Race, claims of 'dog whistle' politics quickly dominate Rand Paul-Charles Booker battle

Morgan Watkins
Louisville Courier Journal
Former Democratic state Rep. Charles Booker, left, is looking to take the place of Republican Rand Paul in the U.S. Senate.

Race and issues affecting Black Americans are sure to come up in any federal election, but that's especially true for Sen. Rand Paul's 2022 congressional bid — in no small part because of who's running against him.

Democrat Charles Booker, a Black man who grew up poor in Louisville's West End, just launched a progressive campaign to defeat Paul in Kentucky, an overwhelmingly white and increasingly conservative state.

When he kicked off his campaign on July 1, Booker said he sees race, and racism, as inevitably being involved in this election.

"I’m counting down the days before they say the N-word about me," he said. "They’re weaponizing hate in such a gross way. … We’re not just looking to beat Rand Paul, we have to beat hate."

Paul zeroed in on two issues in his initial response to Booker's campaign launch: Defunding the police and reparations for slavery, which he predicts won't be popular with Kentuckians. 

The Republican Party of Kentucky mirrored that message in a tweet: "Here's the thing about (Booker): he supports defunding the police and forcing taxpayers to pay for reparations. Booker's radical socialist agenda is the exact opposite of what Kentuckians want and need."

Who is Charles Booker?: What to know about the candidate who wants to oust Sen. Rand Paul

Then came an eye-popping email Paul's campaign sent July 2, which called Booker a "racial left opponent."

Booker swiftly sent his own fundraising email: "Rand Paul is saying the quiet part out loud about how he feels seeing an opponent like me enter the race."

A source close to Paul's campaign told The Courier Journal "racial left" was a typo and should have said "radical left." (The email's subject line read: 'The radical left is coming for me.')

Paul and the state GOP's focus on reparations and defunding the police, plus the "racial left opponent" email, sparked discussion about whether they were using coded language to raise the specter of race — a tactic known as "dog whistle" politics.

"(The Republican Party of Kentucky) will use all the buzzwords/phrases so be prepared Kentucky. We will hear "reparations," "critical race theory," "socialism," "wants your guns," "abortion". What they mean is Black," Hannah Drake, a Louisville writer and activist, tweeted.

'Dog whistle' politics ... or not 

Ian Haney López, a law professor and author of a book on dog whistle politics, said Paul's initial response to Booker's candidacy is absolutely an example of that tactic, which is "a type of speech that's designed to trigger racist thinking while allowing plausible deniability." 

Dog whistle politics has a long history, he said, and "pushing people to vote in terms of their racial fears is the primary strategy that Republicans have been pursuing for 50 years.

"It’s racism as strategy, and part of strategic racism is to use coded terms so you can loudly proclaim your innocence, while at the same time you talk about your Democratic opponent in language that consistently promotes racial fear and anxiety," he said.

The words a politician uses don't have to be racist. "But they're consistently used in a manner that triggers that sort of imagery at an unconscious level," said Haney López, who works at the University of California, Berkeley.

Debates about defunding the police skyrocketed in the wake of last year's historic protests against police brutality and racism, while reparations for slavery is an issue inextricably linked to race. 

"I mean, how can those terms not promote racial imagery?" he said.

However, some don't see Paul's statements as dog whistle politics. They say it's just a common political strategy to highlight an opponent's policy stances if you think they won't fly with voters.

"For me, it is not a dog whistle," said OJ Oleka, who has been active in GOP politics and is the politically conservative cofounder of the bipartisan coalition AntiRacismKY. "It’s no secret that former Rep. Booker is going to run as a left candidate compared to a center-left candidate. If that’s his position and that’s his lane, then these questions — they shouldn't be that unexpected."

OJ Oleka is the cofounder of the bipartisan coalition AntiRacismKY.

These aren't out-of-bounds issues, Oleka said. This is a chance for voters to decide if they'd rather tackle challenges affecting the Black community through Paul's conservative ideas, such as criminal justice reform and school choice efforts he supports, or Booker's progressive proposals.

Oleka said of Paul: "We’ve had private conversations where figuring out good conservative policy that benefits all Kentuckians, and in some positive ways disproportionately benefits Black Kentuckians, is on his mind very much.”

More:Sen. Rand Paul comes to Louisville to meet with Christopher 2X, others on gun violence

Kyle Kondik, who analyzes elections for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said defunding the police will come up in any congressional race. (For example, Sen. Mitch McConnell claimed Democrat Amy McGrath, a white woman and military veteran, wanted to defund the police during his successful reelection bid last year.)

“Republicans are going to try to throw that at everyone,” Kondik said.

His guess is Paul’s criticisms of Booker so far wouldn’t be much different if he was up against a white progressive, but he said it’s worth watching how that messaging against Booker evolves.

Race can’t be ignored in elections, Haney López said, but how people engage with it matters.

“The big question for Kentucky, for the United States, is not: Is race an issue? Of course it is,” he said. “The big question is … will we engage with the issue of race in a way that is open and honest and honors our values, or will we instead engage with race unconsciously, in the background, while telling ourselves that we’re not thinking about race at all?”

Booker said Friday he thinks Paul is "making it abundantly clear that he believes that racism is a winning strategy in Kentucky, and I wholeheartedly disagree with him."

"The bottom’s fallen out for so many people in this commonwealth, and instead of speaking on the issues and really showing the leadership that we need out of a U.S. senator, he’s stoking racism,” he told The Courier Journal. "He’s actually putting down the dog whistle and picking up a megaphone."

The Courier Journal requested a comment from Paul through a campaign spokesperson and asked for his perspective on the matter.

The senator responded: “I don’t believe defunding the police or asking taxpayers to pay reparations for slavery will be very popular in KY.”

