Meet Kentucky’s Newest Democratic Socialist Politician

J.P. Lyninger, a member of DSA and DSA’s Bread & Roses caucus, won his primary election in Louisville in May. He’ll be fighting for democratic socialist politics in one of the country’s “reddest” states.


The following interview was conducted with Peter Lucas, a writer in New York City primarily covering labor and politics. It is republished from Jacobin magazine.

Last month, socialist J. P. Lyninger won the Democratic Party primary for Louisville Metro Council’s Sixth District with 49 percent of the vote, beating the incumbent by 20 percentage points. In a deep-blue district without a Republican nominee, Lyninger is expected to go unchallenged in the general election and join the Metro Council in 2025.

Lyninger was endorsed by the Louisville chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which he previously cochaired, marking their highest profile victory and first successful run for Metro Council. Louisville DSA candidates nearly won local and state office several times prior — experience that Lyninger said was indispensable to his campaign. Jacobin contributor Peter Lucas spoke with Lyninger about Louisville DSA’s electoral program, policing in Louisville since the Breonna Taylor protests, and the biggest issues the District 6 faces.


How did you get into politics, and how did you become a socialist?


I come from a working-class background. As a kid, I was aware that I had less than a lot of my peers did, through no fault of the effort of my own parents, who worked very hard to provide everything they could for me.

But the fact that my parents are good, smart, hard-working people didn’t mean that they were financially successful. That’s not how the world works. And we dealt with a lot of hardship when I was growing up.

It was very clear to me that a lot of the kids that I was friends with occupied a different class position than I did. That included when my dad had to change careers. He was doing circuit-board design for a lot of my childhood and was very talented — in high demand, but not well paid. He opted for trucking, moving around machinery and scrap metal. At my first job, I was wearing my Sears and Roebuck to get into dumpsters and pull out scrap metal. We called dumpster diving “getting in the box.”

I was the first person on either side of my family to ever graduate from college. Growing up with this acute understanding of my class position, I was told that the solution was ambition: “You’re going to be the one to make it. Graduate college and get a good paying job, so you don’t have to work like we worked.” And I kind of bought into that mindset — the way to take care of yourself is to take care of yourself in this rat race of capitalism. The only thing you can do is try to get yours.

I also was raised with progressive values. That’s tough to square. It’s tough to take that individualist position and also have the view that everyone should be better off. They aren’t really compatible, and it produces cynicism. I had this view of society as it should be, but it was unobtainable — so instead you’ve got to take care of your family and the people close to you.

That leads to an expression of politics that’s pretty incoherent. When I got out of school, my primary political expression was very individualistic — sorting, recycling, and reusing glass bottles.

I got involved with anti-racist, anti-fascist organizing, which especially ramped up after the 2016 election. A lot of anti-fascist and anti-racist organizing boils down to preventing the worst from happening. It’s very defensive. You talk to people who do Food Not Bombs or Anarchist Collective kind of stuff, and it’s about taking care of the people in your subculture or your chosen family. It’s not about changing the world. It’s not about making a positive expression of your political vision. I didn’t find that until I was in DSA.

Joining DSA changed my life because I found a group of people who were building something — not just trying to stop the worst from happening. I found people who really believe that a better world is possible for the first time in my life.


What led you to run for office?


When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to be a politician. I was pursuing a typical path: I went to school for a degree in political science, with my eyes fixed on law school, and then I got an internship in the state legislature in Frankfort, Kentucky.

But I quickly realized how terrible it all was. No one there was trying to improve anything. It’s all horse trading so that the wealthy get their needs met. I became completely disillusioned there, and that experience dispelled that notion of becoming a politician.

When I joined DSA in 2019, the first meeting that I attended was our local chapter convention. Robert Levertis-Bell, who had recruited me to the organization, was planning to run for Metro Council and had asked me to be his treasurer. His endorsement was up for a vote at the convention, and I was blown away by the sophistication, the organization, and the vision of Louisville DSA. I committed to the program on the spot.

