Three candidates — Mike Broihier, Charles Booker, and Amy McGrath — are seeking the Democrat Party’s nomination for the United States Senate in next week’s Primary Election. Mountain Eagle reporter Sam Adams interviewed all three recently to give readers a better understanding of their positions on issues important to eastern Kentucky residents.
Democratic Senatorial candidate Mike Broihier doesn’t fit in a ready-made political slot.
The retired Marine cannoneer is not stereotypically right of center, but while some on the right have tried to cast him as a far left ideologue, that description is just as far off as the other.
Broyer showed up for his interview on Zoom in worn work overalls and a Marine haircut — fitting for a retired lieutenant colonel who said he “just was sneaking some farming in” after an earlier interview was canceled. When asked about where he sees the coronavirus crisis going, he launches into an analysis of leadership — or the lack thereof, in his estimation — on the national level, where states are allowed to open or close and make their own rules in dealing with the pandemic.
“I understand that people believe in Federalism, but this is a global pandemic and it’s surely a national pandemic and it’s a national issue. And so, I think we need to wait as a country. I’m sure there are places that could be opened, but if you blow the doors open and we have another surge, it’s going to be bad. We’re going to be looking at not opening school again in the fall, and it’s going to be worse,” Broihier said. “Gov. Beshear made some unpopular decisions early on, and Kentucky is in much better shape than its neighbors. I wish that would go on across the country.”
His prediction of another surge seems to be coming through. On May 18, as the state was just beginning to reopen businesses, the total number of cases in Kentucky was 7,935. On June 17, Tuesday, the total was nearly 13,000.
When the economy does reopen completely, Broihier advocates putting money in the local economies.
“One thing I’ve been telling people is the biggest tragedy is if we just go back to what we’ve been doing. We have to take bold steps,” he said. “I would love to see a WPA, Works Projects Administration, style program, and not just bridges and roads, but rural broadband and water and sewer.”
For eastern Kentucky in particular, he said that infrastructure is needed to create a new economy here, and states and companies should not be pitted against each other to get the money. The government should be hiring the people and doing the work, just like during the New Deal era, Broihier said.
“We’ve spent $2.5 trillion over the last three weeks; we can get people back to work,” Broihier said. “And the good thing about federal jobs is they pay prevailing wage, union scale with benefits, and at the end you’ve got great infrastructure.”
But while he is proposing something akin to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, he is not on board with the “Green New Deal” promoted by some of the more progressive members of his party because, he says, it guarantees work — something he considers to be a “make-work” program.
Broihier said Mitch McConnell’s comments that states should file bankruptcy would be disastrous for Kentucky and other states, and to the economy of the nation. He said there are 20 million state, county and municipal employees across the nation and none of the entities they work for can have a budget deficit.
“It’s a real kind of crass, classist attempt to pit red states against blue states. The only entity that can really do it is the federal government,” Broihier said. “The people we are talking about teach our kids, keep the snow off the roads, make the toilets flush, keep the lights on, pick up our trash — these are the people we’re talking about … they teach our kids, they’re in our public health offices, they’re our cops and firefighters and these are the people he wants to put out of work. I think it’s absolutely not an option.”
His number one priority, he said, is to the get the bills moving that have already been passed by the House of Representatives but that McConnell has refused to bring up for a vote. He said McConnell’s statement that he won’t put anything on the president’s desk that won’t be signed is “un-American,” as is “packing the courts with these unqualified judges.”
“Both my wife and I are retired veterans, and for people who took an oath to defend the Constitution, we take this stuff really seriously,” he said. “I have to say if there is one thing that got me off the farm and got me to run for office, it’s what I see going on in Washington that is frankly undemocratic and un-American, and I can’t imagine what this country will look like four years ago or six years from now if we continue down this path. I don’t think we’ll recognize it.”
Broihier scoffed at his opponent, Amy McGrath’s, ads about her career as a Marine aviator, saying “it’s not much to hang a campaign on.”
“I’m a retired lieutenant colonel. My wife is a retired Marine officer. Around here being a retired Marine officer means it’s your turn to do the dishes or take out the trash,” he said.
He noted that he recently received endorsements from 30 community leaders including the head of the Kentucky chapter of the National Organization for Women, the president of the Kentucky Democratic Veterans Council, and the commander of the National African-American Veterans Association
Broihier said he is proud of his service, which took him to Korea, the Horn of Africa, and Somalia, among other places around the world, but he said he has also done other things in his life that have helped him see things from a different perspective. He talks about farming, teaching college courses in California while still a Marine, being a newspaper editor here in Kentucky, and substitute teaching. That, he said, is what connects him to the people here.
Broihier answers the “you’re not from around here” question with the long practice of a kid who grew up with a Marine father, and then followed the same course. He said he counted it up, and he has lived in 13 states and more than a dozen countries.