Booker on defunding, reparations

The day Booker launched his campaign, Paul stuck to that same message.

When The Courier Journal asked him about Booker’s platform on issues like making prescriptions more affordable, Paul said the most prominent thing he’s heard so far is Booker — a former state lawmaker who got national attention last year when he ran for McConnell's seat — is for defunding the police.

In actuality, Booker has rarely talked about defunding the police and hasn't advocated for totally eliminating police funding, per a review of his interviews and social media posts. He has, however, criticized ever-increasing police budgets and expressed support for investing some of those dollars elsewhere.

"There’s a reason why you don’t hear me say those words," Booker said Friday of the phrase 'defund the police.'

"It’s because I'm not playing their game," he continued. "What I want to talk about is what I actually want to do, which is fully fund community safety."

State Rep. Charles Booker speaks Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a Black Lives Matter healing rally in front of KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville.

Disagreements over defunding the police, and what it really entails, persist.

Some see it as an effort to eventually abolish law enforcement, but Rashawn Ray, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, wrote last year that it actually means "reallocating or redirecting funding away from the police department to other government agencies…" 

In Friday's interview, Booker did not express support for eliminating law enforcement budgets. 

He did criticize the size of the Louisville Metro Police Department’s budget and the militarization of policing, and said more government resources should be invested in mental health services and efforts to address problems like blight and homelessness.

"We can take care of those folks who serve us in uniform and provide them the resources they need but also make sure we’re fully investing in our communities and reorienting how we address violence, how we address trauma," he said. 

While Booker avoids using the term 'defund the police,' he doesn’t shy away from mentioning reparations. 

He repeatedly tweeted his support for that over the past two years.

Reparations can include the federal government making direct payments to the descendants of enslaved people, among other forms of recompense. 

He said Friday "we have the ability … to provide justice and accountability and make the people of Kentucky whole when the government has harmed them, when they faced injustice."

He noted how Kentucky used funds from coal severance taxes and from legal settlements with tobacco companies to help coal-mining communities and family farms that were crushed by the decline of those two industries. 

"All I’m saying is we can do that for every single Kentuckian, including those who are descendants of hard-working Kentuckians — Americans — who were enslaved," he said.

"When Rand Paul is talking about defunding the police, when Rand Paul is talking about reparations, it’s not because he is concerned about solutions," said Booker, whose platform focuses on ending generational poverty. "…He wants people to be afraid of the government actually working for them."

As for what type of reparations he supports, Booker said he'll roll out a plan for "what reparations could look like" for Kentucky and America. 

'It’d be campaign malpractice not to go there'

While Booker suggested Paul wants to distract voters instead of discussing real solutions to their problems, Tres Watson, a Kentucky-based Republican consultant, indicated Paul's decision to highlight Booker's stances on defunding the police and reparations is common-sense political strategy. 

"(If) Charles Booker wants to lean into heavily progressive issues that are going to be unpopular anywhere outside the most liberal parts of Jefferson County, then that’s where Sen. Paul’s campaign team needs to take him," he explained. "It’d be campaign malpractice not to go there."

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul addresses a crowd during a speech in La Grange, Ky., on June 30, 2021.

Paul contends Booker’s support for reparations will not win over the Kentucky electorate. Recent polling suggests he’s probably right, considering the commonwealth’s population is 87% white. 

An April poll by University of Massachusetts Amherst and WCVB TV found only 28% of white people they polled support reparations, versus 86% of Black people surveyed.

Paul says he doesn't think defunding the police will be popular with Kentucky voters either, and national polling lends credence to that prediction, too. 

recent USA TODAY/Ipsos poll found only 22% of people surveyed back the 'defund-the-police' movement, with 60% of Black Americans opposing it, while 70% of those polled supported boosting police departments' budgets.

"Charles Booker is on the record supporting defunding the police, and that's a non-starter with Kentucky voters because it is a fundamental, public-safety issue," Republican Party of Kentucky spokesman Mike Lonergan said.

Democratic Louisville Metro Councilman and activist Jecorey Arthur said politicians mischaracterize defunding the police as a marketing tool. 

"The criticism of defunding the police is largely a scare tactic because the people who criticize it paint this picture that it will be like 'The Purge,'" he said, referencing a film where crime is legal in America for one night a year.

Also:Is defunding the police 'Obamacare 2.0'? Democrats face challenge with voters heading into 2022

As for reparations, Arthur said most Democratic candidates don't really support that, and Paul is just being direct about his stance.

He said both parties use the issue strategically. 

"I think to a certain extent the Democrats will dangle it as a carrot in front of Black people’s faces. And then on the flip side, the Republicans will use it as a weapon for their base," he said.

At 28-years-old, Jecorey Arthur, a Louisville hip-hop artist, youth mentor, and community activist, is the youngest person ever elected to Louisville's Metro Council. Dec. 7, 2020

K.A. Owens, a Louisville community activist, said Paul is using scare tactics and surmised it's because he's worried. 

"Rand Paul is afraid that Charles Booker will stand up and say to poor white people that the reason they are poor is because the policies that Rand Paul advocates are making them poor," Owens said via email. "When Rand Paul uses defunding the police and reparations as scare words it is because he is scared."

Watson said buzzwords like 'defund the police' or 'critical race theory' pop up a lot in federal elections, even though those policies have no feasible shot at becoming law, because they're effective politically. 

"In realistic terms, there’s nobody actually proposing defunding the police (and) there's nobody actually pushing for kindergartners to learn critical race theory in Congress," he said. "But you’re going to see it in campaigns because it moves eyes, it moves wallets and it moves voters to the polls on both sides of the aisle."

Reach reporter Morgan Watkins: 502-582-4502; mwatkins@courierjournal.com; Twitter: @morganwatkins26.