In March 2019, Charles Booker was delivering an emotional speech in front of his colleagues in the Kentucky House of Representatives about threats of gun violence facing young Black men when a colleague angrily yelled at him to sit down.
"I was pleading out about our need to invest in keeping everyone safe, including people in communities like mine," said Booker, now the Democratic candidate seeking to unseat two-term Republican Sen. Rand Paul in November.
Booker, 37, said he later asked the colleague — who he said was GOP state Rep. Randy Bridges — why he had reacted like that. "His response was, 'You people need to know when to stop talking,'" Booker said. Bridges did not return a request for comment.
This incident, Booker said, was one of many racist experiences he has had as a Black legislator "in the extreme minority in the Statehouse."
"I saw a lot of hatred. I saw a lot of pain. I saw a lot of racism," he said in an interview with NBC News. "But I also saw a lot of opportunities to build new relationships and to bring people together and to lift up common bonds, which is why I'm so inspired to run this race now."
Kentucky hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992 and a January Mason-Dixon poll — the only one comparing the two — showed Paul leading Booker by 16%. Paul has also raised over six times as much as Booker, according to their April campaign finance reports.
Booker, the state's first Black nominee of a major party for U.S. Senate, is hoping he can beat the odds in November. He said part of his strategy is that he won't shy away from uncomfortable conversations about racism and inequities. A 2021 report by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce found sweeping racial disparities in the state's education and criminal justice systems and that "economic growth is not inclusive in Kentucky or the nation." The report also noted that "unemployment and poverty rates are consistently and substantially higher for Black Kentuckians than for white Kentuckians."
In the 2020 race to unseat the powerful GOP leader Mitch McConnell, Booker lost in the Democratic primary by 3% to former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who outraised Booker and was supported by Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Kentucky's Democratic governor, Andy Beshear.
Booker said he has encountered many Kentuckians who want things to change, "but have really thrown their hands up or they've been disenfranchised." He hopes that he can boost turnout enough to eke out a victory by reaching out to people who don't typically vote.
"Georgia was not a fluke," he said, referring to the 2021 Georgia races where Democrats' victories flipped the U.S. Senate. "And Kentucky, we will shock the world."
Among Booker's legislative priorities is to invest in infrastructure, "good-paying union jobs" and health care.
"Kentucky is one of the poorest states in the country," he said. "And so a lot of our issues really just stem out of not having resources and not having investments. Not having quality health care and families just struggling to survive."
Booker, who has Type 1 diabetes, often discusses his experiences trying to afford insulin in his plan to expand health care access.
He said cynicism from voters is one of the biggest challenges on the trail.
"A lot of people do not believe that the type of change that we're building is possible in a place like Kentucky," Booker said.
He said he hopes to encourage people across the country to see that in Kentucky, "there are regular people that are fighting for real change, that are fighting for healing, that are fighting to end poverty."