Kentucky may seem like an unlikely place to find the next member of the “Squad.” But Attica Scott, a Kentucky state representative and longtime activist whose progressive values would be a natural fit for the Squad, is looking to represent the Louisville Metro area by replacing retiring Third Congressional District Rep. John Yarmuth. However, she faces a primary that may highlight the divide between the Democratic Party’s activist base and conservative donors more than any in the nation. 

“For a long time we’ve convinced ourselves that we were ‘liberal’ without really talking about what that meant.”

Scott, who made national headlines last year when she and her daughter were unjustly arrested during the Breonna Taylor uprisings in Louisville (the charges were later dropped and Scott is now suing the Louisville Metro Police Department), thinks that her background of challenging Democratic leadership would make her a natural fit for the Squad. “I can only hope that they would welcome me into the Squad,” Scott told TRNN. “I know myself politically that, here in Louisville and Kentucky, I tend to be someone who challenges and questions the Democratic Party to do better, to stop leaving behind young people, women, and people of color, and the Squad does that in DC—they challenge the party to be better and to do right by people, and that’s exactly what I want to do.”

Scott, a socialist, has served as a Democratic representative in the Kentucky Legislature since 2016, representing the Black majority District 41, which has the third-lowest median income level in the state. Scott actually entered the primary race in July, before Yarmuth’s retirement announcement, because she believed it was time for a change in leadership in Louisville. “It was clear to me, especially after having young folks ask me to run the past few years and after the uprisings… that it was time for new and different leadership,” Scott said. “We needed someone who believed that our climate crisis required action and who was going to go to DC and fight to protect protesters and to hold police accountable. I knew that I was that person.”

Initially, Scott was the only primary challenger to Yarmuth. However, immediately after the retirement announcement, Morgan McGarvey, a member of the Kentucky Senate whose district is 83.2% white and the sixth wealthiest in the state, also announced his intention to run. McGarvey, who has been in the state senate since 2012, works at a debt collection law firm that handles residential foreclosures and has been involved in “zombie” debt collection. McGarvey’s announcement came packaged with the endorsement of several local prominent Democrats. Scott believes that McGarvey got advance knowledge of Yarmuth’s decision, making it easier for him to gather endorsements and raise funds. 

“It was a clear example to me of how privilege works and how patriarchy works, because Morgan had been given a heads up by the Congressman that he was going to be announcing his retirement. I didn’t have such a privilege,” said Scott. “So you had these two men looking out for each other. I suspect that Morgan had known for a while, because he purchased his domain name back in September. That’s the ugliness of politics, that people like me, people who have lived in poverty, women, women of color—we don’t get those kind of advance notices. We don’t get those kind of opportunities to reach out to people and say, ‘Well, now that the Congressman is not running, can I count on your support?’”

The nomination of Yarmuth was considered risky because the former newspaper editor was seen as too liberal for the district. However, he soundly defeated the Republican incumbent and easily held onto the seat for 14 years.

While the impulse for many political insiders may be to think that only moderate Democrats can succeed in Kentucky politics, this has not been the case in Louisville. Yarmuth won his last election over the Republican challenger by almost 25% in 2020 and the city has generally been a bulwark for Democrats. Yarmuth, in fact, won his seat in 2006 after defeating a much more conservative Democrat, Andrew Horne, in the primary. At the time, Horne had the support of much of the Democratic elite, and the nomination of Yarmuth was considered risky because the former newspaper editor was seen as too liberal for the district. However, he soundly defeated the Republican incumbent and easily held onto the seat for 14 years.

Scott thinks that the time has come for Louisville to solidify its identity as a progressive city. “For a long time we’ve convinced ourselves that we were ‘liberal’ without really talking about what that meant. And I believe that what we have seen in the past few years [is] people really pushing back and demanding real justice around houselessness, around police accountability, around abortion access and reproductive justice,” said Scott, explaining that Louisville has long considered itself to be a liberal city “even though it left a lot of people behind.”

Scott has been considered an outsider most of her political career. Her politics are firmly rooted in her activism as a labor organizer and advocate for social justice. “That’s who I am. I’ve grown up in movement work. My parents didn’t give me a choice; they named me after the prison in upstate New York because I was born a couple of months after the uprising,” said Scott. “This is my calling—to be a public servant and to do so boldly and courageously.”

Scott grew up in Louisville’s Beecher Terrace housing projects, which are on the West side of Louisville’s Ninth Street Divide. “The Ninth Street Divide is real,” Scott explains. “For people who may not be familiar with Louisville, I think it is important for them to know that there’s a literal geographic dividing line in our city that separates the predominantly white and wealthy East End of Louisville from the predominantly Black and low- to moderate-income West End of Louisville.”

Scott’s current district spans both sides of the divide. “I’m able to see the difference between what we have in the East End compared to what’s available in the West End—the services, the access to fresh foods, fruits and vegetables, access to places to walk, robust parks,” she said. “What that has shown me time and time again is that the people we have elected into office have continuously failed those of us who live west of 9th Street.”

Scott’s early work in Louisville included being a labor organizer. “She dragged me along at a young age to pro-worker rallies when she worked at Kentucky Jobs with Justice,” her daughter, Ashanti Scott, a student at the University of Louisville, recalled. Scott’s work at Jobs with Justice on issues such as increasing the minimum wage, affordable health care, fair housing, and immigration rights have fed directly into many of the issues that she has worked on in political office. 

“This is my calling—to be a public servant and to do so boldly and courageously.”

