Next January, Kentucky’s 20th District House seat will be occupied by someone other than Jody Richards for the first time since 1976.
The longtime Bowling Green Democratic Representative and former House Speaker is retiring after 42 years of service.
The two candidates hoping to replace Richards are running for office for the first time: Ben Lawson, a Republican, and Democrat Patti Minter.
"Door Warrior" Hoping to Keep Seat Blue
Patti Minter has earned many titles: wife, mother, educator, community advocate, and now, door warrior, as her 13-year-old son calls her. She earned the nickname from campaigning from house to house in Kentucky’s 20th House District, which covers part of Warren County.
On a Saturday morning in early October, Minter is campaigning on Max Hampton Street in downtown Bowling Green’s historic Shake Rag district.
"We’ve been knocking doors since February and having so many good conversations with people," Minter told WKU Public Radio. "People’s state representative should lift up the voices of people in the community, and I’ve learned so much from talking to thousands of people. I’ve heard their concerns and I’m ready to represent their voices and their issues in Frankfort as their next state representative.”
Minter says she has the energy and experience to fight for Warren County. She also has good name recognition as a long-time Western Kentucky University professor and the face of the local effort to expand legal protections for LGBTQ individuals.
On this particular Saturday, Minter has amassed a small army of volunteers to fan out across the 20th District. They meet at Fountain Square Park to get directions from Campaign Manager Cody Pruitt.
"I'm going to pass out all of our walking turf. Again, we're going to be in the BG Towers and the Fairview precincts. We've haven't been here that much lately and it's a good push to the final end, and make sure people have a plan to go vote on November 6 if you talk to anyone," Pruitt told the volunteers. "Make sure you've got all the brochures you need and as soon as you get your packet, feel free to go out."
Among the volunteers is Susan Wesley, a retired associate professor at WKU. Wesley says she was impressed by how Dr. Minter governed on the WKU Board of Regent as a strong voice for faculty, a negotiator, and collaborator.
"I've not been real happy with how things are going in this country," Wesley said. "I've thought to myself, 'What can I do?' This has been empowering for me, and I'm grateful for Patti and many of the women who are running for office, and the opportunity it's given me to get involved and try to do something to make some change."
Minter has taught history at WKU for 24 years and spent seven years on the WKU Board of Regents as the faculty regent. Education is a big reason why she got into the race, calling it the lifeblood of the commonwealth.
"When I started here in 1993, 50 percent of the WKU budget was from the state, now it’s in the teens," explained Minter. "Those costs have been passed on to our students and it’s led to cuts at the university. The same thing has happened to K-12."
Minter's platform also includes creating a living wage for all Kentuckians and keeping pension promises to public sector workers. She also supports a statewide amendment to the Kentucky Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes from discrimination.
Many Candidates Challenging Incumbents are Women, Teachers, or Both
Minter is part of a wave of female and teacher candidates in Kentucky who are on the November 6 ballot. Eighty women and at least 40 educators are running for seats in the state legislature. Minter thinks the election will be a referendum on Governor Matt Bevin.
"So many of the teachers who are running are running because of the cuts to education. That was before he started insulting us," Minter stated. "This is no way to lead a commonwealth, regardless of your partisan affiliation. It’s completely inappropriate for the chief executive officer in any state to mindlessly insult public servants who do this for love. We certainly don’t do it for money.”
Bevin’s popularity took a huge hit after introducing the Republican plan to address Kentucky’s massive pension deficit with teachers being the most impacted. The governor has also faced public backlash over his efforts to roll back the state’s Medicaid expansion.
Young Republican Hoping to Turn Seat Red
On the same day across town, Republican nominee Ben Lawson is canvassing the Briarwood neighborhood. His goal is to hit 5,000 more houses before next month’s election to increase his name recognition.
"I think that is the biggest, in my perspective, hurdle for me as a candidate," Lawson told WKU Public Radio. "I’m a younger person, been in the business community for a while, been involved in a lot of outreach organizations, but I haven’t ran for office before and I’m not widely known.”
He has also raised less money than his Democratic opponent in total receipts, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.
