INEZ, Kentucky ― On a spring morning in 1964, hundreds of residents gathered at an old miniature golf course in the center of town as the whirling blades of a presidential chopper brought Lyndon B. Johnson to this tiny Appalachian enclave. Johnson had declared war on America’s corrosive levels of poverty three months earlier. He chose Inez, where a third of the population was unemployed and annual incomes were counted in the hundreds of dollars, as the site of his first offensive.
Fifty-six years later, no crowd assembled to greet Charles Booker when his black SUV, emblazoned with the logo of his fledgling U.S. Senate campaign, pulled into an empty parking lot at the community center. No one, save Booker himself and a few local activists he’d meet for lunch, even knew he was here.
In January, Booker ― a 35-year-old Democratic state legislator from Louisville and one of the youngest Black state lawmakers ever elected in Kentucky ― entered the Democratic primary against Amy McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot and former congressional candidate. The winner will face Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader who is chasing his seventh term in the upper chamber. Despite his status as the country’s most loathed Republican this side of President Donald Trump, McConnell is still the prohibitive favorite in a state where no Democrat has come within 100,000 votes of beating him since 1990.
Places like Inez and Whitesburg, Lynch and Pikeville ― the towns Booker visited on a tour through eastern Kentucky in February ― are still struggling five decades after the launch of the War on Poverty. Today, they are ground zero for the environmental devastation wrought by the coal industry, and the poverty and economic pain its collapse has left behind.
So Booker had come to pitch not just his candidacy but the plan he has put at the center of his campaign: the Green New Deal.
Known primarily as a series of proposals that its progressive backers hope will alter the nation’s energy future in order to stem climate change, it’s also a project no less ambitious than the one Johnson began here: a dramatic overhaul of both the nation’s economy and its social contract in a way that addresses the systemic inequality that the old economy created and perpetuated.
The Green New Deal is Booker’s plan to rescue coal country and Kentucky from total ruin ― and from politicians like McConnell who have stood idly by.