Into the Kentucky Primary
Trymaine Lee: Kennedy is holding its primary on Tuesday after a month-long delay because of coronavirus, and amid protests across the state, after a young Black woman was shot and killed by police in Louisville. The biggest race on the ballot? The Democratic U.S. Senate primary. It's looking a whole lot different than it did just a few weeks ago. For months, Amy McGrath has led in the polls. She's white, a moderate, and a former Marine who narrowly lost a House race in 2018.
Amy Mcgrath: If you look at why many Kentuckians voted for President Trump, for example, they voted for an outsider. They voted for somebody who was gonna shake up the system. He promised to drain the swamp. And, you know, my message is you can't do that until you get rid of Senator McConnell.
Lee: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has spent 35 years in Congress. And for many Democrats, McGrath seemed like a strong choice to face off against the Republican incumbent. Then, in March, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed by police in her apartment in the middle of the night. George Floyd's killing followed. The nation erupted in protest, and another candidate started attracting attention.
Charles Booker: We're standing up as regular people fighting back for our future, fighting to end generational poverty, address structural racism. And to say that outside consultants will not dictate our future.
Lee: State Representative Charles Booker, a 35-year-old Black progressive, joined the protests in the streets. His popularity climbed.
Booker: But we're also understanding we gotta get to the root. And the fact is a lotta people are strugglin' in Kentucky. Regardless of whether you're from the hood or from the holler, you've been left behind.
Lee: Booker now leads McGrath in a recent poll, but the outcome tomorrow is far from certain. A record number of Kentuckians will be voting by mail, and local officials say they reduced the number of polling places to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Archival Recording: I have concerns that people are gonna literally be sitting on the expressway in traffic, waiting to get in line. Hopefully I'm wrong.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, what Charles Booker's rise reveals about the state of Kentucky politics, and how the pandemic could shape the election. Cassia Herron is the chairperson of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a voting advocacy organization. I spoke with her earlier today. Cassia, good morning, and thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.
Cassia Herron: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
Lee: So are you surprised about the way things are shapin' out in Kentucky?
Herron: I've been surprised that it's taken the death of Black bodies layin' in the streets to get attention to this race. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth is a statewide, grassroots organization that supported Charles Booker early on, in February. And we have been begging local journalists to cover the story and to take his candidacy seriously.
It's exciting to see that folks across the state, from western Kentucky to eastern Kentucky, north and south are excited about him and are like, "Dang. I've already voted. I voted for Amy," or, "I've given her money, but I'm gonna give him money now." He has needed the exposure, and I'm glad that folks are hearing his name and are excited about what he can do for us.
Lee: Let me ask you about that, the death of Black folks at the hand of the police. Violent deaths. You think about Breonna Taylor in Louisville who was shot eight times, the result of a no-knock warrant. Police busted in there and killin' this young woman. What role did that case play in elevating the platform? Like, is this reshaping politics as we know, at least locally in Kentucky?
Herron: Yes. Charles Booker has been the only candidate that's down on the streets with protesters. He's been the only candidate in that race who has paid attention to the pleas of Black voices and other folks in our community who are saying, "Enough is enough. We've got to do something about these rogue police officers, and we have to demand justice or justice needs to be served."
A few days after protests erupted around Miss Taylor's death, the governor called for the National Guard to come to our community. It was a quite tense situation when Mr. McAtee, another killing here in our city at the hands of what now know of the National Guard.
Monday morning, I got a call from friends that said, "They've killed a Black man. We have to get down there." And what I saw, what I experienced was a very tense situation with hundreds of people on the streets, really calling for the police to leave our community, calling for Mr. McAtee's body to be picked up off the ground. Officers were doing an investigation so the body lay there for some time.
But what I saw was Representative Charles Booker step in and be a mediator. Folks were upset and they said, "It's more of than there are of them. And we might take them today." And what Booker was really able to do was to calm the crowd, to be a in-between, go-between between police officers, sergeants. We were able to get the police officers to relax their guns, their weapons. It ended up in a peaceful situation where we knew that violence could interrupt it at any point at that time.
Lee: So I wonder. In Kentucky, we see the death of Breonna Taylor and Mr. McAtee. And there are folks all across the country, white folks, folks in rural communities who have stepped up in calling for systemic change. Acknowledging the value of Black life, but also calling for police reform.
