Kentucky voters are ready for a bold progressive agenda.
On a bitterly cold day in late January, I knocked on the door of a home in Louisville, Kentucky’s Camp Taylor neighborhood. I was running for state representative in a Democratic primary and was spreading the word about my candidacy. Camp Taylor was an interesting community politically: It was full of registered Democrats who hadn’t been turning up to vote in recent elections.
A woman in her 50s came to the door and peeked through the curtain at me. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Richard Becker and I’m running for state representative!” She turned the deadbolt and opened the door.
“I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself and find out what issues—” I was interrupted by a voice from further in the house. “I want to know if you’re gonna fight for people like me!” a woman’s voice said from the couch.
“That’s my daughter,” the woman said. “She got hurt in an accident and can’t walk very well anymore.”
“And now this governor thinks I should have to go to work to get my health care? I can’t even walk to the bathroom without help!” the younger woman cried out, referring, presumably, to Gov. Matt Bevin’s plans to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said. “And I don’t know what to tell you other than I will fight for you. Fighting Gov. Bevin’s Medicaid work requirements and fighting for universal—”
“What we need is single-payer health care!” the mother interrupted.
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said. I stopped by that house twice more before the end of the campaign, and by Election Day, they had placed one of my signs in their yard.
I’m a union organizer who ran in Kentucky on a leftist platform and I was campaigning in the state’s 35th District. Predominantly white and working-class, the district exists in a sort of bubble within Louisville. Containing rapidly gentrifying, liberal neighborhoods like Germantown and Schnitzelburg, as well as more conservative areas like Okolona and Lynnview, the 35th District holds political lessons about the viability of a progressive platform for those willing to listen.
It’s a district that is overwhelmingly Democratic by voter registration numbers, but like many communities across the South, the Democrats here don’t necessarily always vote with their party. The district went for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary by a margin of 53 percent to 45 percent. In the general election, Hillary Clinton won the district with just 54 percent of the vote, or 9,554 votes, out of a total of more than 18,000 Democrats. Many of the registered Democrats in this part of town voted for Donald Trump.
I knocked on hundreds of doors. While I didn’t win my race — I finished second in a three-way primary. But through my conversations, I heard over and over again that Louisville voters were tired of timidity, incrementalism, and equivocation. They craved boldness and candidates who will not only fight for them but with them on issues that affect their lives: truly universal health care, free college tuition, combatting income inequality, and restoring and strengthening workers’ rights.
The popularity of the teacher strikes show that “red” states are ready for progressivism
I ran for the state legislature in the shadow of an intensely controversial legislative session that saw right-wing Gov. Bevin ram through so-called “pension reform,” gutting retirement benefits for public employees. Apparently startled by the backlash to his proposals, Bevin lobbed vitriolic insults at teachers and other public employees, calling them “selfish,” “thuggish,” and “ignorant and uninformed.”
Bevin’s push to make cuts to public employee retirement benefits came as teacher strikes swept the country, from West Virginia to Colorado. Inspired by their fellow educators across the country and angry over Bevin’s insults, Kentucky’s teachers shut down their schools for several days earlier this year and rallied in Frankfort, the capital.
To stand, as I did, on the steps of the Kentucky State Capitol amidst a sea of red — striking teachers, marching en masse on the legislature, wore red to symbolize solidarity (“Wear Red for Ed[ucation]”) — underscored one of the values we had set out to uphold on the campaign: that an organized working class is the most powerful political force you’ll find.
Across Kentucky, the potency of the teachers’ movement persists, with record numbers of educators running for office, and one teacher, R. Travis Brenda, even defeating an incumbent, House majority leader Jonathan Shell, in a Republican primary. Brenda ran on a pro-pension, pro-public education platform. This uprising echoed in red states across the country is proof of a nationwide working-class awakening.
Voters are fed up with a political class that defends its corporate masters and spits in the faces of working-class people. An overwhelming majority of voters, 77 percent, want to see the influence of money in politics curbed, while establishment politicians of both parties continue accepting campaign checks from big business.
Democrats need to reach out to people disengaged with the political system
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory over establishment Democrat Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th District primary this year set off the latest iteration of Democratic Party hand-wringing over the future of the party. Establishment Democrats across America wasted no time in admonishing the left to know its place and discounting Ocasio-Cortez’s success as an aberration and a product of her deep-blue district. This political earthquake, they assured us, was most certainly not indicative of any broader political trend.
But to see the potential of progressive politics, even in supposedly moderate states, we need only look to the success of candidates like Virginia’s Lee Carter, a 31-year old former Marine who ran for the House of Delegates in 2017 as an open socialist against an entrenched Republican incumbent — and won. Or, obviously, Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, which saw victories in Rust Belt states across the Midwest, including Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and West Virginia.
Further, polling suggests that progressive or even “socialist” policy prescriptions actually enjoy considerable support among voters, with Americans supporting a federal jobs guarantee by a margin of 52 percent to 29 percent.
With only 23 percent of voters casting a ballot in the 2018 Kentucky primaries for both parties, progressives within the party have a real opportunity to expand the voter pool by offering a message that draws people into the political process. The Democratic Party can win by attracting non-voters who are disengaged from a political system and bought and paid for by corporate America — and by embracing the next generation of political leadership, a generation that by all accounts is more progressive than their parents on almost every issue.
Although I didn’t win my bid for public office, the issues I ran on — Medicare-for-all, restoring and strengthening workers’ rights, and free college tuition — resonated overwhelmingly with the voters I spoke with. I earned the endorsements of sitting members of the Kentucky General Assembly and more than a dozen local labor unions. Not bad for someone campaigning on an openly left-wing platform in a supposedly centrist city.
The question today is: Will the party continue to circle the wagons around more corporate-friendly, “mainstream” candidates, or will it welcome and support truly progressive candidates who will fight for the working class?
How Democrats choose to answer the call of my generation will likely determine whether the party goes the way of the Whigs — drifting away into history as a failed political party — or if it can secure majority status once again. If and when the party chooses to open itself up to more progressive elements and ideas, you can bet there will be millions of us ready to help realize that vision.
Richard Becker is a union organizer, millennial, and political activist in Louisville, Kentucky. He ran for state representative in Kentucky’s 35th District in the May 2018 primary election.