Meet the Man Tasked with Leading the Kentucky Democratic Party

Dec 29, 2020

Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Colmon Elridge in front of a charcoal background.
Credit Courtesy of Colmon Elridge

In November, Colmon Elridge became the first Black person to become the chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party.

He's taking over at time when America is facing a racial reckoning.

A grandchild of a housekeeper who was never allowed to use the front door where she worked, the Georgetown, KY, resident is now a welcome guest at the governor's mansion. It's a journey he said he takes with him every day.

However, Elridge is also inherting a party that has suffered several losses in recent elections, meaning the work is cut out for him.


Editor's Note: The following interview contains questions and answers that have been edited for clarity and timing.

Elridge:
So I think it's a couple of things. I think it's, one, reconnecting with the voters. There has been a disconnect... If you look at the vote totals from the 2020 election, Republicans don't get that without Democrats voting straight Republican ticket... Second is making sure we have the totals ncessary all across the party to be successful so we've got to not only recruit candidates but train them... And finally, I think it's regaining our voice. For too long, we've allowed others, the Republican Party and others, to frankly define who we are as Democrats... We've brought cupcakes to knife fights, and I am not interested in doing that.

So, for you, where does that start? Because I think, to someone outside of politics, they would assume that in every election politicans try to talk to voters?

Elridge:
I think you hit the nail on the head. Those conversations happen around election time. They're not continuous conversations. They're not conversations that aren't transactional. If my only interaction with a politican is when you need my vote, and then I give you that vote, and you disappear for another two, four, six years, that's a problem...The only other thing I'd add to that is this notion of voter registration. We treat that as something that only happens around both the primary and the general election instead of taking that on as a 365 day a year enterprise.

I'm reminded of State Rep. Charles Booker and we just him mount a pretty impressive primary challenge against Amy McGrath in the senate race this summer, running on a progressive message. So, how do you incorporate that into a winning strategy?


Elridge:
We know we can harnass some of that because we have been that when we've been at our best. Charles really took something that we have done previously and said, "Wait a minute, we're not so beyond the pale that we can't, again, connect with folks and do it in a human way." I think how we, as a party, turn that is to, one, in some ways reject the moderate versus progressive versus conservative label. The things that Charles talks about, the things that I believe connect Democrats, and frankly people across the commonwealth, are about good paying jobs. They're about the dignity of education and the dignity of healthcare. It's about the fact that there are still places in 2020, almost 2021, in the Commonwealth of Kentucky where there is not access to safe, affordable, clean drinking water. That is unacceptable.

In recent years, we've seen several Democrats in what have been traditionally red states mount impressive campaigns. Stacey Abrams in Georgia or Beto O'Rourke in Texas come to mind. When you look at that, where do you find inspiration that you want to take back to the Bluegrass State?

Elridge:
So the first and foremost is the voter engagement and registration. The reason there remains voter apathy is, as a I said earlier, voters aren't stupid. And they're actually fairly savvy. So once you treat voter engagement as a once every few year endeavor, you basically become a voting ATM... There are things I've heard since I have been chair, "Just steal what they're doing in Georgia and do it here." Well, Georgia had some other great things at their disposal. They had a growing demographics shift, not only in the suburban reas, but in the Atlanta and other metro areas... We don't necessarily enjoy that in Kentucky...I think there will be places where strategically, what happened in Georgia and some other places we can use in its totality to effectiveness. But that engagement around voters, connecting with folks, making sure  that it's not a one-off, but that we're building relationships, we're listening to people, those things I think become critically important to turn the tide.

Can you talk about your own personal story and how that makes it that much more important to have this position now?

Elridge:
That's a weighty question... My father committed suicide when I was three. And when I look back on that now, part of that was because, I often try to put myself in his shoes, and he saw lynchings first-hand. It wasn't a historical event to him, it was something he saw growing up in Birmingham. He had aspirations that far exceeded where people of color, born in the south, born in poor families were expected to go... My father's death mean that my mother became a 28-year-old single mother. We lost everything paying his debts off. So, we went from what we thought was a pretty stable, upper-class, middle life to having three boxes of clothes and toys, figuring our way from California, to Texas, ultimately to Kentucky. That journey, I wear with me every day. And I think what it means for me in the roles that I've had means I have been blessed to have the opportunities to at least move the ball forward so that future generations aren't living as badly.

Race remains a focal point in Kentucky politics. In recent years, we've seen Republicans Jenean Hampton and Daniel Cameron win statewide office. But, at the same time, we've seen Black Democrats in the statehouse say they feel sidelined by the majority. Do you see this as a the beginning of a fundamental shift in Kentucky politics?

Elridge:
Let me start with the first part of your question. I remain incensed and angry to a place where I cannot say what I feel on radio of just how disappointed I am in my own party. There have been so many people of color that have been worthy to run for statewide office that our party should have embraced and not given the opportunity to. By any stretch of the imagination, I think we, as people of color, understand the necessity of earning what we get. But, the fact that that still has not happened is sickening to me. And trust me when I say I understand, more than a lot of people realize how easy it would be for people of color throughout Kentucky to say "What the heck? If we're not even worthy to be on a ticket, there are like seven offices. At least one?" And then, the fact that the Republicans beat us to that... So, what I would say for my party, is that we are going to do better.