Larry Dale Keeling: Kicking butt and keeping panties off the table

Contributing ColumnistApril 20, 2014 

FRANKFORT — In some ways, the closing hours of General Assembly sessions remain remarkably the same year after year. Long days and late nights spent in a cycle of hectic activity followed by boring inactivity while all the big deals get cut behind closed doors by legislative leaders who put off cutting those deals as long as possible in hopes the other side will blink first.

Often, though, an event, an action or even an inaction will set a given year's closing days apart from the closing days of other years.

Negotiations blow up, and lawmakers go home without enacting a General Fund budget (three times since 2000). Negotiations blow up, and lawmakers go home without enacting a transportation budget and road plan (2012). Some lawmakers go home with subpoenas, courtesy of the FBI's Operation BOPTROT (1992).

Lawmakers go "old school," revive a gimmick from the analog past and stop the clock to get their work done before the midnight, April 15 constitutional witching hour only to have the courts tell them it's not nice to fool a digital Mother Nature in the age of computer time stamps (2008). A couple of budget negotiators exchange acrimonious expletives in what instantly gains legendary notoriety as the "hallway sex" episode (2006).

Such are the events, actions and inactions that make for memorable General Assembly exits. By contrast, this year's closing days seemed destined to slip into the footnotes of legislative history as the unremarkable culmination of a largely unproductive session in which the budgetary necessities and a handful of initiatives (most notably juvenile justice reform) got done with some, but not too much, rancor while truly transformative concepts such as comprehensive tax reform were ignored by both chambers' leaders.

Then came Monday, when an attempt to defuse the Legislative Ethics Commission's botched handling of sexual harassment complaints against Democratic former Rep. John Arnold blew up in House Democrats' faces.

After Speaker Greg Stumbo told the media the commission should rehear the Arnold case and after the House in a clear rebuke of the ethics panel unanimously approved a Democratic proposal to change the appointment process for the commission and clarify its jurisdiction over former lawmakers (an action ignored by Senate Republicans who are happy to let the Democrats twist in this affair's blowback winds in an election year), the House took up a resolution honoring the three female Legislative Research Commission staffers who lodged the complaints against Arnold.

That's when Democratic Rep. Jim Gooch got some panties in a wad. Not his personal panties, mind you. A pair of women's panties he says were thrust into his pocket by an inebriated woman he didn't know while he was attending the Southern Legislative Conference this past summer.

Citing pending civil litigation in the Arnold case, Gooch questioned the wisdom of House action on the resolution. While the point of order he raised only temporarily delayed House approval of the measure, even the temporary delay added to the public perception that House Democrats remain insensitive when it comes to sexual harassment.

Worse still, it prompted Thomas Clay, an attorney representing two of the women who lodged complaints against Arnold, to share the story of Gooch and the "gifted" panties with the media. A key part of the story was that Gooch, while telling others in attendance at the legislative conference about his unusual encounter, tossed the panties on a table in the presence of Clay's two clients.

Clay did not say Gooch's action constituted sexual harassment, but the clear implication was that the panties toss represented another example of a culture of tolerance for such activity in the General Assembly.

Months ago, Stumbo's office released a timeline list of actions House Democratic leaders took in response to the complaints against Arnold. The listed actions, the petition Stumbo filed for the censure or expulsion of Arnold and the special committee he appointed to consider that petition suggest House leaders were intent on dotting all the proper "I's" and crossing all the proper "T's" in response to the allegations against one of their own.

Sometimes, though, it's not enough to have your "I's" and "T's" in order. Sometimes, you have to kick some serious butt if you seriously want to clean up a mess.

Despite the actions by House leaders listed in the timeline, LRC officials' handling of the complaints against Arnold dragged on interminably too long. Despite Stumbo's petition, the special committee he appointed started, stumbled, fumbled and fell even worse than the ethics commission did.

And despite Monday's attempt by House Democrats to mitigate the ethics commission's fiasco, Gooch was allowed to take the floor, destroy any damage control that might have resulted from the House vote on proposed changes in the commission's makeup and jurisdiction and subsequently assure that the lasting impression of the 2014 General Assembly's closing hours will involve him and a pair of women's panties. (If I must go to cremated ashes with this image in my mind, I hope they fire up the oven soon.)

When butts don't get kicked in timely fashion or in sufficient numbers to defuse a negative situation, other butts may find themselves on the line. That's the reality House Democrats face this November.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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