The New Deal is often held up as the zenith of Democratic success in the United States—and for good reason. With bottom-up pressure from a rapidly growing and increasingly militant labor movement, the programs that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed under the New Deal banner instituted some of the largest changes to working-class Americans’ material conditions in the country’s history. And those changes were incredibly popular, with many of the programs, such as Social Security, still counted among the most popular governmental programs in the nation.
In Kentucky, New Deal programs were particularly successful, with $650 million (adjusted for inflation, that’s over $13 billion in today’s currency) spent on projects in the commonwealth alone, according to George T. Blakely in his 1986 book Hard Times and New Deal in Kentucky 1929- 1939. As Blakely explains, Kentucky’s members of Congress were almost universally supportive of Roosevelt’s plans, and most regular Kentuckians embraced many of the New Deal programs without reservations.
“Kentuckians received better answers from the federal government than from their traditional self-reliance and state leaders,” Blakely writes. In the 1932 presidential election, which was seen as a bellwether for Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, 67% of all Kentuckians voted, far exceeding the national average participation rate and doubling the rate of many other Southern states. Roosevelt won overwhelmingly.
This kind of political engagement seems impossible to imagine today in a state like Kentucky, which ranked 44th in citizen public engagement prior to the 2020 election, and whose two current senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, are among the most devoted curtailers of the role of the federal government. Paul, in particular, is driven by a libertarian philosophy and has argued for the end of many of the programs established during the New Deal.
Because of the electorate’s strong support for Republicans, Kentucky is often written off in Democratic circles as a “deep red” state. The mainstream Democratic tactic for running candidates in Kentucky and other such red states has frequently been to pick the most right-wing candidate possible in the hopes of appealing to more moderate Republicans. This has led to a litany of disastrous campaigns by candidates such as Amy McGrath, who challenged McConnell in his last election as a self-proclaimed a “Trump Democrat.” Unsurprisingly, trying to flank Republicans from the right has been an unsuccessful tactic in Kentucky—and most of the South. McGrath lost by almost 19% after running a campaign that cost a whopping $94 million.
Charles Booker, a former Kentucky state representative and the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination in the race to challenge Paul’s Senate seat, is not trying to appeal to the right. In fact, he has made the cornerstone of his campaign a broad set of progressive policy initiatives that he calls a Kentucky New Deal.
“We are trying to tell a story with the Kentucky New Deal, trying to help folks to remember the promise and the opportunity that was the New Deal… [which created] these long-term investments in regular folks,” Booker told TRNN. “There’s also this understanding that, in a lot of ways, the promise of a New Deal, which was really about ending poverty, has been undermined for years by politicians like Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, who are really looking to screw us every chance they get and sell us out to the highest bidder.”
While Democratic politicians have invoked the New Deal for decades when running for office, and the Green New Deal has been an essential rallying cause in progressive organizing in the past five years, Booker is specifically focusing on the poverty-relieving aspects of the New Deal as a cornerstone of his campaign. But Booker has lived a very different life than most candidates running in Kentucky, and his understanding of the issues reflect that.
“I come from the struggle, growing up in the West End [of Louisville] and living especially in the Russell neighborhood where, for years, 40203 was the poorest ZIP code in Kentucky, and rationing my insulin as a Type 1 diabetic,” Booker said. “I’ve been homeless, [I’ve had] my lights and water cut off on my mom and I when I was little.”
Candidates from Louisville—Kentucky’s largest city—have often had difficulty connecting with more rural communities, and Booker, a Black man from Louisville, could be seen as an outsider in many parts of the state. But Booker’s campaign slogan, from the “Hood to the Holler,” connects the struggles of working-class people in his own West Louisville community with the struggles of working-class people in Appalachia and all over Kentucky. Booker believes that the forces uniting people in the state are far greater and stronger than those that divide them—and that, together, they can build a stronger Kentucky.
“‘Hood to the Holler’ is like a rallying cry, a declaration from people who are tired of being divided and driven apart,” Booker said.
