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Kentucky Teachers Hope For Surge In Statehouse Elections Amid Pension Battle

Ryland Barton

After Kentucky lawmakers made changes to pension benefits for state workers earlier this year, some candidates are hoping to ride a wave of anger from teachers and other public workers into the statehouse.

There are at least 51 current and former educators running for seats in the legislature as all 100 districts in the state House of Representatives and half in the state Senate are up for re-election this year.

Joy Gray is a retired teacher from Owensboro who’s running as a Democrat against Republican Rep. Suzanne Miles.

Gray said she’s concerned that the pension changes will make teaching less attractive and that lawmakers didn’t listen to massive opposition to the measure.

“There are people that are upset with some of the shenanigans — you know, not having open hearings, not having input,” said Gray. “Just doing what they want and you’re supposed to accept it.”

The 51 current and former educators running this year include candidates challenging sitting legislators, those running for open seats and a handful of current lawmakers. Some of them are write-in candidates.

Earlier this year, the Republican-led legislature passed a bill that changes retirement benefits for most future and some current state workers amid massive protests from teachers and other public employees.

Mike McCardwell, a retired teacher from Shelbyville, said he thinks anger over the pension issue hasn’t waned and that educators are still angry about comments Gov. Matt Bevin made about teachers that they found to be offensive.

McCardwell said he elected to retire because Bevin said that opponents to the pension bill have a “thug mentality.”

“For 40 years I’ve encouraged students to honor the government and value the government because America’s a great country,” McCardwell said. “I was disappointed the teachers were attacked by legislators and by the governor. As I said, I don’t like being called a thug after working for 40 years. So yeah, that was disappointing.”

The pension bill was unveiled and rushed to passage in matter of hours late in this year’s legislative session. Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear sued to block the measure, which is on hold while the Supreme Court of Kentucky considers the challenge.

Bevin and other supporters of the bill say that it is necessary to help the state address a massive pension debt totaling more than $30 billion.

With 36 candidates on statehouse ballots across the state, Democrats are hoping to capitalize on outrage over the bill. But clawing away at Republicans’ 63-37 supermajority in the House and 27-11 supermajority in the Senate will be difficult.

At a forum in Paducah earlier this month, Bevin predicted that lawmakers likely wouldn’t try and pass the pension bill again if the Kentucky Supreme Court strikes it down on procedural grounds.

“If the Supreme Court strikes this down, they are putting the final nail in the coffin of this,” Bevin said. “Because what do you think the appetite will be for your legislators after the way they’ve been treated to do this fairly innocuous thing that doesn’t do any harm to anybody currently in the system?”

Ellie Thompson is an organizer with the Kentucky Retired Teachers Association and former educator in Robertson and Mason counties. She said that since lawmakers began making proposals to seriously alter benefits, her organization has shifted focus from spearheading volunteer work and social opportunities to advocacy.

“And now that we’re under attack the focus has changed to self-preservation,” Thompson said.

“There will be an influx of people back in Frankfort in January should it be brought back up.”

You can find out who’s running for state House and Senate seats in your area on this website.

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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