Merlene Davis: 13th District Senate candidates are polished, spurned and lost

Herald-Leader columnistDecember 2, 2013 

I attended the Operation Turnout forum Sunday that featured the three men seeking to represent the 13th Senate District in the special election scheduled Dec. 10.

They are vying to replace former state Sen. Kathy Stein, who stepped down after Gov. Steve Beshear appointed her to a Fayette Circuit judgeship in October.

It seemed to me those voters have a choice among a polished politician, a spurned suitor and a man lost in tall weeds.

The first was Reginald Thomas, a highly educated attorney who seemed to have all the right answers on the tip of his tongue.

He said a couple of times that he was the Democratic candidate, sort of a dis of the other two men who had been Democrats before they — according to them — saw the light.

The 13th is heavily Democratic, so waving that banner publicly could only help.

Thomas said he registered as a Democrat when he was 18, and "when God sees fit for me to leave this world, I will leave a Democrat," he said to laughter and applause.

Thomas said he has served on several boards and committees that embraced education and social justice, reflecting his "Democratic values." Payday lending has to go, and the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons has to come, along with jobs and maybe even a hospital on the north side of Lexington.

Richard Moloney played the role of spurned suitor. Although he has a long history with the Democratic Party, he said the way the party selects candidates is not to his liking.

The system, he said, allows five people to pick candidates who will represent their party, creating an exclusive club. "I'm just not in that country club," Moloney said. "Democrats were never like that when I was involved with Democrats."

So he left the party and found acceptance with people who welcomed him as an independent.

"Having been an independent for a month," he said, "I've really enjoyed it and got a lot of encouragement."

How that plays in a Democratic district, I don't know, but it drew laughter from the crowd.

At any rate, Moloney said the priority should be bringing quality jobs to his constituents, work that's better done through local control. Losing the Mayor's Training Center was not good for people in his district, he said.

He, too, is in favor of the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons, of diversity in hiring, and of allowing the question of gambling to be placed on the ballot.

Both those men represent what we have come to expect from political candidates.

Unfortunately, the Republican candidate, Michael Johnson, appeared to be wandering in the weeds all alone.

Johnson, who became an ordained minister in 2008 and founded Hands On Ministry, assured the 50 or more people gathered at Greater Liberty Baptist Church that a lot of the people in the sanctuary knew him and knew of his work. I was not one of those people.

Wouldn't the Republican Party in Fayette County have been better served by nominating a candidate with more name recognition? Didn't the GOP have a choice between Johnson and Chuck Ellinger II, a longtime council member with a familiar name?

Regardless, Johnson was chosen, which makes how meagerly his fellow Republicans are supporting his campaign mind-boggling.

Numbers released at the forum indicated that Johnson has raised a little more than $2,500, compared to more than $52,000 for Moloney and more than $82,000 for Thomas.

Surely the Republican Party in Lexington can do better than that. Is the party setting up Johnson to fail? Is this a throwaway election for the GOP?

If so, Johnson seems blissfully unaware.

"I was a late starter," Johnson told the gathering. "If you could see what I've been able to achieve with little money or no money in my ministry, I can do the same here."

Johnson also frequently called himself a "community leader," organizing programs that benefit constituents in the 13th District.

Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin criticized Barack Obama for being a community organizer. I guess it's OK now.

"I am not a politician," Johnson said. "I don't act like a politician. I can't say the right words like a politician. I don't even dress like a politician. But I am a community leader."

He said he could bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans and between the haves and have-nots.

Johnson is in favor of charter schools and the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons, with programs to help them get jobs, but he's against unbridled changes to Kentucky's "castle law," which is similar to the "stand your ground" law in Florida.

In response to a question, Johnson said one of his regrets is that, "for years I went into a voters' booth and pulled a lever saying Democrat, not knowing who I was voting for or why I was voting for them. That changed when I started educating myself."

Voting, he said, should be about selecting the best person to make positive changes in our communities.

I agree.

If you are not sure whether you live in the 13th District, call the Fayette County clerk's office at (859) 253-3344 or go to Elect.ky.gov/voterinfo.

Vote for the man or the party or both. Not voting is not an option.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: Merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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