In a stirring speech on Saturday, Charles Booker, a former Kentucky state representative and now a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate running to unseat Republican incumbent Rand Paul, shed light on the persistence of poverty in the Bluegrass State and made the case for why "Kentucky needs a New Deal" to curb runaway inequality and create a society that works for the many, not just the wealthy few.
"We've been getting screwed. We've been getting robbed. We have been receiving a bad deal."
"In the news and the national narrative we get talked about, we get disrespected, we get demeaned, we're doubted, we're cast aside," Booker said at the beginning of his speech in front of the Fayette County District Court in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. "But we know the truth. We're fighters. We're believers."
"We are here today as family, as fed up Kentuckians, as human beings that are ready to win a brighter future," Booker continued. "It starts today. We're going to make history today."
"You are part of something big right now," Booker told attendees, before going on to sketch the contours of the Kentucky New Deal, a sweeping vision for how to harness the power of government to improve the lives of working people throughout the Commonwealth. It centers on delivering clean water, quality healthcare, affordable housing, broadband internet, fully funded public education, living wage jobs in sustainable industries, and more to all Kentuckians—"from the hood to the holler," as Booker likes to say.
Despite the sacrifices made by Kentucky's multi-racial working class, he noted, the promise of widespread prosperity has not been realized, and in fact hardship is growing more acute.
Holding up his insulin pen, Booker, who has diabetes, lamented the fact that the medication he relies on to stay alive costs "more than my rent."
"That wasn't part of the deal," he added. "People going bankrupt to... try to pay medical bills or student debt wasn't part of the deal. Jobs leaving and never coming back wasn't part of the deal. Breonna's door being kicked in and her being killed in the dead of night wasn't part of the deal," he said, alluding to last year's murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police officers.
"Homelessness wasn't part of the deal," he added. "People not having food on their table was not a part of the deal!"
"We've been getting screwed," Booker stressed. "We've been getting robbed. We have been receiving a bad deal."
"The problem here—why I'm running to be your candidate for United States Senate—is because we have politicians like Rand Paul who have chosen corruption over our lives," he said. "Who have chosen to put money in their pocket while we suffer, lose our livelihoods, lose our loved ones."
Booker, who earlier this year said that Rand Paul "does not care whether we live or die," went on to recount how the Kentucky Republican's wife bought stock in the pharmaceutical company that makes remdesivir, an antiviral drug used to treat Covid-19, after the Trump administration briefed the Senate Health Committee on the coronavirus but before the pandemic had been declared.
"We are in the midst of what I call the Great Exploitation," said Booker. "We're at a point now where industries have left, haven't come back, communities have been left behind, people have felt so hopeless, they've felt like giving up."
It was in the context of worsening economic insecurity, Booker argued, that former President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign pledge to "make America great again" attracted millions of voters who had previously cast ballots for former President Barack Obama's promise of "hope and change" or for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) transformative agenda during the Democratic Party's 2016 presidential primary.
"Regular people are fed up and tired of being ignored."
Booker emphasized that "the system is broken." Trump, he said, made some people who are disgusted by more than four decades of bipartisan neoliberalism feel heard, but "he was weaponizing hate and fear and racism" and "never had a plan to actually help us heal."
Just as former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded to the Great Depression by enacting redistributive reforms that improved the material well-being of workers and staved off the growing threat of right-wing authoritarianism, Booker also believes that now is the time to pursue a humane and egalitarian alternative to the unjust status quo, which is at risk of becoming more anti-democratic in the absence of progressive political and economic change.
"We're here today because we've had enough," Booker told the audience in Lexington. "We're putting our foot down and we're going to turn course as a Commonwealth—all of us—to say that Kentucky deserves better. We can't wait for those politicians to do it for us, so we're going to do it ourselves. We're going to lead ourselves even if we come from the hood, if you come from the holler, if you've seen tough times you still matter."
"We're not waiting for Washington to come tell us what we want, to tell us what we deserve," he added. "We're gonna lead ourselves with a Kentucky New Deal. That's what this time demands."
Saturday's event marked the launch of a statewide organizing push to engage people from all walks of life, with the goal being to listen to what's most important to the Commonwealth's residents in order to craft the best possible Kentucky New Deal that provides a better future for all.
Notably, it coincided with the publication of an article in the New York Times arguing that the GOP's victories at the polls last week in Virginia—which depended in part on Republicans running up the score in sparsely populated, heavily white counties—expose the pressing need for Democrats to develop a compelling message to win back rural America.
"We're putting our foot down... to say that Kentucky deserves better."
Booker, who said Saturday that he doesn't care what party someone belongs to or whether they're registered, has a knack for connecting the plight of the dispossessed across geography and race—from the low-income and predominantly Black West End of Louisville, where he grew up and still resides, to downtrodden areas in Appalachia.
"The Kentucky New Deal is about us," he said. "It's about the people. It's about Kentuckians, no matter where you're from, how much money you have in your pocket, the color of your skin, the texture of your hair, whether you're walking or using a wheelchair, the pronouns you use. It's about the people."
Denouncing "the wedge issues that have driven us apart" and emphasizing the need for solidarity, Booker said that "at the end of the day, we have so much more in common than we do otherwise. If we stand together we can win together."
To unite seemingly disparate populations in a common fight against exploitation, Booker focuses his ire on the powerful forces responsible for reproducing poverty and environmental injustice throughout Kentucky.
"With the devastation of a global pandemic weighing down on us, the height of tension in our politics and in society, severely crumbling infrastructure, and the continued economic uncertainty from the loss of jobs and the decline of the fossil fuel industry, it is critical that we stand now to fight for our future," reads his campaign website. "Regular people are fed up and tired of being ignored. We are done with the days of politicians like Rand Paul exploiting us and making a mockery of our lives."
During his speech on Saturday, Booker said that "we're done with corruption, we're done with the greed and politics that is robbing us blind. We believe that Kentucky can do more than be at the bottom in everything!"
"A Kentucky New Deal," he added, "is our declaration that we deserve the greatest investment in our infrastructure in our Commonwealth's history! It's time for us to be the priority."
"Poverty can end!" he exclaimed. "We can fully and equitably fund our public schools... We can take care of our teachers that serve in the classroom and pay them more and protect their pensions."
Booker added that "no one has to ration their insulin in the United States of America. We can ensure great, quality healthcare for every single one of you with Medicare for All." Moreover, he said, "you deserve a guaranteed annual income."
Alluding to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "arc of the moral universe," Booker said that justice "doesn't just happen... We have to be the arc-benders. All of us."