Booker draws on his work at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife as an indicator of his ability to bridge this divide: “As an agency, as a department, Fish and Wildlife is more than a job—it’s a way of life, it’s culture, it’s heritage, it’s the beauty of our Commonwealth. It’s also like 99% white,” Booker said. “And by me being in every room I was in, I was typically the only Black person, [but I was] able to share my story and hear stories… to find those common bonds.”
Booker believes that the desire for better treatment of working people is shared by Kentuckians across the state, and that this is evident even in the most Republican of counties: “A lot of the folks who voted for Trump, especially in Appalachia, voted for Bernie Sanders, so there’s this through line that isn’t partisan. Folks are looking for someone to fight for them,” he said.
Sanders’ fight for Medicare for All is one that Booker has enlisted in. Having quality, readily available healthcare, Booker argues, is a poverty alleviation issue that can unite people all over the state
“The West End of Louisville has more in common with Appalachia than it does the rest of Louisville, in a lot of ways,” Booker said. He points to the news that Norton Healthcare has agreed to build a hospital in the West End—a new facility that, according to the Courier Journal, “will be the first hospital built west of Ninth Street since 1845”—as proof of this connection, because people in rural areas know all too well what it means to lack access to hospitals and quality healthcare.
Poverty alleviation efforts were the focus of much New Deal legislation. By 1939, 57,000 Kentucky seniors were receiving Social Security benefits, which almost ended extreme poverty among the elderly in Kentucky. More than 90,000 Kentucky families received food assistance during the height of the New Deal, and 8 million articles of clothing were provided to Kentucky families, a move that made it possible for many children throughout Appalachia to attend school for the first time. The New Deal also saw the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act Amendments, which standardized the 40-hour work week, banned child labor, and set a federal minimum wage, bringing relief to thousands of working Kentuckians.
Paul has gone on the record expressing his desire to repeal many of the protections set forth in the New Deal and is openly opposed to raising the minimum wage to $15, an amount that Booker already thinks is too low: “We absolutely need a living wage. We know that’s over $20, so certainly raising the minimum wage is the lowest bar. That shouldn’t be a partisan statement at all because, at this point, we know poverty is a policy choice,” he said.
However, Booker goes farther than the usual Democratic call for raising the minimum wage and supports the establishment of a universal basic income (UBI), creating a minimum income floor for all Americans.
“The reason [I support UBI] is I believe in giving Kentuckians, giving Americans, the ability to make decisions in their lives, the opportunity to put food on the table and keep the lights on, even if your job leaves,” he said. “As a human being, your value is not just your job.”
Jobs programs in Kentucky were an essential part of the original New Deal. Adult work programs through the Works Progress Administration employed thousands of Kentuckians in various infrastructure projects. These programs ran the gamut from hiring high school students to work in forestation and fire control, to providing the first funding for Mammoth Cave employees, to establishing a packhorse library program that reached the most isolated areas in Appalachia. People were employed to paint more than 25,000 murals on Kentucky buildings, and there were even programs developed to employ people to interview former enslaved people in the commonwealth and to collect regional recipes.
In the programs proposed in the Green New Deal, Booker thinks there is a great opportunity to create the kind of jobs for Kentuckians that the New Deal created almost a century ago: “There’s an opportunity here, if you look at the mines, the land that has been extracted and exploited… a climate corp in Kentucky that can focus on all this remediation and infrastructure needs would create jobs there,” he said.
Booker also sees cannabis legalization as a key to bringing jobs to Kentucky. Legalization could be a boon to Kentucky’s economy similar to the end of prohibition in 1933, when more than 35,000 workers were allowed to return to the distilleries that had been shuttered. Kentucky’s land is uniquely suitable for the growing of cannabis, and Kentucky already has the most illicit cannabis plants per capita in the nation.
“We need to legalize, we need to expunge records, we need to commute sentences, we need to make targeted investments in communities that have been preyed upon by the war on drugs,” Booker said. “Kentucky is well poised to lead the nation and create booming industries for a lot of communities… this is an opportunity we shouldn’t pass up.”
