being in the minority doesn’t limit my ability to communicate with my constituents and to start conversations about bold legislation.

With Democrats being in the minority in both chambers this session, what role should the members of your party play?
To my 44,000 constituents, I’m their state representative, not a member of the minority. It’s my job to present ideas to strengthen families in my part of town and across the state, to communicate those ideas and the other business of Frankfort back to my constituents and to be accessible.

How can Louisville lawmakers ensure that the city is being treated appropriately in the legislature given Louisville’s contribution to the state?
Kentucky’s success relies on Louisville’s success. The large, diverse Jefferson County Democratic Delegation is bringing a cohesive vision for an even stronger city that is independent and fair.

Tina Bojanowski, District 32

LEO: What are your top legislative issues?

Tina Bojanowski:

• Education. Repeal of charter schools. Reduction in high-stakes standardized testing.

• Revenue. Fully fund pensions by generating new revenue via medical marijuana and casino gambling.

• Democratic process. The ‘pension sewer bill’ process is just one example of undemocratic governing. At a minimum, bills should be read, actuarial analyses should be completed and the public needs to have an opportunity to provide input.

Most people would balk at running for office. Why did you want to?
When I was asked to run for the General Assembly, I was nearing completion of a Ph.D. in education and social change from Bellarmine University. I knew that I wanted to drive social change for those who are most vulnerable, but I wasn’t sure just how I was going to do it. The impact of state-level government on education led me to run; a concern for our democracy pushed me forward on a daily basis. I have always been someone who steps up when I see a need that is not being met. I ran for the KY House because I felt like my voice was not being heard, nor were the voices of many of the residents of District 32.

What do you hope and, separately, expect to accomplish in the upcoming session?
I hope to fight for public education, particularly the education of our most vulnerable students. The negative impact of high stakes standardized testing permeates K-12 education. I hope I can bring the voice of my fellow educators to the table as education legislation is written.

With Democrats being in the minority in both chambers this session, what role should the members of your party play?
I plan to introduce legislation that meets the needs of my constituents and that improves the lives of individuals and families. The role as a member of a minority party is one of developing relationships with legislators across the aisle and finding commonalities that lead to bipartisan support for legislation.

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How can Louisville lawmakers ensure that the city is being treated appropriately in the legislature given Louisville’s contribution to the state?
The best way for Louisville lawmakers to ensure that the city’s residence, commerce and infrastructure will be treated appropriately in the legislature is to stand as a unified group on matters regarding Louisville and to build relationships with legislators across the state.

Lisa Willner, District 35

LEO: What are your top legislative issues?
Lisa Willner: Progressive tax restructuring to raise revenue so that we can invest in people: well-resourced public schools, access to healthcare including mental health services and good-paying jobs.

Most people would balk at running for office. Why did you want to?
I ran for and won a school board seat in 2014 because I’m a believer in the potential of our public schools to change trajectories and transform lives. I ran to bring a more progressive vision to the board with a focus on the whole child, inclusion and equitable opportunities for all children and families, more relevant and deeply engaging learning experiences in the classroom, as well as to bring greater transparency to the board. From the vantage point of the school board seat, it became clear that many of the challenges we face come from policies enacted at the state level. Running for a House seat was an opportunity to move my advocacy for our schools, our children and our families further upstream.

I also acknowledge a sense of being knocked sideways by the 2016 election cycle. I was stunned by the vicious public attacks against women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities and working families. I was shaken by the charge against our fundamental democratic institutions like the free press, our public schools and an independent judiciary. After that year’s election results, I felt a sense of despair, soon followed by a firm resolve to do everything in my power to stand up for the people, the values and the institutions I hold dear.

With Jim Wayne as my longtime state representative, I’ve counted myself fortunate that my family’s values and perspective have been well-represented in Frankfort. I share Jim’s passion for social justice and working families. I’ve also long appreciated Jim’s recognition of the need for more women and more diverse voices in Frankfort. When Jim announced his retirement, I decided to step up and run for the seat.

What do you hope and, separately, expect to accomplish in the upcoming session?
I plan to continue conversations about increasing revenue for our state. I expect to join with other pro-public education legislators — from both sides of the aisle — to stand up for the future of our public schools. I plan to focus on issues that affect all Kentuckians, regardless of party, such as healthcare and mental health, good jobs, standing up for children and seniors, as well as the environment and infrastructure improvements that affect quality of life in our neighborhoods and communities.

