Democratic state Rep. Greg Stumbo will try to unseat House Speaker Jody Richards — whom Stumbo once propelled to that position — in a leadership race that could have far-reaching effects in Frankfort.
After weeks of publicly mulling a run, Stumbo said Thursday that he mailed out letters to the more than 60 House Democrats saying he will run for House speaker in January.
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"I feel very good about the race," Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, told the Herald-Leader. "I'm convinced that there's at least 40 people in the Democratic caucus and at least a majority of the Republican caucus, who feel that there should be changes made in the way the speaker's office is run and the way things have been handled."
Among the pledges Stumbo has made are: reforming the budget process so that the public and all lawmakers will be kept in the loop; having a better relationship with Gov. Steve Beshear; and being more assertive in negotiations with the Republican-led Senate, Stumbo said.
Richards, D-Bowling Green, said in a statement that he's confident he will win a record-extending eighth two-year term as speaker. State lawmakers will vote on that post, as well as other leadership positions, in January at the start of the 2009 General Assembly session.
"For several months I have had meaningful, in-depth discussions with members, and I have more than 40 solid commitments," Richards said. He didn't mention Stumbo in his statement.
Legislators, however, are notoriously tight-lipped about revealing their allegiances in such power struggles.
"As I've said in the past, I think leadership races are internal matters that need to be handled internally rather than in the press," said Rep. Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, who is House Democratic floor leader.
The House speaker is chosen by Democrats and Republicans. But because the Democrats are in the majority, that party's speaker candidate, who will be selected in a caucus election in January, is assured of winning as long as Democrats vote as a bloc.
Stumbo said he had reached out to Republicans for input but hadn't considered courting them to join his Democratic supporters in the event that Democrats select Richards over him.
Richards first won the position in 1995 when he defeated Joe Clarke of Danville, who had served just one term in the post. Stumbo, who served as the House Democratic floor leader from 1985 until becoming attorney general in 2003, played a major role in Richards' win.
"I don't know if Jody would have made it without Greg's help," said Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville. "And now, in my opinion, Greg will be a very, very formidable opponent in the leadership race because he has been a leader. In effect, it's two incumbent leaders running against each other."
The campaign could have sweeping ramifications on state government. It is "arguably the most important that we've seen in a long time," said retiring Rep. Rob Wilkey, D-Scottsville, the House whip who challenged Richards for the speakership in 2005.
The House Speaker not only makes decisions about committee assignments and which bills receive votes, but also leads the chamber in negotiations with Senate leaders and the governor.
Both former Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher and Beshear, in his first year as the state's Democratic governor, have struggled to work with the legislature.
"The implication for our state cannot be overstated," Wilkey said. "I think the members feel an urgency to have a change. I think they have serious doubts about the current teams' ability to work with the Democratic governor."
Beshear and House Democrats never got on the same page regarding the governor's push for allowing casino gambling — a plan that ultimately failed to get a vote on the House floor.
Beshear, however, has said he won't try to influence the speaker's race.
The backdrop for the leadership race remains a contentious and widely panned 2008 General Assembly session that ended with a flurry of votes after time was supposed to have expired at midnight April 15.
Key pieces of legislation, such as a road-funding bill and a government ethics proposal, were left undone. Another bill restructuring the state pension system also fell by the wayside, forcing the governor to call legislators back to Frankfort for a special session in June.
Stumbo has repeatedly pointed to lawmakers' lasting frustration as one of his motivations for taking on Richards. "I don't know exactly what (Richards) will advocate — whether he believes in the status quo or whether he wants changes," Stumbo said.
Richards previously told the Herald-Leader that the session would have been a success had the Senate approved the House's version of the state's two-year budget, which provided more money by raising the tax on cigarettes, among other levies.
Many legislators remain loyal to Richards, who is among the most affable politicians in Frankfort. Richards, for instance, has helped two of his former legislative aides, Reps. Tim Firkins of Louisville and Will Coursey of Benton, win House seats and is supporting Shively Rep. Joni Jenkins' bid for House speaker pro tem.
Democratic Rep. Carl Rollins of Midway said he wasn't surprised Richards was being challenged, but added that he won't make a pick until he hears more from both speaker candidates about changes they want to make.
"I think it will be good for the House," he said. "It will make us stronger and will make us better no matter who's elected."