- Interview by
- Peter Lucas
A lot has changed since Robert LeVertis Bell last ran for office in 2020 — a Democratic majority in the United States government, a Republican majority in the Kentucky state government, new COVID variants and outbreaks, a mini-revival of the teacher strike wave, and unions formed for the first time at US Amazon and Starbucks shops. But the goal for LeVertis Bell, now running for Kentucky State House’s forty-third district, remains the same: building lasting working-class political power in Louisville and beyond.
LeVertis Bell originally announced his candidacy in what was formerly District Forty-two of the state house, currently occupied by a retiring twenty-year incumbent. Not long after, Kentucky underwent the state’s first-ever redistricting, led by the Republican Party. Now he’s running against one-term incumbent Pam Stevenson in the newly formed District Forty-three.
LeVertis Bell and the Louisville Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are looking to bring class struggle to the newly formed and “overwhelming progressive district.” LeVertis Bell discussed his previous and current campaigns with Jacobin contributor Peter Lucas.
You grew up in an activist family with a grandmother who is notable for her work in the Civil Rights Movement in Louisville. Can you tell us a bit about that history and how it’s influenced your politics?
Every city has a handful of people who were the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. My grandmother Mattie Jones is one of them in Louisville. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, when the city was at its height of desegregation-related conflict, my grandmother was at the forefront with Louis Coleman and Anne and Carl Braden, who are also local civil rights legends. The other three have since passed, but grandmother’s still with us. She’s eighty-nine years old. She’s been doing this for a really long time and is still active. Growing up around her, around movement people, I used to have my birthday parties in a place called the Anne and Carl Braden Center, which is an organizing center that’s in the West End of Louisville, where I grew up. Being around that energy on a regular basis as a child — collating newsletters for the Southern Organizing Committee or the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression — I couldn’t help but absorb all of it.
I went to picket lines as a young child. One of my favorite memories as a kid: My dad was working at the State Capitol — where, hopefully, I’ll be working next year — in Frankfort, during the struggle to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. I remember chanting outside the capitol, and I must have been seven or eight years old, “It’s not a national holiday until the state workers are off!” And that was a really personal thing, because while I was off of school, my father still had to work inside the Capitol. I remember he slipped out and gave us cookies and donuts. Moments like that helped me recognize that movements create social change, not individuals.
Before becoming a schoolteacher, you were in a PhD program at the University of Michigan. Did your experience in academia change the way you organized and looked at politics?
I think fondly of my time in Michigan. I left academia because I was teaching a little bit at the college level and just didn’t feel fulfilled instructing upper-level English courses to university students. I wanted to be in a job that was union but also felt like I was making a difference in my community.
I became a public school teacher for the same reasons that a lot of people become teachers: I wanted to impact the lives of young people and feel like the work that I was doing mattered in some way. When I was at the University of Michigan, I read a lot of Marxist theory. I’d always been into that sort of stuff since I was a teenager, but thinking about it more systematically during my time in the American Studies program definitely shaped my politics a lot.
I was a member of the Graduate Employees Organization, which is the graduate student union at the university. There I participated in my first major action as a worker. That was good for my soul. It cemented my understanding of the importance of the workplace specifically as a site of struggle. Prior to that, I was a community organizer, but not yet organizing in my workplace.
As a rank-and-file teacher, what was your involvement in, and impressions of, the Red for Ed movement, and later the fight for safe schools during the COVID-19 pandemic?
I am a veteran of the Red for Ed movement. At that time, I was relatively new to my public school teaching career, but I had been a long-time activist and organizer, so I utilized those skills by bringing my coworkers into the union, people from the community out to help with strike support for the sick-outs, turnout to the various rallies, etc. That was a big part of my role back then.
As far as the fight for safe schools, honestly, it didn’t become that big of an issue in Kentucky, because, at least at the time, the school board that oversees my employer was the most progressive legislative body in the state, which doesn’t say a whole lot. They were at the forefront and have been really good at keeping people in schools safe. We were remote for a very long time. When we came back, we were 100 percent masked — until recently, when they made masks optional.
