Charles Booker has become one the brightest stars in Kentucky politics over the past few election cycles, radiating charisma and preaching unity, but he once again finds himself a heavy underdog in a U.S. Senate race, this time against incumbent Rand Paul. A win for Booker — a progressive Democrat running in a statewide election against a candidate with deep pockets and sweeping name recognition — would be seismic politically, likely changing the way future political hopefuls campaign in the Commonwealth. It would also be an extremely costly loss for Republicans in what’s expected to be a razor-close finish to determine which party establishes U.S. Senate control after the Nov. 8. midterms.
A win for Paul would be business as usual.
Before the votes come flowing in, we caught up with Booker for a conversation about his current bus tour, Rand Paul’s campaign ads and why he chooses to run for Senate instead of a seat that’s more Louisville-focused and Democrat-friendly.
The 38-year-old former state representative was fired up and confident as Election Day nears.
LEO: You’re currently on a three-week bus tour all across Kentucky. What have you collectively been hearing as the main issues from constituents when you’re on the road — from all over? And if elected to Senate, how would you address those issues?
Charles Booker: Well, of course, during this tour, but even before in the last couple of years, I’ve been really working across Kentucky. And the concerns have been pretty constant — being able to afford to survive, to put food on the table, to afford your medication. But one of the glaring issues that is just jumping out and also substantiating why this race is so powerful: people are tired of the division. They’re tired of the chaos and the dysfunction, they’re tired of the attacks on democracy. And they’re really just tired of the political status quo, and they want things to change, they want to get to a place where everyone can live a good life… and, you know, we can rest assured that democracy will be protected and that our communities will be safe, and so that is really at the heart of my work. Anyway, which is why I’m proud to be Kentucky’s nominee for the United States Senate. I say that because Rand Paul doesn’t represent Kentucky. We’re empowering citizen lobbyists, training folks to do that type of work. We’re focused on opening regional offices again, so that we’ll have more connectivity and be able to build with the people of Kentucky. And, one of the first orders of business for me is protecting the right to vote and breaking down those barriers to the ballot box, so that the people of Kentucky can be heard. And so I’m committed to that fight, certainly protecting human rights and the rights of women and those who become pregnant. The efforts to ban abortion is really, honestly, a lot of people from all political walks of life will realize that that is inhumane.
That’s super interesting, about people talking about the division and wanting to feel unified. Obviously, over the past few years, we’ve had a high political temperature. And, a lot of politicians, especially on the right wing, like Trump, have sent out very divisive messaging. Do you think that we we need politicians to have a tone shift in terms of how they present their message, how they present their vision? I always thought elections are either ran on hope or fear. Could you speak a little bit about political tone?
Yeah, honestly, that last point that you raise is… I agree, I believe that, too. I think that this campaign, my race against Rand Paul, is really the epitome of hope, which is what we’re lifting up — hope, humanity, love, standing as family, versus division and fear and chaos and conspiracy theories. And look, even folks who voted for Trump, many of them are now organizing on my campaign. They’re just worn out, they’re tired of all the mess and all the fighting. People just want things to get better, in their homes and in their communities. And in a lot of ways, Donald Trump spoke to that, he was exploiting it, but he was calling out that the system is broken. And it’s the same thing that Bernie Sanders did, and, in a lot of ways, you can see how a lot of the folks that voted for Trump voted for Bernie Sanders. And then they voted for Rand Paul thinking that he was going to fight the system and then they realized he was bullshitting. And so… I don’t know if you have to edit that out.
No, it’s LEO, we can run that.
Feel free, feel free. But no, I do believe that assuming the power of love and going to communities that have been ignored for a long time — urban and rural the same. I’m just saying, ‘Look, I’m here to listen to you, I love you, I’m fighting for you. Even if we don’t agree on everything.’ Kentucky needs this, but the country needs this. And that’s why this victory will be a shining light on November 8th, for the country and the world.
Along the same sort of lines — how politicians present themselves to the public and how that matters — I would say probably over the last two years the biggest thing that Rand Paul might be known for is going at Dr. Fauci as hard as he did during COVID. It almost became like a public spectacle. Like a game. A screaming match. What did you make out of that?
You know, quite honestly, it was disturbing. You know, it almost seemed like it was a fantasy of Rand Paul to, you know, to mock and demean and just blatantly disrespect and to lie on a very proven, renowned immunologist, someone who is actually certified, someone who has proven to be a professional. And, you know, one of the things that really smacked me in the face and a lot of folks across Kentucky is that it was clear he didn’t… he doesn’t care about us. He doesn’t care about the Commonwealth. It was all political theater, and look, while he was fighting and bickering and having pillow fights with Dr. Fauci, he was voting against relief during COVID. He voted against disaster relief. He’s voted against health benefits for veterans. He’s voting against the things that we need. And people are tired of it, man. You know, look, I don’t really care how he feels about Dr. Fauci. He can, you know, draw cartoon pictures about him all day if he wants, but he does not need to represent Kentucky in the U.S. Senate because we have real needs. And we need change right now. So I’m going to replace him, so that we get the leadership that we deserve.
Rand also didn’t debate you, although you called for it. Do you think that’s a disservice to the public?