In addition to adding many new jobs, the New Deal in Kentucky also saw an incredible increase in organized labor, particularly in coal country. Thousands of miners joined the United Mine Workers—a historic milestone after the bloody battles that had been fought in the Kentucky coal fields, culminating in Bloody Harlan in 1931. The passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) under Roosevelt made it possible for more workers to organize and made many of the union-busting actions of the bosses illegal.
Booker, who supported striking workers at the Blackjewel mine in Harlan, believes that a similar revitalization of the labor movement is necessary for Kentucky now. He strongly supports the Protecting the Right to Organize (or PRO) Act, which aims to repair the NLRA, make it easier for workers to unionize, and implement substantive penalties for union-busting employers.
“To me, the path towards a better future requires strong organized labor, strong labor unions, so that people can have gainful employment and be protected,” he said.
In addition to providing a sturdier base for the organization of labor unions, the New Deal also cracked down on many of the excesses in the financial industry that led to the Great Depression. The Glass-Steagall Act, which created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), eliminated the worry of regular Kentuckians that their banks would fail, an occurrence so regular in the early 1930s that over 50% of Kentucky’s industries shuttered due to these failures. Booker sees a need to revive these kinds of regulations on the financial industry in the “Too Big To Fail” era.
“I really appreciate Senator Elizabeth Warren’s focus on the banks, really stressing the need to break up the big banks and the idea of a 21st-century Glass-Steagall that will make sure we are not allowing for the concentrated exploitation of regular folks who are trying to survive,” Booker said.
New Deal programs in Kentucky were also instrumental to changing the face of public space in the commonwealth. During the Roosevelt administration, through New Deal programs, schools were built in 81 counties throughout the state, 19 new airports and airfields were constructed, and 14,000 miles of roads were added, along with 73,000 bridges, viaducts, and culverts, and more than 900 other public buildings. In addition, the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the building of the Kentucky Dam brought electricity, as a public utility, to all of rural Kentucky.
Booker supports the passage of President Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which he thinks would bring needed infrastructure improvements to Kentucky’s failing roads and bridges. He also supports expanding public transportation and rail to areas of the state that are currently difficult to access, and treating broadband internet as a public utility.
“One thing I’ve noticed over my years of working across Kentucky is how isolated a lot of communities are. There’s a need for more investment in public transportation, including rail… a need for interstate access so communities aren’t just completely isolated,” Booker said.
Booker’s agenda contains more expressly progressive programs than that of any major statewide candidate in at least 25 years. His explicit focus on the needs of working-class people, and his refusal to downplay the benefits that federal government programs have provided to Kentuckians, is a departure from most mainstream Southern Democrats—and his strategy is considered risky by moderate pundits. On top of that, he already faces a steep uphill climb to bring his Kentucky New Deal to voters. According to the last fundraising report, Paul has outraised Booker nearly 6-1 and is currently leading at the polls by a 55-39% margin. There are also numerous Super PACs that have organized to oppose Booker in the upcoming election.
However, Booker’s campaign has over 15,000 volunteers statewide and has been working to practice relational organizing, a strategy that relies more on in-person contacts, deep conversations, and storytelling to forge meaningful connections with potential voters. Such a strategy is a deviation from the big money national organizing strategies that candidates like McGrath have employed—McGrath pumped millions of dollars into her campaign, which garnered much national attention, but ultimately failed to connect with people on the ground.
“We are really shining a light on how you can invert what is typically considered the model for campaigns, and we are prioritizing organizing, we are prioritizing investing in communities that Democrats have given up on and Republicans exploit,” Booker said. “We are using a lot of storytelling and personal community building to do that, and it’s tried and true—how you build community is person to person.”
If Booker wins the primary, he will force Paul to at least justify many of the anti-government positions that he has held—positions that are oftentimes deeply unpopular when polled without mentioning party affiliation. Pushing issues of poverty elimination and the needs of everyday working Kentuckians to the forefront of the story could help make this a very different campaign season, and may shift the Overton window of what is considered politically possible in the state of Kentucky.
“It really is the spirit of what I am pushing not only in this campaign, but in my life’s work as a Kentuckian: for us to end poverty in Kentucky and in this country, and to make sure everyone can win a gainful life, even if you’re from the hood, or from the hollers, or anywhere in between,” Booker said.
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