So we didn’t actually have a lot to struggle around that. In Jefferson County, where I live, we have a DSA member on the school board who has been extremely active in prioritizing the health of everyone. I also think the school board didn’t want to rock the boat too much, quite frankly, because they have a lasting memory of when the Red for Ed movement came to Kentucky in 2018.
It was a historic moment with thousands of people in the streets. I’ve been around for a long time. I’ve been to a lot of large protests, but none in my city that big. The only thing I could compare it to in my experience would be the protests around globalization that I attended in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But this was different from anything that I’d ever experienced in the city of Louisville.
There was a lot of energy. People from all walks of life were concerned and hitting the streets really feeling like they needed to say something — have some sort of voice in whatever the city was going to be after that tragedy. We didn’t make as much progress with political education as we would have liked, but it was still a meaningful crash course for a lot of people.
As for what role the Left played in it, well, in DSA specifically, it was mostly just a supportive role. We had members who were out helping every single day in some capacity. We had members doing security. We had members at the ongoing vigil. We had members who obviously came out and held signs and participated in the rallies. We had members who helped call the rallies. But as a chapter, we saw our role as primarily support for various people who were out in the streets.
At the time I was running for Louisville Metro Council, so I took on a bit of a leadership role in my speeches or when talking to the media, trying to put meat on the bones of the anger that was out there. I tried to talk about these things systematically and link them to policy proposals to both elevate the conversation and get some actual wins for working people. We also did a lot of work publicizing what our definition of defunding the police is.
We supported defunding the police before Breonna Taylor, but the aftermath of that only deepened our belief. Louisville DSA has long pushed for making changes to our city budget in order to make the lives of people in the city better, safer, stronger. In response to the protests, we started a campaign called the People’s Budget Campaign, which was a continuation of the defund movement, where we tried to advocate for specific changes in the city budget. But because I didn’t win that election in 2020 — I lost by 250 votes — it made it difficult to continue that.
The Left or the broad movement in general hardly has any representation in city government. Not having any institutional power has opened up a lot of people’s eyes in our chapter as far as the necessity of long-term organizing — not just hitting the streets when something happens but actually trying to vie for power in the workplace and the electoral arena.
Having run for public office in 2020, what have you learned since then? And how are you incorporating that into your current campaign?
A lot of people, including myself, who worked on my first campaign developed skills over the course of that campaign. Personally, I’ve never given that many speeches in my life. I’ve done a lot of writing for lots of different audiences, but really having to think about the audience that I’m trying to communicate with — often many different audiences at once — was great practice. These are key skills for someone running electoral campaigns. And they’re ones that any organizer could use.
Having that crash course for those seven or eight months provided countless reps. And that’s not only for me; it’s also for the people who worked on the campaign, lots of whom have gone on to work in other campaigns or leadership in DSA. These are skills that are just not going to go away.
The governor banned knocking on doors for political campaigns because of the pandemic during that time, and that really cost us. If there’s another wave, I’ll just have to spend some campaign funds on hazmat suits, because I’m going to be out there knocking doors regardless.
Another thing I learned, something we keep saying in my campaign internally, is we can’t leave anything in the clip. There are a lot of things that we didn’t say publicly last time because we thought they might be impolitic about our opponents. But looking back, we felt like there were things that we should have said that might have made a difference. They may not have resulted in a different outcome, but they might have contributed more to the political education aspect of what these campaigns are about. This time we’re not going to be afraid of stepping on toes and pushing buttons.
You’re running in a district that has a heavy Democratic Party presence. What has been your experience running as a democratic socialist candidate — both with your would-be constituents and also with the Democratic Party machine?
When it comes to constituents, they don’t care. No one at the doors has said anything negative about me being a socialist or engaged in any red-baiting. Nothing of the sort has happened. People in my district already know me from the work I’ve done with DSA and elsewhere, not to mention my grandmother. When they look at my campaign platform, hear me speak, talk to one of our volunteers, it resonates with them. This district is, by anyone’s estimation, the most progressive district in Kentucky since the redistricting.