When you have the issue you have in Kentucky, and Booker, he's polling ahead of McGrath, but in order to win, you have to get white votes, suburban votes, rural votes. How is the death of Breonna Taylor and Mr. McAtee, but also Booker's really progressive stance in calling for reform, playing in those spaces?
Herron: Yes. What we've seen is across the state, from the hoods to the hollers, we like to say, people are standing up and demanding justice. On June 1st was our statehood's anniversary. And that worked, I think it was Saturday or Sunday, we saw rallies and protests across the state.
Deep in the hills of coal country in Appalachia, young people were laying in the streets and taking leadership from young Black men leading rallies. I've read a couple of articles of Booker going to rallies and asking people to put up their fists for the first time, in support.
What we're seeing is work that has been invested in Kentucky over decades. We're not there yet. We're not perfect. But what we've done is we've built coalitions across the state around voter suppression, around tax reform, around a multitude of issues, local food system development, and transitioning our energy economy in ways in which people in the cities and people in rural communities are asking for the same thing.
And so what we've seen in the last few weeks around the uprising are that people have already been joined together. And we're standing together in protest and demanding something different. And folks are excited to see that we have a candidate who really can speak to our needs, who understands our challenges, and shares the vision for what we wanna see in Kentucky.
Lee: After the break, how coronavirus reshaped Kentucky's Election Day plan, and what it means for this race. Stick with us.
Lee: Let me ask you this. You know, we had this wild confluence, right? First, we had the coronavirus, which pushed back a bunch of these primaries. And then you have the uprisings. And then, even during the quote/unquote "best of times," we have issues and concerns around voter suppression. And so with this kind of wild laying of concern, do you think Kentucky is ready for this election, this primary that is now tomorrow?
Herron: (LAUGH) The election is upon us. We're ready. We have been talking to our elected officials, both our governor and our secretary of state. Our governor's Democratic; our secretary of state is a Republican. They joined forces together early on to figure out what we could do to make our elections fair and accessible.
And what they did was launched a state website where anyone could log in to request an absentee ballot. So absentee voting is across the state. What they did do that folks are not happy about is recommend that there is one voting location in each county.
The county clerks were able to make their own decisions around that. And unfortunately, many of the county clerks heeded to that one voting location. And we're seeing concerns across the state, particularly here in Jefferson County, in Louisville and in Lexington, about how busy those polling sites are gonna be.
Lee: Wait, let me ask you this. Under normal circumstances, in a big city like Louisville, heavily concerned with Black folks, how many polling places would you normally have?
Herron: There are over 200 voting locations.
Lee: So from 200 to one?
Herron: Yes. And so what our county clerks have told us is they've been organizing to make sure that everything is set up at the Expo Center. It's a huge, like a conference center. It's not the best location. There is a lotta space there. I have concerns that people are gonna literally be sitting on the expressway in traffic, waiting to get in line. Hopefully I'm wrong.
Lee: Speakin' of Andy Beshear, the governor of Kentucky, who happens to be a Democrat, you know, they've seen sayin' all along that, "We've been workin' with the secretary of state, Republican Michael Adams, to make voting actually easier. You know, we've included making postage for absentee ballots free. We're hiring more people to help with the election." Clerks are reportedly handling requests for record numbers of absentee ballots. Are those all steps in the right direction? Is that a good faith effort? Or do you think not enough?
Herron: I think so, but not enough. I've been calling the governor's office and asking for a daily update. When he gives his COVID updates, to give us a daily update of how many people have requested their absentee vote ballot, how many folks have turned those in, how many ballots the county clerk still have yet to put in the mail.
As of the weekend, folks were still receiving their absentee vote ballots. And so I think the governor could have done a better job of being more transparent about what the process has been so that the citizens in the state are up to speed on what is happening, and we can weigh in.
One of the things I've been really frustrated in is that the county clerks, the governor, and the secretary of state made these decisions without checking in with local people. And what we've seen is elected officials literally file lawsuits to get that extended; however, those lawsuits were filed too late for the courts to feel that they could make a decision and the county clerks could respond to that in time.
Lee: So obviously, a lot of these issues can dampen enthusiasm, can dampen turnout. People are gonna start seein' these long lines. But do you think, are folks still energized enough to push through that?
Herron: We're learning from our friends in Georgia who said, "Vote, vote. Vote early. Vote often." We need to flood the ballots, and that's what we're doing. We're-- we're on the phones. Folks have been calling people, making sure that people know where to vote, be sure that they are signing both of those signatures on the absentee ballot, and that they're talking to their neighbors about it.
