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In Statehouse Primaries, Teachers Hope To Ride Outrage Into Office

Ryland Barton

Kentucky voters will head to the polls on Tuesday to decide who will compete for seats in the state legislature this fall.

This year’s statehouse primary elections feature a handful of crowded contests for seats vacated by retiring legislators. And dozens of teachers are hoping to ride a wave of outrage into Frankfort after launching massive protests at the state Capitol this spring.

Travis Brenda has been teaching at Rockcastle County High School for the last 19 years. He lives on a farm in Cartersville in southern Garrard County. Brenda is a Republican but he said he’s disappointed in how the fully-Republican controlled legislature is doing business.

“What has been driving the leadership in this last session, or the last two sessions starting with the charter schools system a year ago, has been more toward big business not necessarily looking out for the working man,” Brenda said.

Brenda is running against Jonathan Shell, the 30-year-old floor leader of the House Republican majority. Shell was first elected in 2012. He was in charge of recruiting candidates during the last round of House elections when Republicans took control of the chamber for the first time in nearly a century.

Brenda said he doesn’t like the direction statehouse Republicans have gone in — overhauling retirement benefits for public employees and revamping the tax code by cutting corporate taxes and expanding the sales tax to new services.

“On this, I’m not one of the wealthy Republicans that’s looking to just give tax breaks to the wealthy while penalizing those in the working sector,” Brenda said.

‘We are being disrespected by our governor’

Altogether this spring, there are 41 current and former educators running for the legislature.

Most of them are Democrats like Jenny Urie who was angered by the pension overhaul and inflammatory comments about teachers made by Gov. Matt Bevin.

“We are being disrespected by our governor,” Urie said. “How could we not start standing together and fighting for what we love and believe in?”

Urie is running in the 62nd district, which includes Owen County and parts of Fayette and Scott counties.

She said she’s worried about how changes to retirement benefits will affect the state’s ability to attract qualified teachers.

“I’m just not sure how it’s going to look in two or three years. Are we going to have enough teachers to fill the classrooms?” Urie said.

And in rural areas where school districts are among the largest employers, some Republicans are mounting campaigns against their own party.

Scott Lewis is the superintendent of Ohio County’s school system in western Kentucky.

“We’re going to start talking about charter schools and funding those when we don’t even have money for all-day kindergarten, professional development, there’s been no textbook money in I don’t know when,” Lewis said. “We need people up there who understand this.”

Lewis is running for an open seat in the 14th district, which includes Ohio County and part of Daviess County.

He said he agrees with the governor on some issues — especially Bevin’s anti-abortion stance and reducing red tape in the state’s adoption program. But Lewis said after years of under-funding public schools, educators have had enough.

“Our salaries are falling behind, our budgets are obviously falling behind and I think you know with the rhetoric coming from the governor and some of the leaders that that just added fuel to the fire,” Lewis said.

Before this year’s legislative session, Kentucky was among states that cut public education funding most deeply over the last decade, setting aside about 16 percent less per public school student than it did in 2008.

During this year’s session, lawmakers increased the per-pupil funding level to the highest level in state history, but critics say that doesn’t account for inflation and cuts made to ancillary services like grants for text books and teacher professional development.

Legislative Departures Create Crowded Primaries

Twenty of the 100 members of the state House of Representatives aren’t running this year and those vacant seats have created some interesting races where parties are hoping to flip districts in their favor.

In the 6th district, which includes Marshall County and parts of Lyon and McCracken counties, Democratic Rep. Will Coursey’s departure has led to a three-way Democratic primary and a two-way Republican primary.

Al Cunningham is a union representative from Benton and is running as a Democrat. He said he got into the race because of the legislature’s passage of right-to-work legislation and other changes in labor policy.

“When they first took over in January of last year, they rushed legislation and cut it from three days of hearings to the one day,” Cunningham said. “And they gutted the prevailing wage on our public works projects which has cost workers thousands of dollars.”

Former Benton city councilman Chris Freeland is running as a Republican. He sees the rural district as fertile ground for his party.

“There’s a lot of people in this area that strongly feel that they are Democrat, and that’s good,” said Freeland. “But a lot of people are Democrats because for so many years past, elections were all decided in the primary. So if you were a Republican, you really didn’t have a vote.”

Other legislative departures have created crowded primaries. In Bowling Green’s 20th district, the retirement of 42-year Democratic Rep. Jody Richards has created an eight-way Democratic primary.

There’s also a seven-way Democratic primary in Louisville’s 43rd district, where Rep. Darryl Owens is retiring.

Half of the 38 seats in the state Senate are up for re-election as well.

In the 34th Senate district, Louisville English teacher Matt Kauffman is running against Karen Berg for the Democratic nomination. The seat is currently held by Republican Sen. Ernie Harris, who is being challenged by attorney Alex White in the Republican primary.

Only registered Republicans and Democrats can vote in the primary elections Tuesday. Polls are open across the state from 6 a.m until 6 p.m., local time.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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