It wasn’t a slight to me at all. I don’t need to debate him to beat him. His record is clear. And you know, as soon as he opens his mouth, it is abundantly clear why the people of Kentucky need to replace him. Yeah, avoiding the debate stage on a neutral setting, where neither candidate decides the terms — KET, that’s a very seasoned and proven venue for the entire Commonwealth — it really was a slap in the face to the people of Kentucky, it was a middle finger to the people of Kentucky… since he said that he doesn’t believe he needs to be held accountable to our families. But, you know, as sad as that is, it’s not surprising. He has been hiding from Kentucky for years, he said he’s only going to run two terms. He’s running a third term because he’s been a hypocrite the whole way. And I’m running the campaign that is focused on the people of Kentucky and our ability to stand as family, but I’m also calling them out. And he doesn’t want to face the heat. You know, he’s been lying on me and saying that we’re condoning violence, which is just such a gross, really ridiculous attack that he should retract and apologize for. But he’s doing everything he can to try to hide himself from people to see through him. And the people of Kentucky are fired up. We’re going to make history on November 8th, and there really is nothing he can do about it.
Let’s unpack those attacks in the ads a bit. How would you respond [Editor’s Note: Sen. Paul released an ad a few weeks ago that claimed the Booker campaign “has repeatedly embraced people who celebrate and glorify violent attacks against Senator Paul.” The ad ends by saying “Charles Booker doesn’t believe in civil discourse, only violence.”]
Well, you know what, my only real response is: The people of Kentucky are tired of the political games, man. Look, I don’t have to lie on Rand Paul. My campaign is not built on tearing him down or anyone down. We’ve had enough of that, you know, and the fact that he is making these ads to blow dogwhistles and to try to weaponize racism. And every time he talks about defunding, is he’s esstentially saying, ‘Look at the color of Charles’s skin, ignore his record.’ I’ve worked with men and women in uniform. I’ve built coalitions to address violence as a public health crisis focused on the social determinants of health. I’ll sit on the front line, to make sure that we help keep our community safe. I’ve done it in a bipartisan way. You know, he’s not really focused on the issues. He doesn’t care about keeping up communities safe, or addressing violence. He just wants to sow hate and fear. And it really is despicable. It’s beneath the office of the U.S. Senate. And he really should resign, but, you know, we’ll just beat him, and make sure that he’s not there to keep hurting the people of Kentucky.
When you’re talking to someone who might be still undecided at this point, or someone who traditionally votes Republican, what’s your pitch to them?
Well, you know, to be honest with you, I don’t really have to make a pitch. You know, the people of Kentucky have been pissed off, and have been frustrated and are really tired. And honestly, you’re gonna be hard-pressed to find anyone that actually likes Rand Paul. Basically, all we’re doing is showing up to say, ‘Look, I’m here to fight for you, regardless of what your party is — you’re my family.’ If you’re tired of being ranked at the bottom of damn near everything, if you believe our families need more money in their pocket, and quality healthcare and medicine, if you believe you turn on the faucet and water should be clean, and internet shouldn’t be crap, if you believe our communities should be safe. And you know, that’s really our message. This is for the regular people that get counted out. And this is about love. And, you know, I’m proud most about what we’re inspiring in young people, and independents, and Republicans and Democrats who have been disenchanted. A lot of people are getting involved in this campaign to be organizers and are volunteering, who have never done it before. And, you know, we’re really just wrapping our arms around them, and showing up. When the floods hit, they saw us on the ground. They still see us on the ground. The same when the tornado came. And this is what family does. And, you know, we’re just telling that story. It’s been Kentucky’s story the whole time. Rand Paul has just been ignoring it. And so, I’m proud of us. I’m proud of Kentucky, and we’re gonna win this race.
Obviously, for Democrats, especially progressive Democrats, winning a statewide race, like a Senate race, has traditionally been an uphill battle in Kentucky. I’d imagine it goes toward your goal of unity, but why have you been running for U.S. Senate where the whole state votes, instead of looking at something like mayor of Louisville with Greg Fischer on his last term, or John Yarmuth’s Congressional seat that he’s retiring from? What is it about the Senate that’s magnetic to you?
Well, you know, ultimately, my life’s work — I believe this is part of my ministry — is bringing people together. And in order for us to realize justice and healing in my neighborhood in Louisville, but also across Kentucky, we need leaders at the statewide level that will raise the standard against hate and division. And we can’t ignore that work. You know, ignoring it is how we got January 6th. And I’ve had the privilege of working across the Commonwealth of Kentucky, serving in the state legislature and seeing how Washington is screwing us on purpose. And, to be quite honest, man, I fell in love with the Commonwealth. I was the director of Fish & Wildlife, I’ve been from corner to corner [of Kentucky] throughout my career, and I realized that change is possible. Even though a lot of folks in politics have given up on it. I’m not giving up on it. And, this is a love story for my hood. But it’s a love story for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. And again, man, this is just what family does. I’m proud I get to do this. I’m proud to be the first Black Kentuckian to be a major party nominee for U.S. Senate. And I’m proud to take down and soundly defeat Rand Paul in about 18 days.
I always like when politicians share a very personal interaction with someone they met on the campaign trail. Do you have one of those stories, from this past week, when you’ve been sort of ramping up — an interesting person that you met that might have sort of inspired you in a way?
You know, I do. It’s actually a woman who was in hospice. Her name is Beverly. And we were sending out messages to encourage folks who have a plan to vote, you know, asking for support, of course. And Miss Beverly responded to our text and said, ‘Well, I’m in hospice, but I’ve already voted absentee. And I voted for Charles Booker.’ And so I reached out to her to thank her and tell her I was praying for her. And her response was, ‘Well Charles, this will likely be my last vote. But I’m so grateful I get to make it for you.’ She encouraged me. She told me to stay steady. And to finish the race. She didn’t complain about her issue. She encouraged me. And, to me, that’s what Kentuckians do. We show love to one another. Even when we’re facing hard times, so that definitely… like, it’s choking me up now thinking about it. But that’s why I feel proud to do this. •
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