INTERVIEW: Richard Becker on his campaign for state representative, Kentucky finances, & hoverboards!

It feels wrong to imply that any one view is more or less common sense over the other, but I’m hard pressed to think of a better description for Richard Becker‘s platform running for state representative in the 35th district. Becker advocates for the working class and is looking to shake up Frankfort if elected, and he certainly has some sound ideas below. You can vote on May 22nd during the primaries, and if you’d like to support Becker, join him at the Get Out the Vote Party! w/Ben Sollee, Tyler Lance Walker Gill, and Bungalow Betty tomorrow night at Zanzabar. Check out his commercial below, and read on about his policies, hoverboards, and victory music!

Never Nervous: Tell us a little about yourself. What’s your background like? Were you always interested in politics, or did you evolve an interest in that?

Richard Becker: I first became interested in politics at a relatively young age, in 2000. I was just 12 years old when the debacle of that presidential election took place, and I can remember sitting on my parents’ bed in the morning watching the news and seeing how disgusted my parents were at the injustice of the Supreme Court essentially handing the presidency to George W. Bush. From that experience, I went on to volunteer on the presidential campaign of Howard Dean in 2004, at the age of 17.

My parents had always stoked my interest in politics. My father would tell me stories about his time at the University of Kentucky in the late 60’s and early 70’s, when he participated in protests against the Vietnam War. My mother was less explicitly political, but was adamant that my siblings and I carry ourselves in the world in such a way that we showed love to all people, regardless of their station in life. I attribute much of my current political worldview to that lesson.

I was always raised to believe that those of us to whom much is given, much is expected. I’ve tried to live my life by that idea. I carry considerable privilege, so anything I can do to use that privilege in the struggle for a more just world, I want to do.

NN: I understand that you worked elsewhere in the Democratic Party. Where was that? What did you do?

RB: My first job in politics was the 2007 Kentucky gubernatorial campaign of Jonathan Miller, a progressive Democrat from Lexington. I went on to work in Iowa during the caucuses there, and then took a job working for then-Senator Obama in southern Ohio in 2008. Working as an organizer for Obama in rural, Appalachian, southern Ohio, was a formative experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. The town I worked in, Portsmouth, sat right on the Ohio River across from Kentucky. It was culturally quite similar to the Bluegrass State. It was on that campaign that I learned the power of ordinary people coming together to fight for a better world. It was on that campaign that I came to truly believe in the capacity of organizing–intense, person-to-person, brick-by-brick, block-by-block organizing–to transform our country.

After 2008, I went back to school, and upon graduation worked in a couple of states doing electoral work before settling into my current vocation as a union organizer.

“We need serious corrective measures to atone for the damage that has been done over the past couple of years under the right-wing Republican leadership in Frankfort.”

NN: Give us a quick civics lesson: what does a state rep do, and what do you hope to achieve?

RB: I wish there were a School House Rock video for this! A state rep is essentially the state-level version of a federal Congressmember (in our case, John Yarmuth). As the state rep for the 35th district, I would represent our community in Frankfort during legislative sessions each year. State representatives are members of the Kentucky House of Representatives, which, alongside the Kentucky Senate, is tasked with developing a state budget, and writing the laws of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

In terms of what I hope to achieve, I think it’s important that we have a representative from this district who will stand up to Governor Bevin. We need serious corrective measures to atone for the damage that has been done over the past couple of years under the right-wing Republican leadership in Frankfort. We must restore pensions to our public employees, rollback attacks on reproductive healthcare, and raise wages for working people. We must undo the damage of so-called “right to work” (which makes it harder for working folks to organize into unions), and we must reject Bevin’s onerous work requirements for Medicaid.

We live in unique times, and we need fresh leadership to meet those times. Half-measures, hand-wringing, and equivocation won’t suffice. We need to fight this governor with everything we’ve got and begin to undo the damage that’s already been done before we can even begin to talk about an agenda that moves Kentucky forward.

NN: Why is the 35th district important?