With Democrats being in the minority in both chambers this session, what role should the members of your party play?
Democrats have a responsibility to give voice to the concerns of the people and communities we represent. We must serve as counterbalance to agendas that seek to consolidate wealth and power in the hands of the wealthy and powerful and to disenfranchise ordinary Kentuckians. We have a responsibility to inform and educate our constituents about legislation that would bring harm to people and communities and to work across the aisle to advance beneficial legislation and policies to improve educational, health and economic outcomes for ordinary people.

How can Louisville lawmakers ensure that the city is being treated appropriately in the legislature given Louisville’s contribution to the state?
What we lack in numbers, we can make up in coalition. I believe we need to work closely and engage with urban and suburban legislators from other parts of the state to identify common ground and common needs. It will also be important for the Jefferson County legislative delegation to support and communicate a unified vision for our city. At the same time, we need to build bridges with colleagues representing rural areas who face many of the same challenges we face here in Jefferson County in order to work together for common solutions. The raging opioid crisis which is ravaging communities across the Commonwealth, generational poverty and its associated trauma, threats of community and school violence, poor public health outcomes, underfunding of our public schools — these are shared challenges. Urban, suburban and rural communities all have contributions to make to collectively address these challenges — we must bring a collective recognition that we are all in this together and that it will take all of our communities working together to move our state forward.

Nima Kulkarni, District 40

LEO: What are your top legislative issues?
Nima Kulkarni: My top legislative priorities are securing pension funding for our public employees; protecting public education; strengthening and supporting organized labor; ensuring that our veterans receive the support they need to thrive; and, creating avenues for skills-based training and expanding small business resources in our communities.

Most people would balk at running for office. Why did you want to?
I looked at the way our representatives (both locally and nationally) were enacting policies that did not help working families, seniors, kids and the most vulnerable among us. I felt strongly that I needed to step up and be a voice for them. Public office is a public service and I am determined to make sure that the needs of my district and communities throughout Kentucky are represented.

What do you hope and, separately, expect to accomplish in the upcoming session?
I hope to be able to work with all of my colleagues in Frankfort to implement laws that help our communities, whether it’s ensuring crucial access to healthcare, strengthening public education, or finding new sources of revenue. I believe that if we get our priorities straight and remember that we are all there to serve the people of Kentucky, we can accomplish this. My expectation is that, while we may not be able to pass all the legislation that we would like to, important conversations will be started and continued. I am encouraged by the large group of incoming freshman legislators who will bring new perspectives with them to Frankfort in the upcoming session.

With Democrats being in the minority in both chambers this session, what role should the members of your party play?
We must stand strong and safeguard our democratic values. We are seeing an unprecedented attack on fundamental Constitutional principles of liberty, equality and justice to the detriment of our citizens. We are seeing policies being pushed through that are hurting Kentuckians, without adherence to basic procedures for transparency and fairness. We must have clear priorities and work hard to achieve them despite being in the minority, because the voices of our constituents have a right to be heard.

How can Louisville lawmakers ensure that the city is being treated appropriately in the legislature given Louisville’s contribution to the state?
I will work with the Louisville delegation in Frankfort to build a strong agenda. I will also work to build coalitions across the state to make sure that Louisville continues to be a strong economic engine for Kentucky.

Charles Booker, District 43

LEO: What are your top legislative issues?
Charles Booker: My focus areas revolve around six pillars: criminal justice reform, educational equity, economic opportunity, civil rights, the health of the Commonwealth and citizen empowerment. Criminal justice reform focuses on addressing the issue of mass incarceration and criminalization, closing private prisons, pre-trial incarceration reform and juvenile justice. Educational equity focuses on closing the opportunity, funding and excellence gaps in our public schools and making sure we support our hardworking teachers to have every tool to reach each student where they are. Economic opportunity focuses on living wages, wealth creation in areas of concentrated and generational poverty, closing pay gaps, supporting local entrepreneurism, strengthening organized labor and greater access to trade professions. Civil rights refers to breaking down barriers to the ballot box, restoring the rights of those who have paid their debt to society and fighting against all forms of discrimination.

The health of the Commonwealth focuses on the mental, physical and environmental health. This largely speaks to access to healthcare, mental trauma, environmental racism/injustice and the issue of gun violence as a public health crisis. Citizen Empowerment focuses on getting more people to engage the democratic process. I will create district offices for the first time in our community as a way to increase access and accountability. I will also focus on recruiting more people of color, youth, women, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized Kentuckians to pursue office and other leadership positions.

Most people would balk at running for office. Why did you want to?
We are all tired of the political status quo, especially those from marginalized communities like my own. No matter where you are geographically or on the political spectrum, there is a consensus that things need to change. I was taught early on to be the change that I want to see and this led me to step up. As a young black man from Louisville’s West End, I know that the prospects for all of our families depend on effective, courageous, honest and accountable leadership. Without question, we are at a juncture that will determine the future of Kentucky and this entire country. For me, this is a matter of survival.