During the course of that campaign, and then later when Robert ran for state legislature, it changed my life to see how many people believed in a political transformation that we could be the protagonists of — that the working class could hold power, and build a world that meets the needs of the many. And not only believed in that change but were organizing to fight for it alongside their neighbors.

During the campaign, Robert told me that I should run for this Metro Council seat in four years when it would be up for election. Initially I said I’m not the right guy for that. I’m thrilled to help behind the scenes, but I’m not that guy. Over the next four years, I took on a lot of different roles in our chapter, including chapter cochair and helping organize our electoral academy.

There are different tracks where people can learn about how to perform different roles within a campaign — field lead, treasurer, [communications], and so on. I taught people about campaign finance law in Kentucky and how to raise money as a DSA candidate. We also have a candidate track, and with Robert’s nudging, I started taking some of the candidate courses, which made me believe this is a role I can fill.

Our idea of politics doesn’t rest on waiting for a uniquely talented individual who is destined to fill that role; that’s not how we’re going to change the world. If we have to wait for a one-in-a-million candidate, the math doesn’t work for that. We’ve got too much to do too soon. We can’t wait for that special someone. And we do have and need exceptional leaders, but that can’t be our theory of change. It has to be about if you can organize and commit to building the power of the working class.

Another factor was having a district that we could win. When the city council maps were redrawn in 2021, we circled District 6 immediately. Nick Conder, who’s my campaign manager and one of the architects of our electoral program in Louisville DSA, was immediately like, this is our district and we have to run in it.


Louisville DSA had run several campaigns at the city and state level over the past few years that came just short of winning. What put you over the hump?


We viewed this campaign as a continuation of those previous ones where we were learning how to do this. We were constantly building and refining our electoral program. We were figuring out what worked in these races, what didn’t, what the responses were to the things that we were doing, what kind of things the establishment and the ruling class were throwing back at us as countermeasures.

Some of it comes down to luck, or forces that are beyond your control. We just had our campaign debrief with a lot of our staff, and one of the things that we brought up was the weather. We never had to cancel a canvass because of the weather. We got all of our knocking hours and exceeded our door target. In previous campaigns, we frequently lost days to just inclement weather, and we were tearing our hair out about it. But you can’t throw people out into the thunderstorm and tell them to go knock doors.

Outside of honing our tactics from previous campaigns and a bit of luck, a big part was that we had established a presence in these neighborhoods. People have heard our message and recognize us. One of my first days canvassing for this campaign, I knocked a door, opened with the same pitch I would for every door (“I want to build a city that’s for everyone, not just the mayor’s millionaire donors”), and then handed them the lit and started asking them about their concerns. One of the first people that took my lit immediately recognized the rose logo and said, “Oh, you’re a socialist!” Because we’ve run in that neighborhood before, someone has received enough of our literature to make that connection between the rose, DSA, and the class-struggle message we promote.


As DSA has enjoyed a growing number of electoral victories over the past half-decade, there’s been a lot of debate about its electoral program. Chapters have tried different strategies throughout the country at different levels of government to varying degrees of success.

One tension that people talk about is: Should we run campaigns to “win,” which might include downplaying some of our socialist views? Or should we run campaigns that prioritize “propaganda” and “using the platform to be a tribune for socialism”? Was that a tension in your campaign?


We consciously ran a politics-forward, class-struggle campaign without compromises. Part of that is we viewed this as a district where we didn’t have to make any compromises. So why make compromises? We felt strongly that this district was going to be receptive to our class-struggle messaging, so we didn’t hold back.

We were very clear about the problems that we have in the city, and that the only path to addressing them is building a working-class movement, to completely alter the way that we do business as a city, to change the budget from one that’s completely ignoring the needs of the working class. We did not modify that message for any audience or neighborhood we were in.

We viewed it as, we’re going to tell people what the problem is, which is capitalism, and we’re going to talk about the way that the real estate developers are completely distorting policy in the city and not be afraid of the pushback, because it was going to come no matter what. So why moderate? It’s not like your opponents are going to do you any favors.