RB: The 35th district contains some of the most dynamic and interesting neighborhoods in Louisville, as well as some of the most important connector roads in our city. Fifteen miles, give-or-take, from top to bottom, the 35th district runs from the Original Highlands in the north, to Okolona in the south, near the Gene Snyder Freeway. It encompasses Germantown and Schnitzelburg, Audubon Park, Parkway Village, and Camp Taylor, on down to Lynnview, Prestonia, Okolona, and everything in between. It is a working-class district, but it is also a district undergoing rapid change and development, particularly in Germantown and Schnitzelburg.

If you were to join me in knocking doors in this district, you might meet a musician/bartender, a union Ironworker, and a software developer all on the same street. It’s an area struggling to reconcile its rich history with the demands of the present and the future. It’s an area where people still believe that government can work for them, but where people demand that that government actually do the work of the people.

We’ve had fantastic representation for nearly 30 years from Rep. Jim Wayne, who is retiring this year. Every single time I go out and knock doors in the district, I meet at least half a dozen people with a story of how Jim helped their family with one issue or another, or of how Jim simply listened when no one else would.

The people of the 35th district are fighters. And they deserve an advocate in Frankfort who, like Jim, will have their interests at heart. In a way, the 35th district is a microcosm of Louisville as a whole: working-class to the core, and staring into a future that is uncertain, but ultimately holding a faith that things will work out if we have the tenacity to fight for what’s right.

NN: It seems like Louisville and the rest of Kentucky are often at odds politically. How do you think that we as Louisvillians can best engage with the rest of the state? What can we learn from more rural areas? What can they learn from us?

RB: In the 35th district, I’ve met a lot of families with deep roots in the rural parts of Kentucky. Many families came to Louisville in the past 100 years seeking a better life. They came from eastern Kentucky and western Kentucky to work at GE or Ford, or International Harvester, and they settled in communities like Okolona, and Camp Taylor. As with most things in politics, I think the feeling of being at odds is more pronounced among the upper crust of political leadership than it is at the human-to-human level. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: to be able to care and provide for ourselves and our family, and live in harmony with our neighbors and our community.

But this is also why this district needs someone who will fight for them. There are those in Frankfort who are content to take the tax dollars and economic development of Louisville and then cut our city out of the decision-making process. I will fight to ensure that Louisville’s interests are front-and-center in the conversation in Frankfort. We drive so much of the economic activity of Kentucky, and we should have a permanent seat at the table.

NN: How is single payer healthcare feasible in Kentucky? Perhaps put more directly, how can we implement something that the highest office in the state -Governor Matt Bevin- is working against?

“Matt Bevin and others of his ilk never met an industry or a venture that they didn’t want to privatize and squeeze for profit.”

RB: Matt Bevin and others of his ilk never met an industry or a venture that they didn’t want to privatize and squeeze for profit. We have a fundamental ideological conflict in Kentucky. On the one hand, are those like Mr. Bevin who believe that a profit motive is a perfectly fine thing to inject into healthcare, education, and other areas of public interest. On the other hand, are those like me and many of the people I talk to on the doors every day in the 35th district, who reject the notion that anyone should profit off of healthcare or education.

I don’t expect to see single-payer healthcare passed at the state level anytime soon. Vermont and California have led the way in such efforts, and have been unable to overcome the difficulty of funding such a venture at the state level. However, I support single-payer at the federal level, where it is more likely to be fiscally feasible, and will gladly sponsor a resolution in the legislature to advance that aim.

Of course, all of this starts with ridding our state of profiteer grifters like Matt Bevin and his buddies in the legislature, who gladly do the bidding of their out-of-state billionaire backers rather than the business of the people of Kentucky. That starts with legislative elections in 2018 and continues with the governor’s election in 2019.

NN: Speaking to corporate interests and tax fairness in the state, what is the best way to keep people like the Koch Brothers out of state politics, while also not ostracizing industry?

RB: We need to get corporate money out of politics. Period. That’s why I’m proud to be the only candidate in my primary race who has unequivocally ruled out accepting donations from members of SCALA, the shadowy group of Louisville’s wealthy power brokers that has, among other things, called for a state takeover of JCPS.

I support publicly-financed elections, which would level the playing field and remove corporate money from the political process. This would go a long way toward ensuring that our government works in the interest of the people and not the interests of out-0f-state millionaires and billionaires.

