Conventional wisdom might describe Charles Booker’s career as one misstep after another.
He got fired for appearing in an ad for an opponent of Mitch McConnell. He angered an icon of Louisville’s African-American community by running against him. And his first major statewide campaign swing took him into deep red Trump coal country on something he called the “Green New Deal Tour.”
Booker doesn’t see those as gaffes at all. He doesn’t buy the conventional wisdom. He sees it as the problem.
In his new book, From the Hood to the Holler – A Story of Separate Worlds, Shared Dreams, and the Fight for America’s Future, Booker makes a persuasive case that not only are those examples not unforced errors, they represent the only way to success.
It’s hard to argue with Booker’s disdain for politics as usual. In Kentucky it’s produced veto-proof Republican majorities in the legislature. Republicans are running unopposed in nearly half of this fall’s legislative contests. At the federal level, one lone Democrat represents Kentucky, and politics-as-usual accepts its two Senators as unbeatable.
Slaying the big dragons
Hood to the Holler is structured as a campaign biography book, but its narrative describes a life of experience that Booker says offers a sword for slaying the most formidable dragons.
It’s an approach of impatience. Of not waiting your turn. It’s an approach that if it sounds critical of the tactics of his own party, so be it. It’s an approach sick of hearing lifetimes of failed promises to solve problems in the neighborhood where he grew up. Or just as significant, lifetimes of similarly failed promises to the hills and hollers of Kentucky.
It’s an approach that brought Booker national attention this month when he released a campaign video with a noose around his neck; his way of calling attention to Sen. Rand Paul’s tactics that delayed approval of an anti-lynching bill for two years.
The book is full of storytelling detail that makes for entertaining reading. There’s inside accounts of working in the statehouse, and of his urgent phone calls to the governor and the mayor trying to ease tensions at the site of YaYa’s BBQ Shack, where David McAtee was shot to death during the Breonna Taylor protests.
I won’t quit, you’ll have to fire me
What comes through loudest and clearest, however, is how his family shaped who he is and guided his choices. Growing up he woke each morning to walls covered with every award or recognition he’d ever received – part of his mother’s determination to pack him full of confidence. Before any major career step, he consulted with parents and grandparents, and prayed over the decision. With family and God behind him, he always dove in certain he was making the right move.
Like the time he had a chance to appear in a campaign ad for Alison Lundergan Grimes in her 2014 run against McConnell. Booker knew such a public endorsement could cause problems for his job at the non-partisan Legislative Research Commission. But he thought he might squeak by with a narrow reading of the rules that prohibited involvement in legislative politics. More importantly, he saw the message of the ad as essential to his life’s work of telling the story of Louisville’s West End and the support it needed. When he was called into the office and urged to resign because of the ad, he refused. He felt strongly enough that what he did was right that he would force them to fire him. (Which they did.)
Two stories in the book especially stand out as describing what makes Booker tick.
One is the in-depth telling of his relationship with Sen. Gerald Neal, who has represented West Louisville since 1989. Booker wormed his way slowly, persistently into Neal’s good graces, riding with him on trips to Frankfort, shadowing him through the legislature and becoming something of a protégé.
But there was trouble in paradise.
Booker grew restless with what he saw as get-along-go-along tactics in the African-American leadership. He increasingly thought progress was too slow. So in 2016 Booker filed to run against Neal in the primary. Neal, feeling betrayed, vowed to crush Booker’s career. After Neal beat Booker in a landslide, as Hood to the Holler tells it, their relationship moved gradually over the years to one of cordiality, but the wound never fully healed.
The other telling story comes two years later when Booker ran for the open House seat in the Kentucky Legislature. The 43rd is a majority minority district, and the seven candidates in the primary focused their campaigns on their base, the mainly Black precincts.
Except for Booker. He showed that the path to election success isn’t just about the base.
Campaigning while Black
Booker canvassed through the eastern part of the district, four times getting the police called on him for campaigning while Black. He let a lot of well-intentioned innuendo roll off his back (“Why don’t they go to school and do better?”). He talked with those who would open their doors to him about crime and jobs. As election day approached the only Democratic yard signs he saw in the eastern part of the district were for Booker.
On election night Black precincts were getting counted first and Booker was neck-and-neck with one other candidate for the top spot. Family and friends were nervous. But not Booker. He knew the results from the eastern part of the district would be different. At the end of the evening he had 29% of the crowded field to the 2nd-place finisher’s 22%.
Other compelling and instructive tales from Booker’s life include a vivid description of his diagnosis of type 1 diabetes – the terror of the severity of the incurable condition, the shame of being seen as weak, the crushing expense of the daily treatment, and the near-death experiences that came along with it.
His job at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources is an occasionally hilarious account of a stranger in a strange land, as Booker navigates and learns to fit in with the hunting and gun culture. When department and KET-TV legend Tim Farmer took him out for experience shooting a gun to help “the new black guy” fit in to the department’s customs, Booker said, “in my neighborhood, when somebody’s got a gun, it’s not to hunt deer.”
Farmer’s friendship did help Booker fit in, and his job at Fish and Wildlife opened up new worlds that would make him a better candidate for statewide office. It would be a step toward developing a political philosophy that people in rural Kentucky aren’t so different from those in the West End of Louisville.
Booker put that philosophy into stark, make-or-break practice in his campaign for the 2020 primary against Amy McGrath for the chance to run against McConnell. The audacious Green New Deal tour visited coal miners and talked to Trump voters. He told them about his mom and his faith. He listened to stories of families ravaged by opioids and about their desire for better jobs. When he heard them say they wanted clean water, lower utility bills and good-paying jobs that don’t cause black lung disease, he told gatherings, “Call it a Green New Deal or don’t call it a Green New Deal. But let’s get the solutions we need.”
A critique of the Democrats
When Booker critiqued promises to bring back coal jobs, observing the reality that they were actually leaving, one man responded, “They’re already gone.” Booker listened to a woman who apologized for voting for Trump, explaining, at least he “was talking about us like we existed.” When she told him, “No one ever cares about us,” he heard the mountains echoing a refrain he’d heard all his life growing up in the West End.
It was on that tour that he developed a campaign theme and the name of his book, saying, “We are going to bring change for all of us, from the hood to the holler.”
The slogan recognizes that people in Appalachia and the West End all have lousy internet service. They all need better health care access. They need people to pay attention to them and quit breaking promises.
Booker doesn’t spare people of his own party for letting people down.
His decision to run against his mentor Gerald Neal came from frustration over what he saw as too much of a willingness to accept half a loaf. He criticizes state Democrats for getting “caught flat-footed” while Mitch McConnell and the Republicans took over the state because, “for years, McConnell’s power has kept Democrats scared of their own shadow.”
Booker refers to an Amy McGrath interview during the primary campaign in which she said she would look for ways to work with Trump as “a complete slap in the face. We were desperate for change, and McGrath sent the message that nothing was really going to change.”
Spoiler alert: now I’m going to reveal to you the completely unsurprising ending of Hood to the Holler: Even as he is still licking his wounds from the primary loss to McGrath, Booker decides to run against Sen. Rand Paul.
But if his book is any guide to how he will approach that upcoming contest, the campaign won’t just be about replacing Paul. Evidence of that can be found in what he says about the state Senate race when he challenged Sen. Neal: “My goal wasn’t just to appeal to 51 percent of the voters of the district. My goal, lofty as it may sound, was to transform the whole way we approached politics in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
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