We received feedback from people that that was a reason to vote for us. That was a reason that people got excited, signed up to volunteer, and why they wanted to be visible supporters of our campaign. We explained how we see the problems in Louisville, and we didn’t hide what we think we ought to do about them. That was how we won.

If I had just tried to campaign as a run-of-the-mill progressive, there’s a million options for that? What differentiates you is extremely important in a campaign, especially when you’re running against an incumbent. We were the only campaign that beat an incumbent in this cycle in Louisville.

There were other campaigns where people wanted to run to the left of the current elected, but still wanted to be a part of the Democratic Party establishment. When you’re trying to draw those contrasts with the incumbent as part of that same establishment, where is there to go? All you can do is accuse them of secretly being a Republican, and say that’s the problem with them, they’re not really a Democrat; I’m going to be a real Democrat. Nobody bit on that. Because at the end of the day, people can see through that.


In practice, what does it look like to draw that contrast?


We didn’t pull any punches about being in conflict with the establishment. When we knocked doors, we called out our Democratic mayor’s wealthy donors. His donors are mostly, though not all, registered Democrats. But whose needs are getting met? Whose interests do they represent? We started off right there talking about how those interests are in conflict, and how the working class is not having our interests advanced.

When we would ask people what’s their biggest concern, some answered that it’s crime and violence. We didn’t run away from that. We talked to them about how an ever-expanding police budget — spending double what we spent twenty years ago on cops and jails in Louisville, with zero accountability — has impacts for the rest of our civic society.

This runaway police budget meant you don’t have community centers, afterschool and summer programs for kids, jobs programs, a functioning health department, swimming pools in the summer. All of these things that we used to have were taken away little by little, because we have a government that is focused on police spending and spending on jails as the only way to improve public safety.

It’s pretty rare that you’ve got someone who knocks on your door and says, spending so much money on the police is a huge problem, and nothing in our city is going to get better until we bring that spending in. That’s an unusual message to hear.


You brought up police spending. It has been just over four years since Breonna Taylor was murdered by a Louisville police officer. Can you say more about policing and the budget in Louisville?


For thirty years in Louisville, we have had a focus on police brutality, on civil rights violations, and on the police response to calls for accountability. Every time that there has been a push for police oversight — establishing a civilian review board, examining the spending, eliminating no-knock warrants — there has always been massive, powerful pushback from the police and their union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). And there has never been the political will from the establishment to stand up to that.

Our FOP contract is negotiated completely in secret. During the Breonna Taylor protests, it was a huge demand to change that, but four years later, that hasn’t happened.

Their new contract, approved a few weeks ago, also lowered disciplinary standards for [Louisville Metro Police Department] officers. If you ask anyone in the city if they think that the police have too high a disciplinary standard, no one would say yes, and yet there was minimal resistance on the Metro Council. There are good people on the Metro Council, but they’re in the minority. The only way to change that, again, is to build the power in the working class for us to stand up and say, changing this is a priority.

After the Breonna Taylor protests, there was an investigation from the Department of Justice [DOJ] into our police department, and the findings were damning. The DOJ wants to establish a consent decree in Louisville, but our city leaders and the FOP are trying to fight that. Out of one side of their mouth, they talk to the people in the community and acknowledge that we’ve got a real problem and we need to change the culture; they reassure everyone that they are committed to justice and equality, and all of the very important values that they are supposed to espouse. But when there are proposals to hold the police department accountable, they say, “No, not like that.”

The Office of Equity issued a report on rights violations, police brutality, and the history of policing in Louisville. Much like the DOJ report, it was damning. It painted a picture of a city where policing is out of control; where there is systemic violence against minorities and the poor; where we aren’t meeting that public need for safety. And the response from city leadership was to pretend that didn’t happen, because it doesn’t support their political agenda.

One more thing about the police response since 2020: a recurring concern we heard on the doors was that people felt less safe because of inadequate police response times. There is this paradox of the police not actually doing their job when there is a problem. Since the protests, there has been less of a response to community concerns about violence or enforcing traffic laws, and it’s their way of punishing us.