NN: To your mind, what is the optimal solution to keeping teacher pensions solvent? Is there one?

RB: We have any number of options for generating the revenue necessary to fully fund our pensions and begin to increase investment in education, healthcare, and infrastructure. What we lack are the political courage to make them a reality, and the leadership at the top to get it done. I’m referring, of course, to Governor Bevin, who has an ideological opposition to the very notion of pensions. So of course he wants to privatize the entire venture, and put our public servants into 401(k) style retirement plans.

For decades, my state representative Jim Wayne has introduced a comprehensive tax reform bill that by some estimates could generate upwards of $500 million in annual revenue if passed. It does so by shifting the tax burden off the poor and the working class, and onto the rich and wealthy corporations who continue to enjoy tax breaks that deprive Kentucky of much-needed revenue. Wayne’s bill has failed to advance through the Republican-controlled Senate.

NN: Relative to state finance in general, what is your position on the legalization of marijuana or gambling, two avenues that if made legal would generate some much needed income?

“Legalization of marijuana is a no-brainer, and something I will advocate for if elected.”

RB: I support full legalization of marijuana. By some estimates, this could generate as much as $100 million in annual revenue for Kentucky, while also helping to mitigate many of the most deleterious effects of the opioid epidemic. Legalization of marijuana is a no-brainer, and something I will advocate for if elected.

As for casino gaming, I think it’s time the people of Kentucky be allowed to vote on a constitutional amendment to legalize gambling. We send millions of dollars each year into neighboring states to fund their education and their infrastructure, all while dealing with gaps in our state budget.

I have my own personal concerns about treating gambling as a panacea for our budget woes, given that it can essentially become yet another tax on the poor and working-class. But as a believer in democracy, I believe the people should be allowed to vote on it, and I think it’s wrong that such a vote hasn’t happened already.

NN: If, for example, marijuana was legalized, should non-violent offenders be released?

RB: Absolutely. Any policy legalizing marijuana must include amnesty for those in prison for non-violent, low-level offenses related to marijuana. The mass incarceration of people for such offenses disproportionately affects people of color, and costs our state millions of dollars a year in prison costs. We must legalize cannabis and include amnesty for those swept up in the failed “war on drugs.”

NN: Speaking to that, what is your stance on the privatization of the prison system? I understand that the state recently rejected the use of private prisons, but it would seem our current governor disagrees with that?

RB: Like healthcare and education, I fundamentally reject the notion of profit in the criminal justice system. That there are companies raking in billions of dollars a year in profit off of the backs of the incarcerated is repugnant, and should offend any decent person. A compassionate society cannot abide such a system.

NN: What did you think about Infinity War? No spoilers!

RB: Running for office doesn’t exactly leave much time for entertainment, so I’m hoping it’s still in theaters on May 23rd after this primary is over!

NN: As state rep, is there anything you can do to get us some real hoverboards?

“The people of Kentucky deserve real hoverboards, and I will fight for that if elected!”

RB: That’s an important question, and one I hear a lot in the community as I campaign. Unfortunately, as long as Gov. Bevin has his way, we will be restricted to imitation “hoverboards” that are essentially glorified skateboards. The people of Kentucky deserve real hoverboards, and I will fight for that if elected!

NN: What’s worth doing lately? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything that merits mention?

RB: Campaigning isn’t exactly glamorous in the food and drink department, but I’ve been enjoying The Post, and Oskar’s on Poplar Level Rd. The 35th has too many great restaurants to mention. I’ve tried to continue my lifelong reading habit while campaigning, but haven’t made much progress, though I’ve been making time to read a few pages of fiction to unwind at the end of the day. As a musician myself, music remains a hugely important part of my life. I’ve been listening to a lot of Ben Sollee to get in the mood for our May 10th Get Out The Vote rally at Zanzabar, but have also really been enjoying Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, among others.

NN: If you win, what is your victory music and why?

RB: I think it’s a tie between This Land Is Your Land, and There Is Power In a Union by Billy Bragg. For TLIYL we’d probably play the My Morning Jacket version to keep it local. Jim James, if you’re reading, you’re welcome to come play it in person at our election night party on May 22nd!