Broihier said he and his wife, Lynn, met in the Marine Corps, decided they wanted to farm when they retired, and made a conscious decision to live in Kentucky because she had relatives in Breckinridge County. They were helping their son fill out forms for a security clearance when they realized they had lived in Lincoln County for 10 years — the longest they have stayed anywhere.
“We’ve been here for 15 years, and the other way I look at it is this is the first time I got to pick where I was going to live my entire life, the first time my wife got to pick where she was going to live in her entire life,” Broihier said. “We were adults. I was 45, I guess, and we picked Kentucky.”
U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker is from the inner city of Louisville, but he says he believes that helps him relate to the people of Appalachia more than some might think.
“There’s Louisville and there’s the West End of Louisville, and the West End has more in common with Appalachia than it does with the rest of Louisville,” Booker said.
Booker, 35, is an attorney and took office as state representative in 2019. He is a former director of the Kentucky Department for Fish and Wildlife Resources and the youngest black member of the House. He visited Whitesburg last week to attend a Black Lives Matter protest here, and spoke with The Mountain Eagle by telephone a few weeks before.
Though he has a fraction of the money of front-runner Amy McGrath, Booker has garnered the endorsements of 17 Democratic state representatives, including Rep. Angie Hatton of Whitesburg. He has also been endorsed by former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
Booker said he grew up poor — his family often surviving on Food Stamps and free lunches, and he knows what it feels like for a family to have its water and electricity cut off because they can’t afford to pay the bill.
“I am running not just to beat Mitch McConnell, I’m running to beat poverty,” Booker said.
At the protest here on Friday, he wore a T-shirt proclaiming, “Fight poverty, not the poor.”
He said he believes those protests are worthwhile and are changing things in the state, pointing to the large presence of white people standing side by side with blacks in Whitesburg and across the state. He told protesters that people like McConnell want to keep whites and blacks separated, because if they come together they will find out how much they have in common.
“As soon as we realize how much we need each other, as soon as we realize how much we have in common, from Whitesburg to the West End, from Appalachia to the four rivers, from the hood to the hollers, as soon as we realize and we stand together, folks, nothing will stop us,” Booker told a crowd of nearly 200 gathered in front of the Letcher County Courthouse.
Booker said in an interview that his grandparents had 11 children, and when those children grew up they started taking in foster kids. They adopted several of those.
“I am one of 70 grandchildren,” Booker said, comparing his childhood of hand-me-downs and extended family to people in Appalachia. There were no job opportunities, no place nearby to shop, and even living in the middle of state’s largest city, they had to travel to reach adequate health care, Booker said. His father dropped out of high school and joined the military, because there were no job prospects, he said. His mother is an associate pastor.
“The same things they (Booker’s parents) suffered through, I’m trying not to pass along to my daughters,” he said.
And, Booker said, he wants to lift others out of poverty as well. He said his priorities as a senator would include jobs in poor areas, affordable housing, mitigating environmental damage, broadband Internet access, and supporting the “Green New Deal.” The Green New Deal is a plan introduced by Democratic U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts to address climate change by weaning the U.S. from fossil fuels and guaranteeing new jobs in clean, renewable energy.
Booker said he also supports universal basic income, a plan similar to that put out by former presidential candidate and billionaire Andrew Yang for the government to pay a monthly income to every family. He said he believes that is especially important for eastern Kentucky, where the coal industry had gone bust and there are few other opportunities.
“These are hardworking people who have busted their ass to make profit for these companies, and they have not benefitted from it,” he said.
Booker said he has visited the area several times, and spent a couple of days in and around Whitesburg learning about the area.
“I spent some time in Lynch as well, and there just aren’t coal jobs left,” he said. “A lot of people were really abandoned, and it forced people to move away when they really didn’t want to do it.”
Booker advocates for a “disproportionate impact assessment” for every federal program, just as environmental impact statements are required now. These assessments would show, he said, how marginalized communities such as Appalachia and West Louisville will be affected, positively as well as negatively, by federal projects.
“The one commonality we have, is Mitch McConnell has been screwing us the whole daggone time,” he said “We have got to look at social inequality.”
Speaking about the decline in numbers of the African-American community here, Booker said it is true that while everyone has been hurt by the economic trials of the past it has been disproportionately true for people of color.
In answer to questions about the proposed federal prison here that has now been put on indefinite hold, Booker said he is aware of it and understands how important those jobs and the reclamation of the land would have been to the area, but he would like to see the investment made in a new industry and new infrastructure, adding that he supports both the legalization of marijuana and expanded gaming in Kentucky.
“We have an opportunity in Kentucky to support new jobs and not feed the prison/industrial complex,” he said.
Booker said that the irony of his candidacy is that in a way, it is similar to how McConnell began. Both received undergraduate degrees from the University of Louisville, and both have law degrees (McConnell from the University of Kentucky, Booker from U of L). Early in his career, McConnell gained recognition as Louisville mayor by supporting bipartisan causes that are now considered “liberal.” So what does Booker think made the former centrist Republican into the hardcore partisan that he is now?