The “blue flu” is real. Sometimes you get a response explicitly saying, “Too bad, if only we had more money, more cops, we could take care of you, but nothing we can do.” Then when they do come, it’s a brigade of eight squad cars rolling up — because they treat Louisville like an occupied territory, not a community that they serve.


What are the other issues that you’re planning to address on the Metro Council?


One of the things we want to get the ball rolling on, that was front and center in our platform, is the democratization of Louisville Gas & Electric (LG&E), our utility. At the doors, a lot of people did not realize that we don’t own LG&E either. People assume we have some control over it because Louisville is in the name, but it’s actually owned by a corporation headquartered in Pennsylvania and traded on Wall Street.

We’d tell them: your utility bills pay for shareholder profits, and they don’t plan to stop burning coal for energy until 2067. That needs to change. We have a specific pathway in state law for bringing LG&E into public ownership, and we want to immediately get the ball rolling on finding out what we need to do to make that happen.

The entirety of District 6 doesn’t have a grocery store. It’s a food desert. There was a Kroger just outside of the current district boundaries, but that’s long gone. When Kroger left that location, the company told the city that it was profitable — just not profitable enough.

So we asked voters, do you think that access to fresh fruit and vegetables should be contingent on corporate profits? We don’t think it needs to be. We want to start looking at building a municipal grocery-store system. This isn’t pie in the sky — it’s a program that’s worked in other places.

And we would tell people, it would be great if it makes a little bit of money, even if it’s not quite as profitable as Kroger would like. In that case, we’ll reinvest the profits and make more and improved grocery stores. But what if it just breaks even? Or even loses a little bit of money? Who cares? Because access to fresh fruit and vegetables and dairy and meat is something people need. So why not treat it like a public good? Why don’t we act like we have some measure of control over that as a city? People loved that.

I think that does speak to your question about leading with politics when you talk to people. People know that we have less democratic control of our lives than we used to, and there wasn’t enough then either. They want some measure of control returned to them.


All over the country, Palestine has been and is on the ballot. Was that an issue in your election? Where do you stand on it?


Free Palestine is where I stand on it. It did come up a bit earlier in the primary season when I was involved in organizing the cease-fire resolution before the Louisville Metro Council.

When we were text banking, a volunteer asked me how they should respond to this voter who asked if I support a free Palestine; the voter said it’s the only thing they care about, the only issue they were interested in. I said, tell them, “Good news,” because we are not apologetic about my involvement. The cease-fire resolution was extremely public. People knew that’s where I stood. When there was a call to action on the issue, we were out there, and used our social media to promote it. I joined protests, like at the Raytheon facility in Louisville.

People would ask if I was worried that was going to hurt me. I would say, first, I don’t think it’s going to hurt me. I think that we should give more credit to the people who want a cease-fire. It’s the leaders who are out of line. I’m certain that the majority of the voters in the Democratic primary want a cease-fire, especially in a progressive district like this.

But beyond that, even if I were to lose some votes for that, I don’t care. It’s the right thing to do. We need political leadership to be honest with people about the fact that the United States is aiding a genocide, and that has to stop. And if we don’t have the political courage to stand up to that, what do we have the political courage to stand up to?


What’s your positive vision for the future of Louisville more broadly?


It boils down to the power of the working class to build this movement about taking democratic control of our lives. We have people actively involved in saying this system doesn’t work, and we want change.

I tell people all the time, I’m just some guy — I don’t have a magic wand. Nothing in this ambitious platform is going to happen because of me; it’s going to happen because of us and what we build, and it’s going to take years. I think building the power of the working class so that they have to listen to us is the prize. At the end of the day, real change happens because the working class realizes its power.

Republished from Jacobin

J. P. Lyninger is a Democratic Socialists of America–endorsed candidate for Louisville Metro Council’s Sixth District. He is also a member of DSA's Bread & Roses caucus.