The Kentucky Democratic Primaries of 2022 and the GOP Primary of 2023
We have primaries coming up in Kentucky on May 17. (Early voting is May 12-14.)
Here are some thoughts on the upcoming races, from the perspective of a fairly-informed citizen, but just one person. My general view is that the best policies are those that are grounded in the correct evidence of what works—so we shouldn’t give everyone $100,000 tomorrow because that would cause a lot of inflation. But after accounting for what policies can and can’t work in an objective sense, we should aim for policies that are power-balancing, as opposed to privilege-defending. For example, if we limited how much the wealthy could contribute to campaigns and also provided all Americans some funds that they could contribute to campaigns that would be power-balancing—giving the rich a bit less power in politics and the non-rich more. Getting rid of basically all campaign finance restrictions, as the Republican appointees on the Supreme Court have done, has ended up giving those with financial privilege (lots of money) even more power. Our current system makes being friendly with rich people the most important credential a politician can have.
Three other points:
1. A politician’s past stances on issues often aren’t their current stances. For example, President Biden used to be a strong advocate of the death penalty but is no longer. That said, past stances are often a useful proxy for how politicians think and decide on current issues. Biden and Hillary Clinton regret their votes for the Iraq War. But I think the inclinations behind those votes, a deference to the views of the old-guard Washington establishment, are reflective of Biden and Clinton’s broader approaches to politics.
2. A politician’s current stances are more relevant—and not just in the most obvious ways. A Democratic politician declaring that she supports Medicare-for-all and the Green Deal is likely to align with the Bernie Sanders-AOC wing of the Democratic Party on issues outside of environmental and health policy. A Democratic politician declaring that he really, really opposes defunding the police is suggesting that he will be a more moderate Democrat on other issues too. There isn’t likely to be a real congressional vote on defunding the police, Medicare-for-all or the Green Deal anytime soon—these issues have become proxies in many ways.
3. Finally, who endorses various candidates and who opposes them is a useful signal. We don’t know what issues are going to come up in the future. But if there is a police shooting of a black person, I would expect someone endorsed by Al Sharpton to be more critical of the police than someone endorsed by Joe Manchin.
I am inclined towards Tim Findley, for three reasons. He has not fallen into the “I embraced the Breonna Taylor and George Floyd protests in 2020, but I love, love, love the police, I promise” rhetoric that Biden and many other prominent Democrats have. Instead, Findley has taken a more balanced approach—-crime is real, serious and must be addressed; the police in Louisville and across the country do at times act in discriminatory and racist ways and need to be reined in; we need policies that both address the poverty and deprivation that sometimes leads people to crime and also will benefit people who are lower-income but aren’t the victims of or the perpetrators of crime. The police already have a lot of power in Louisville, the city’s black residents do not—we need a rebalancing here.
Secondly, Findley has endorsements from people in the community who I think lead from this power-balancing perspective: Urban League President Sadiqa Reynolds, the Courier Journal’s Marc Murphy, the pastor Bruce Williams, activist and author Hannah Drake, and many others I know, of all races, who work on pro-equity policies. Those endorsements give him a leg up, to me, over Shameka Parrish-Wright, who I think also has the right perspectives on the issues.
Third, I think Findley is less likely than other candidates to fall into the crime=West Louisville=bad=black people=police narrative that conflates a lot of different issues but captures a lot of conversation in the city. More than 40 percent of Louisville’s black residents don’t live in West Louisville. There are many good things happening in West Louisville. Putting more police in West Louisville is not the only way (and maybe not the best way) to stop the city’s recent increase in murder rates. It is almost certainly not the best way to improve the lives of Louisville's broader black community.
Craig Greenberg, another mayoral candidate, is endorsed by a long list of the powerful and most-connected in Louisville. With that support base, it is hard to see him being the kind of person who will do much power-balancing. I worry, whatever Greenberg’s own views, that his administration will be filled with people who are Democrats on paper but not particularly focused on increasing equity and rebalancing power and more interested in maintaining a status quo that keeps themselves and their allies in charge of things. Greenberg’s decision to make crime and increasing funding for our already-very-well-funded police department the centerpiece of his campaign was smart politics: it taps into everyday people of all races’ anxiety and fears and communicates to the wealthy and powerful that he won’t be too “activist-y” like Findley and Parrish-Wright. But I worry that constantly talking about crime creates the impression that most people in the city should be worried about being killed—and sidelines the inequity that remains and was a focus here two years ago.
My biggest fear is that not only Greenberg isn’t much of a change from incumbent Mayor Greg Fischer, but that he takes us backward. Fischer, in his final years in office, was becoming less businessman-turned-politician, less fixated on the happenings of the city’s big companies and more on the people. The killing of Breonna Taylor and the fallout, with black leaders all over the city criticizing him, pushed him further in that direction. I think we now have a mayor who is in real communication with people like Councilman Jecorey Arthur. I hope that doesn’t end with Fischer out of office.
I hope Greenberg, if elected, proves me wrong and I must eat my words.