As a Metro council member she was the primary sponsor of the bill to raise the minimum wage. Louisville was the first Southern city to do this (although it was subsequently overturned by the Kentucky Supreme Court). She also was the primary sponsor of the bill to “Ban the Box,” ending the use of the question on job applications that asks people if they have a felony conviction, and was also the primary sponsor on a resolution to restore voting rights of people who were previously incarcerated, both of which were passed unanimously. 

As a Democratic state representative in the Kentucky House, which has a supermajority of Republicans, Scott has focused on coalition building throughout the state. “[People] can count on me to show up in Bardstown at the picket line with Heaven Hill workers, and people in Louisville can count on me to be on the front line for justice and standing up for LGBTQIA+ rights and speaking out boldly about abortion access.”

Scott also stood with the teachers of Kentucky who participated in wildcat strikes against the attempted reform of the state pension system. This solidarity perhaps led to the support that she has received from teachers, which was the most common profession listed by her first quarter donors. “Attica has always asked educators what were some concerns or issues in the classrooms, but more importantly she would ask us for our solutions,” said Petia Edison, an academic instructional coach with Jefferson County Public Schools and an early supporter of Scott. “Attica lifts up the voices and values education as a profession.”

Scott also has sponsored the CROWN Act, which would ban discrimination against natural hairstyles by schools and businesses. This particular issue was important to her after Ashanti was confronted with an outdated policy on natural hair her first year of high school. “[I]t was me and my mom’s first joint policy success when the no-natural hair policy was overturned. That sparked so many conversations and dialogue with people about what natural hair discrimination is and educating people on why we need to address it with statewide legislation,” said Ashanti. 

Scott has exhibited strong support for economic justice throughout her career. “[I would watch panels of Democratic elected officials] who would say ‘capitalism is a good thing, it built this country.’ I was flabbergasted and I continue to be flabbergasted,” said Scott. “I’m very different from people who believe that. [It] lacks historical analysis and the context of institutional and systemic racism. I’m definitely someone who believes that we cannot allow ourselves to depend on a system that actually doesn’t work and is leaving a lot of us behind.”

Scott lists passing the Green New Deal as an important policy goal she hopes to achieve, and points to Yarmuth’s lack of support for the policy as one of the catalysts for her decision to run. “One of the issues that is a definite priority for me is addressing climate change. If we don’t have a livable, habitable planet then everything else we are fighting for will be for naught, because we will have nowhere to exist,” said Scott.

“We have actually continuously failed those of us who are immigrants and refugees. And, sadly, part of that is because there are no real authentic relationships … Instead, we are often used for votes when it is election time at the eleventh hour. People come seeking our vote, but aren’t really doing the work to address our needs.”

Scott considers environmental justice and all other issues as inextricably linked to racial justice, something that was very evident in her work with Rubbertown, where she spoke out on behalf of the primarily Black residents who have been widely ignored by the city, and where air pollution led to an increase in cancer rates. She believes her life experience puts her in a unique position to highlight racial injustice and inequities. She has frequently participated in the protests in Louisville since the murder of Breonna Taylor, and has worked to address the racial injustices that those protests have brought to the surface. But Scott was an advocate for racial justice prior to these protests and has frequently been a target of organizations like the Fraternal Order of the Police because of her activism. 

“When we dismantle racism we are making life better for everyone who experiences marginalization and oppression. So that to me is also a priority in addressing issues like protecting protesters like me and my daughter, who were unjustly arrested, or people who were exposed to tear gas and what that can do to a person’s reproductive system, holding police accountable, ending qualified immunity, of course being part of the effort to address Black maternal health,” said Scott. “Those are some of the issues that I immediately want to connect with my colleagues in DC on to see where I can get in and add more value, but also where I bring a different perspective and life experience.”

Scott also has a long history of advocating for immigrant and refugee rights. She was strongly critical of Louisville Mayor Greg Ficher’s reluctance to designate Louisville as a Sanctuary City for undocumented immigrants despite his assertions that immigrants were welcome in the city. She ties her experience as a Black voter in Louisville with that of immigrants and refugees. “We have actually continuously failed those of us who are immigrants and refugees. And, sadly, part of that is because there are no real authentic relationships, there is no real authentic community that has been built,” said Scott. “Instead, we are often used for votes when it is election time at the eleventh hour. People come seeking our vote, but aren’t really doing the work to address our needs.”

When asked what members of Congress she identifies most with, Scott named Squad members Ayanna Pressley and Cori Bush. Scott marched with Bush in Ferguson after the murder of Mike Brown, and recently joined her on the steps of the US Capitol advocating for an eviction moratorium during the pandemic, issuing her own public statement demanding that Kentucky also suspend evictions. She wholeheartedly agrees with Pressley’s belief that the people closest to pain should be the people closest to power and decision making. “I believe that with my whole heart and soul, and that’s why when I talk about me serving in office I’m just the vessel, the face, the body that’s going forward, but I’m bringing all the people with me in spirit who have been left out and left behind and marginalized, and never get these types of opportunities,” said Scott.

Scott’s campaign has seen wide support throughout Kentucky and beyond, despite the fundraising advantage of McGarvey. She thinks that her message resonates with voters who haven’t seen people speaking up for the issues that impact their families. “I believe in leadership without borders. That’s the kind of member of Congress that we need,” said Scott. “There are so many people across Kentucky who don’t have a member of Congress who truly represents them. That’s why so many people across our Commonwealth have supported my campaign for Congress, because I grew out of community activism and organizing.”

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Molly Shah is a freelance writer and social media consultant based in Berlin. Prior to moving to Germany Molly was an activist, teacher and lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow her on Twitter: @MollyOShah