“His price tag was very visible, and these big corporations took him up on it,” Booker said.
Amy McGrath jumped into the national consciousness two years ago with a slickly produced TV ad feature jet fighters and her story of becoming a Marine aviator.
That first campaign against 5th District U.S. Rep. Andy Barr wasn’t successful, but it cemented her image as a rising star in the Democratic Party, just over a year after she retired from the military. Now she has the backing of the national party in a primary election that could pit her against Kentucky senior Senator Mitch McConnell in the fall, if she wins.
Some analysts say that is not as likely now as it was a few months ago. Politico noted in a recent article that Charles Booker has presented a strong challenge for McGrath, fueled by a lackluster performance by McGrath in the senate debate last week, and by several missteps as she launched her campaign.
When she spoke with The Mountain Eagle, she was focused on the General Election in the fall, not the primary, and she has the money to make that bet. McGrath has more than $29 million on hand, even more than the $25 million in McConnell’s war chest, and she took him on directly in a recent interview.
“Senator McConnell had no problem in the snap of a finger, he really wanted to bail out corporations — billions of dollars to corporations, and now he’s talking about state and local governments going bankrupt,” McGrath said. “To me, if we can bail out Boeing, we can help our police officers, our educators, our fire departments. That should be our focus right now. That and testing. We can’t open our economy back up until we know who has this virus.”
McGrath said she thinks there needs to be an investment in personal protective equipment for first responders and testing for COVID-19, and the federal government should be providing the money for that.
“You can’t just tell the state and local governments to do this and then not provide aid for them to do these things,” she said.
She said the federal government also needs to be taking charge of developing vaccines and anti-viral drugs.
McGrath would not say whether it is too early for the economies to open up, but said she believes Gov. Beshear has “done a fantastic job of listening to scientists, listening to public health officials and doing what’s right for the health of our fellow Kentuckians. I’m behind him, and I think he’s doing a great job.”
She also declined to say whether she thinks other states are opening too soon, saying only that she hopes other governors are listening to health officials.
“I wish we had more leadership on this at the federal level, I would feel more comfortable, but I don’t know what’s going on in those states,” she said.
Asked about what to do for the economy in eastern Kentucky, she turned the question to McConnell’s record.
“I think this just underscores how bad Sen. Mc- Connell has left Kentucky behind. Here is a guy who has been around 35 years, and my challenge to people of Kentucky is look around. Are things getting any better?” she said.
She said she wants to invest in “21st century infrastructure” such as broadband and good cell service.
“No business is going to want to come to a county that doesn’t talk to the modern world,” McGrath said.
She said there needs to be investment not only in infrastructure, but in education and in healthcare. She cited opioid addiction as a reason the country needs to invest in health care and drug prevention, citing the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce as saying drugs are one of the biggest impediments to growth in the state.
“These are all things Sen. McConnell has not cared about. He has not prioritized,” she said. “Senator McConnell went to Washington and he’s there for one thing — his own power to help himself and his wealthy donors.”
She said the same kind of investment applies to the methamphetamine problem.
McGrath said her number one priority, if elected, is to protect healthcare for Kentuckians, including bringing down prescription prices, something she said McConnell is blocking because “he’s bought off by big pharma.”
“I say there are many things President Trump has talked about that he can’t get done because of Mitch McConnell,” McGrath said, going back to a line that brought her sharp criticism from fellow Democrats when she announced her candidacy.
McGrath defended her position that McConnell is blocking good things that she said Trump wants to do. When presented with fact-checker counts that say the president has lied approximately 18,000 times since taking office, McGrath stumbled, but said she believes him.
“All I can say is there’s a lot of my fellow Kentuckians who take President Trump at his word when he says he wants to do big things on infrastructure, when he says he cares about the working individual, when he says that he wants to get prescription drug prices down, then he says he wants to fix healthcare and make it better for people,” she said. “I have to take him at his word on some of those things because that’s what my fellow Kentuckians do.”
McGrath said she was an Independent for most of her life, but is now a Democrat while her husband is a staunch Republican.
“So what? We’re Americans. Let’s get away from this partisan stuff, let’s get away from I want to win for my party and do what’s right for each other in Kentucky. That’s what I’m all about,” McGrath said.
That philosophy might not serve her well in a primary, where the most partisan members of the party are the most likely to vote, and in which Booker is pounding her in advertising as a “pro-Trump Democrat.” Though McGrath is still widely considered the front-runner in the race, Booker is also advertising that internal polling shows he and McGrath are separated by only single digits. Candidate Mike Broiher also said he feels “really, really good” about the race, adding that “African-American leaders, especially, are under a lot of pressure” to support someone of color in the race, in response to protests across the country.