The U.S. House
I’m inclined towards State Rep. Attica Scott over State Sen. Morgan McGarvey. Here the dynamics are more complicated. McGarvey has been embraced by a lot of people who are trying to push policy in the right direction: outgoing congressman John Yarmuth; Joni Jenkins, the longtime state representative in the South End who is the leader of the Kentucky Democrats in the House; University of Louisville professor Ricky Jones. Scott has some important endorsements too, such as the local group Showing Up for Racial Justice and the national Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
If Louisville was choosing someone to run a committee in Congress, be the House Speaker or cut deals with Republicans, I would be inclined towards McGarvey, who was chosen as the Democratic leader by his Kentucky Senate colleagues and seems great at the relationship-building part of politics. But in today’s Congress, basically all legislation is written by the top leaders. There are few bipartisan deals on major issues and those are also negotiated by party leaders. And freshmen members have to wait for years to run committees.
What a first-term or a second-term member in the House can actually do is give compelling speeches, stake out bold stands on issues and push the national conversation through social and traditional media. And right now, with a Trump-ified Republican Party attacking abortion rights, voting rights, fair elections and even Disney, we desperately need Democratic politicians who are willing to actually stand strong and fight—instead of talking about what roads will be built in five years through bipartisan agreements with the party that just tried to overturn the election.
I think Scott is more likely than McGarvey to take out bold positions and push the political system towards new and better goals, as opposed to just fitting in. She was outspoken on racial issues, raising the minimum wage and other power-balancing goals before those were conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party. I had heard about Scott and her stands even when I didn’t live in Louisville. I think McGarvey could be this kind of leader as well—I just think Scott has already demonstrated that in Kentucky.
In State House District 43 that includes part of West and Central Louisville, Robert LeVertis Bell is running against incumbent Pamela Stevenson. Both are Democrats. The incumbent votes the right way on most issues. Bell, in my view, has a really strong vision for how to make Kentucky’s Democratic Party more connected to unions and activist movements. I think he would use this seat as a megaphone to push Louisville and Kentucky and the Democratic Party towards a more power-balancing mindset.
There are a few other members of the statehouse who aren’t running in competitive primaries but who should make sure to vote for in the general election: Nima Kulkarni, Josie Raymond and Lisa Willner in particular. These three in particular lodge the right criticisms of the Republicans’ proposals, fight for the right priorities and occasionally either get the Republicans to sign onto to an actual good policy or make some of the GOP bills less bad.
Raymond has been one of the central drivers in one of the few real substantive parts of the mayoral campaign—getting many of the candidates to get behind the idea of creating some kind of public-funded, semi-universal pre-kindergarten in the city. This is impressive since Raymond isn’t actually running for mayor herself.
I also want to commend all of these state representatives, including Scott and McGarvey, who likely just served in their final legislation session, since they are seeking higher office. Serving in the Kentucky legislature as a Democrat is not an ideal role—you get to drive everyday to Frankfort for three months knowing that your ideas and values will be rejected most of those days and a few of them will feature the Republicans openly attacking your values and your city (Louisville.) I am grateful for their service.
Kentucky Republicans (or at least Mitch McConnell and the other big wigs in the party) may be shifting direction in next year’s governor’s race, according to reporting from Nick Storm and others. The rumors from a few months ago were that Kelly Craft, whose family has given a lot to the party locally and nationally and who served as United States Ambassador to the United Nations under President Trump, would be the gubernatorial candidate, with Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles potentially as her running mate and prospective lieutenant governor. Now, according to Storm, Attorney General Daniel Cameron could be running for governor, with Craft as his running mate. Quarles has formally announced that is running for governor, joining a field that already includes State Auditor Mike Harmon.
A wide-open Republican primary for governor who could turn into a terrible contest over which candidate will have the most aggressive plans to keep Kentucky women from getting abortions, even if they seek them outside of the state; ban books written by black authors; disqualify legitimate election results and show just how much they love Donald J. Trump and everything he stands for. Or the party could coalesce around Cameron and not force him to move too far to the right during the primary. Cameron is a better potential candidate than Craft—he is black, which will increase his appeal to white voters are moderate and conservative but wary of the GOP’s reputation for tolerating and at times stoking racism; he has run for office before and won; and unlike Croft, it would be hard to cast him as super-rich and out of touch with regular people.
If Cameron runs for governor, wins the primary, wins the general election, does a decent job from 2023-2026, he would be a young-but-not-too-young black Republican governor who has been embraced by both the Trump and McConnell wings of the party ……The sky is really the limit.
Current Gov. Andy Beshear, according to a poll conducted by Morning Consult that was released last month, has the approval of 59 percent of Kentuckians, compared to 36 percent who disapprove. He is the most popular Democratic governor in America. That’s really impressive—there are governors in states full of Democratic voters (New York, New Mexico, etc.) who aren’t as popular.
I suspect Beshear’s popularity and Cameron’s potential candidacy are related. A voter who likes the job Beshear has done could still vote for another candidate over Beshear—particularly if that other candidate is a friendly, amiable young politician who seems conservative but not too crazy and would be the first black governor in Kentucky history.
This is an occasional newsletter about Kentucky politics and policy. You can subscribe here.