Lawson, 28, has roots that run deep as a sixth generation Warren Countian. He’s running in a Democratic-leaning district that has roughly 14,000 registered Democrats and about 9,500 Republicans. But the GOP political newcomer isn’t swayed by the voter makeup.
"Here in Bowling Green, if you’ve lived here for any amount of time, you realize that party registration doesn’t have a ton to do with how people vote. They really look at the person and I don’t think I have to be anything I’m not," Lawson said. "I tell people that I enjoy my job, my life, what I do, and politics shouldn’t be the end all, be all for anybody.”
Lawson says he believes in term limits and doesn’t want to serve just to be re-elected. Lawson must convince some Democratic voters to turn out for him at the polls, and says he’ll do that by focusing on the issues.
"People really want to see someone who’s going to address the issues in a respectful way and plan long-term for our future," he said. "They’re tired of being promised things that nobody’s delivering. I think that’s something that we have to watch as a legislature and as a state. Our word is our bond and when we say we’re going to do something, are we taking the necessary steps to accomplish that? Recently, that has been no, we haven’t. We need to not lie to people, not promise people more than we can give them, and be honest and upfront to fix it.”
Lawson thinks the state's pension crisis could have been avoided to some extent. He says lawmakers need to plan with conservative estimates and have yearly checks to see if benchmarks are being met. While he says he wouldn't have voted for the pension bill that cleared the Republican-led state House and Senate this year, Lawson doesn’t think new teachers are being shorted by not having a defined benefit plan that retired and current teachers were given.
"I think getting people into a guaranteed no-loss 401K-style plan is still better than anything you can get in the free market today, so I think that was an amicable decision to be made," he said. "I didn't like the way they did it. They should have had teachers and people in the room to really flesh that out."
Lawson works in the insurance industry, and he’s a numbers guy. Fiscal conservatism is at the top of his platform. He proposes what he calls the ‘Fit’ government plan.
"That’s being financially responsible and sustainable in how we spend our money, investing in our people, our future, and our infrastructure. That’s people through education and workforce development, our infrastructure, both physical and digital, and our future through tax modernization," Lawson explained. "And then last, is being transparent and efficient. We’ve got to do everything out in the open, pull back the curtain on back door politics and we’ve got to say here are the facts, here’s what I’m basing my decision on, and here’s why it will work.”
Bevin's Impact on Race?
A poll released on October 10 by Morning Consult ranked Kentucky’s Matt Bevin as the fourth least popular governor in the country. While Lawson thinks a lot of voters are able to separate the governor from the legislature, he acknowledges that he’s running in less than ideal conditions.
"Not only is this an incredibly gerrymandered district for Democrats, it also is potentially one of the worst years to run as a Republican, looking at how everything shook out, but at the same time, you just take what life gives you," Lawson said.
The race between Lawson and Minter has remained largely positive. However, mailers recently sent to residents in the 20th House District criticized Minter’s record on fiscal policy. The ad, paid for the Republican Party of Kentucky, says that Minter “expressed outrage” while on the WKU Board of Regents when the school was considering a tuition hike smaller than the one she proposed.
The mailer also stated that Minter spent $16,000 of tuition money “traveling the world and staying at luxury hotels and spas.” Minter responded on Facebook that her job as a historian and researcher requires her to study abroad.
"Every time I’ve ever traveled for work, I’ve spent my own money and WKU has only reimbursed me for part of it. "The rest is out of my own pocket. Sometimes it’s a lot, but I’m happy to do it for my students and every teacher knows that feeling," wrote Minter. "As a regent, I had to make hard decisions to keep good people from losing their jobs, something my opponent has never had to do. I also voted against building projects that were "wants" not "needs", and I did so consistently. I stood up and showed up for the WKU community, voted against wasteful "wants" such as unnecessary buildings and athletic expenses that should have been self-supporting, and voted against unnecessary student fees. And I spoke out strongly and often for more state funding so the university wouldn’t have to raise tuition in the first place, something I’ll continue to do as your state representative."
As someone who spent more than four decades in the Kentucky General Assembly, Jody Richards wielded much power and seniority that often benefited Warren County. Patti Minter is hoping to keep his seat in the hands of the Democratic Party, while Ben Lawson wants to turn the seat red, and help his party maintain control of the Kentucky House.