Lee: What matters most to Kentuckians? I mean, we hear about Louisville every once in a while. But when you get on the coasts especially, you know, you just don't hear about Kentucky. What matters to Kentuckians in this moment? Like, what's the most important issue most of 'em will be voting on?
Herron: People in Kentucky want to be heard. We wanna be seen. And that's the most important thing I think that's happening. We've had a record number of folks request absentee ballots, and we're gonna see what I think tomorrow is a record number of people turn out.
Too often Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and weak Democrats, centrist Democrats have been able to run the narrative. And Kentuckians across the state are binding together and demanding access to health care, access to good jobs, good schools; the same things that anybody else want.
We want clean air and clean water. The same that's happening in Flint is happening in Martin County, in Kentucky. And unfortunately, our elected officials that we've had have not responded to those needs. And so Kentuckians across the state are sayin', "Enough is enough. We need new leadership." And folks are not scared to stand with a Black man, that's exciting.
Lee: So speaking of leadership, there is one leader outta Kentucky that everybody knows, and that's Mitch McConnell. And there is a lotta concern that, you know, you have this centrist Democrat, you know, McGrath running against this very progressive young Black candidate. And, "Let's not split the party." Are you concerned that the way this race is shaping out, it might give Mitch McConnell an opportunity to stay in office?
Herron: No, I don't. I think it's exciting that we actually have a primary. For so long, Democrats have put up a weak candidate that people didn't feel like that they had a choice. And in this race, we have a choice. People can choose between Charles Booker, they can choose between McGrath. And Mike Broihier, a farmer out of Lincoln County, is also running and making some waves.
I'm excited that people have choices. That's what our elections are about, that's what democracy is. We need all people engaged. We still have hundreds of thousands of people who don't vote, who are registered to vote who just don't vote. And I think what we're seeing in this primary is an opportunity to listen to the issues, to see differences, actual differences in candidates that I think is gonna drive people to vote.
Lee: I know your organization backed Booker, but is there value in a McGrath? A strong chance that it still could be McGrath, right? So would you be satisfied with that choice?
Herron: No. And what would have to happen is that McGrath would have to be out in Kentucky and listen and be seen. She's pissed off a ton of voters, being flip-floppy, not standing on issues. When you have hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets, the only response that she had was that, "I've been home with my family."
That's what privilege looks like. And unfortunately, many Kentuckians don't have the privilege of staying home, of not going to work during the outbreak, of having to choose between medicine or paying the rent. McGrath is gonna have to show that she understands those issues, and not just understands because she's gonna do something to change people's plight.
Lee: With all that though, Kentucky is still a pretty conservative state. And Mitch McConnell's a stalwart of the grand old party. Do you think Booker or McGrath have an actual shot in November of beating Mitch McConnell?
Herron: Yes, I do. And I will repeat: We have hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians who don't vote, who have not come out to cast a vote for Mitch McConnell ever. And so I think what a different kind of candidate does is it talks to voters, it gets voters interested in the issues. It helps voters understand the difference between Mitch McConnell whoever comes out of the Democratic field. This is the first time that I think we have an opportunity to see a stark difference between what Mitch McConnell has offered us, and what other people have to give.
Lee: What do you think it is about this moment? You think about this race in Kentucky, then you think about, like, South Carolina with Lindsey Graham and Jaime Harrison really makin' some waves and really makin' some money and seem to have a shot, right? What is it about this moment that has energized folks around the country to see change in these kinda candidates, especially Black candidates?
Herron: People wanna keep sayin' that the South is red, or that Kentucky is red. The South and Kentucky are unorganized. (LAUGH) The blue part of our communities are not organized. And for so long, you know, we've had these organizations that continued to do the same kinda thing. You had the parties who continued to run the same weak candidates.
And what we're seeing right now is the South is rising. Young people are organizing. They're coming together. They're creating organizations. They're reaching each other. They're talkin' to each other about what we wanna see happen in our communities.
We're not waiting on a Walmart to be opened in our community; we're building our own grocery stores, you know. We're not, you know, waiting for the next cavalry to come; we're binding together and creating the kind of jobs and kind of communities we wanna see. And that's the South that people don't know about. That's the South that people are gonna see.
Lee: Cassia, thank you so very much for your time. I feel like we understand the situation in Kentucky just a little bit better now. Thank you so much.
Herron: Thank you. Thank you for your time.
Lee: Cassia Herron is the chairperson of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a voting advocacy organization. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Wednesday.