I chose to run because I know without a doubt that we can do better for Kentuckians. As a father of two beautiful girls, I want to stand for them and make sure every child has systems around them to propel them toward their dreams. In addition to that, I am convicted to fight for families like my own who have suffered the unyielding pain of gun violence. I believe we can lead for the changes that will transform life outcomes for our families. My number one objective is to break down the barriers that drown out the voices of marginalized communities when it comes to the state legislature. The power is in the people, so I want to ensure that this seat is clearly and unequivocally the people’s seat.

What do you hope and, separately, expect to accomplish in the upcoming session?
In this upcoming regular session, I look forward to being a fighter for democracy and raising a standard against attempts to block out the public from the debates that will shape their futures. With battles looming over pensions, public schools and organized labor, I hope to be a voice that keeps the doors of the people’s house open for all Kentuckians and lead on solutions that keep our promises to our teachers, students and all of our hard-working women and men. In addition to that, I am hopeful that leaders from both sides of the aisle will come together to finally put the restoration of voting rights on the ballot. I have pre-filed legislation to do so and believe support is growing to make this happen.

We made significant progress with the passage of expungement legislation. My hope for this session is that we can build on that progress and strengthen this legislation so that more Kentuckians have the ability to expunge their records and move ahead toward living gainful lives. I also hope to advance legislation that will address our growing issue of youth homelessness, as well as legislation that will provide necessary pretrial reforms that prevent our jails from being overcrowded simply because people cannot afford to pay bail. I am also hopeful that common sense gun reforms, such as red flag laws, will make significant progress.

With Democrats being in the minority in both chambers this session, what role should the members of your party play?
The role Democrats should always hold is that of a bold voice to build coalitions, uplift all Kentuckians, resist hatred and promote solutions that put us all on a path to a stronger economic future. We need to make sure that our priorities and representatives reflect every person in this Commonwealth. We also have a responsibility to engage and empower Kentuckians to organize against any corruption or back-room deals that put more money in the hands of the wealthiest few, all while breaking the backs of hard-working women and men from the Chickasaw neighborhood to Pike County and everywhere in between. We need to make sure Kentuckians know they matter, regardless of being in the minority or not. In doing that, we can engage more people to come from the sidelines, remove barriers that keep others disenfranchised and turn the tide away from the destructive, dysfunctional mess being led by the current governor.

How can Louisville lawmakers ensure that the city is being treated appropriately in the legislature given Louisville’s contribution to the state?
We build a better Kentucky by bridging the divides that have often put Jefferson County at odds with other parts of the state. This requires that Louisville Lawmakers not only push policies and allocations that bring more investment into our city, but to help close up the commonly referenced ‘urban-rural divide.’ I look forward to helping in that work, by traveling across Kentucky to build relationships and discuss common concerns that can support families right here in Jefferson County. One goal I have is to create a forum series where rural legislators come to my district and vice versa to discuss issues and hear from residents. I also look forward to supporting measures that can give our local government greater authority to address issues like vacant/abandoned housing and gun violence. We also need to thoroughly review current state tax incentives to look for ways to more equitably spur investment in local business. Finally tackling tax reform will also be an important opportunity to modernize our system, push back on regressive taxes and lessen the burden on many struggling families right here in Louisville. I will be a relentless voice for our city and work without rest to ensure that our state government remains accountable to our needs and aspirations as valued tax-payers.

Maria Sorolis, District 48

LEO: What are your top legislative issues?
Maria Sorolis: Education, government transparency, infrastructure.

Most people would balk at running for office. Why did you want to?
I grew weary of the legislature wasting time passing bills that do not create real ‘fixes’ to the challenges we face and spending time bickering instead of accomplishing things for the people of our state.

What do you hope and, separately, expect to accomplish in the upcoming session?
I hope to begin work on meaningful modernization of our tax code. Exploring additional sources of revenue.

With Democrats being in the minority in both chambers this session, what role should the members of your party play?
It is my hope that both sides recognize we will continue to lose ground until we can come together to work to accomplish things and that the best laws do not lie at either extreme of the political spectrum.

How can Louisville lawmakers ensure that the city is being treated appropriately in the legislature given Louisville’s contribution to the state?
We must have a role in leadership and remind the legislature that we are the economic engine of the state so it is important to keep this engine healthy and growing and we,, in turn, can work with other metropolitan areas to help them grow their own economic engines.

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