When people ask me about democratic socialism, I can tell them, “Like Bernie Sanders,” and more often than not they say, “Oh, I voted for Bernie.”
There is still a Democratic Party machine, even though they’ve lost everything they could possibly lose in the state for the past twenty years. They’ve gone from being a majority to being a 25 to 75 minority in the state house, but they still have something of a stranglehold in the city of Louisville. And of course, that’s not just particular individuals who are elected or have official Democratic Party positions. It’s the entire constellation: NGOs, donors, various power brokers. They still have some sway around here as far as which endorsements you get, whether this union or that union endorses you, whether this organization or that organization endorses you. They’re the ones who are the most negative toward me as a socialist. I think what they really don’t like is that we represent DSA, because Louisville DSA has gone from being what they regarded as small potatoes a few years ago to being a legitimate and formidable political bloc in the city.
We ran two really formidable metro council campaigns in 2020 and lost both by a combined 350 votes or so. On top of that, we have Chris Cobb, who we elected to the school board. We make noise and we canvass all the time, so they know who we are. They know they don’t own us. The entire constellation of power brokers, donors, and elected officials sees us as outsiders, which we are. Why would we want to be in their club, which has lost everything?
They’ve abdicated all responsibility to and relinquished any sort of sway with the working class in this state. But they hold on to their power, even as the state crumbles around them. They see us as a threat to them, and they’re right. They’re fighting my campaign, and DSA in general, with everything they have. And like I said, we’re not going to leave anything in the clip. We’re going to fight back.
Another Louisville DSA member is also running for office. Who are they and what are they running for?
Tyler Lamon is running for a seat on the metro council. Tyler is a long-time DSA member — even preceding me in Louisville DSA, actually. His campaign is really active on the doors. The dynamic of his race is different. It is a very crowded race for an open seat, but none of them have politics except for him. Everybody else is just running on name and face. I think Tyler has a real shot. I’m really glad he’s running.
We had another candidate whose name is Joshua Crowder, but because of redistricting he and I got put in the same district against each other and the current incumbent. And so Joshua dropped out and endorsed me. Joshua actually joined DSA in response to my campaign in 2020. And he was someone who I helped recruit to run for state house originally when we were in different districts. It was really disappointing that he had to drop his campaign. It was going really well. Hopefully he’ll run for something again in the future.
Could you just speak a little bit more about what you and Tyler, both running as DSA candidates right now, are doing for Louisville as a DSA chapter?
We had our annual local convention in January, where we scaled back our priorities. We have two priorities right now: labor work and the two electoral campaigns. We need all hands on deck for both. The labor work is important and ongoing, but in general everybody’s pretty much dialed in on these two electoral campaigns. We have some of the best organizers in the city in our chapter. They know the ropes and are committed to these campaigns — canvassing, other field work, and behind-the-scenes, administrative stuff.
My campaign manager is cochair of the chapter. My field director is on the Steering Committee. Both campaigns are DSA campaigns, through and through.
What does a legitimate progressive political program look like in Kentucky, where the state is dominated by Republicans?
I think about this in two sorts of strokes. In the short term, we have to articulate a politics that can excite people about what they can win right now. That’s really hard to do in a state that is red as a beet — 25 to 75 Republican majority in the state house. So I have to go in thinking, Okay, where can I amend this or tweak that?
My platform has some things on it that I think are immediately attainable. With some work and effort, we might be able to defeat some of the more draconian attacks on public education. We might be able to increase the penalties on our wage theft laws — get some of the home health workers, people who work in restaurants, etc., to not be excluded from overtime pay. Those are going to be big lifts, but I think they are in the realm of possibility in the next two to four years.
Otherwise, the question is: How can I use the position that I’m in to organize people, to develop people within my district and beyond so that we can actually lay the groundwork for more wins two to six years from now? Losing the working class has been a generational failure for the Democrats in the state and nationwide. And so it’s going to have to be a generational effort to win back this commonwealth.