A powerful Democratic lawmaker with one of the most storied legislative careers in the last half-century will be dealt a devastating political blow in Tuesday's race to be Kentucky's House speaker.
But who that loser will be remains a mystery even in the final days before the majority caucus of House Democrats cast their secret ballots.
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Those lawmakers have dropped few hints about whether Jody Richards, the longest serving House speaker in state history, can extend his tenure or if they'll turn to his challenger, Rep. Greg Stumbo, one of the state's most cunning, if controversial, politicians.
To listen to Richards and Stumbo, each has the race in the bag — with votes to spare.
"Not only do I have enough votes to win, but a very good cushion," boasted Richards. "I don't count votes until they look people in the eye and tell me they're for me."
Stumbo, who became known as an expert vote-counter during his record 18 years as House majority floor leader between 1985 and 2003, said he, too, has locked up more than the 33 Democratic votes needed to get the caucus's endorsement for the speakership.
"I identified 40 people who talked about changing leadership and changing speakers, and I just focused on those 40 people," he said. "It has worked out pretty well."
While this race to be leader of the House will be decided by legislators, not citizens, it has had all the hallmarks of a full-blown election campaign.
Richards and Stumbo have made campaign stops across the state to meet with colleagues and have burned up phone lines to court votes.
It's gotten more intense in the final days. For instance, incoming Democratic freshman Rep. Kelly Flood of Lexington was criticized last week on one political blog for outwardly backing Stumbo.
Flood, one of the rare lawmakers to publicly pick a side, said she decided to announce her pick to her colleagues because "I chose to start my legislative career by moving in as straightforward and transparent a way as possible."
Most of the 64 Democrats, who control the 100-member House, have stayed silent either out of respect for two longtime political figures and colleagues or out of fear of backing the wrong guy — or both.
"I think there's a concern that certain people may not get certain committee assignments or get promoted really quickly ... if they back candidate X and candidate X loses," said Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, who has remained tight-lipped on his pick.
He said neither Richards nor Stumbo has made such threats. That's just politics.
The all-or-nothing political stakes for both men and their supporters have raised the specter that coming back together as a cohesive Democratic caucus will be difficult, if not impossible in 2009.
Most lawmakers claim they can move past whatever happens Tuesday. But that's easy to say before someone loses.
"One of the reasons I think we're capable of coming back together is we are really in dire straits," Flood said.
A $456.1 million budget shortfall this year and more problems awaiting in next year's budget top the list of enormous challenges.
The House speaker is one of the most powerful posts in state government.
He leads decisions about which bills advance to the floor for a vote and which House lawmakers get plum committee assignments. And the speaker is a chief negotiator with Senate leaders over controversial legislation, including the budget.
The post comes up for re-election every two years in front of the full House — both Republicans and Democrats. But as long as lawmakers from the majority party stick together in that vote, their nominee wins.
So on Tuesday, the 64 House Democrats will retreat to a legislative committee room to hear last-minute pitches from Richards and Stumbo — as well as candidates for the other four House leadership posts — and then make their picks.
Richards has lined up strong backing from House budget committee chairman Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, who brings with him a handful of allies on that powerful panel.
"He's one of the most respected members in the General Assembly," Richards said of Moberly. "But I have had a lot of other members call people on my behalf."
One key budget subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, declined to say whom he is backing. But Lee noted that Stumbo hasn't spoken to him about the race yet, and he talks often with Richards.
Stumbo said he knew there were some whom he wouldn't be able to persuade. But he said it's significant that some of them won't openly endorse Richards.
"I think the worst thing you can have happen to you when you're an incumbent is when people don't openly voice their support of you," Stumbo said.
The number of lawmakers who have stayed mum has made the race tough to gauge.
"It's very, very hard to read," said Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford. "But I think probably that Stumbo has built momentum. He's the change candidate."
Throughout the fall, both Stumbo and Richards stuck to their central themes.
"For Greg, it's being very politically adept and competent at being able to negotiate with the (Republican-led) Senate," said Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville. "For Jody, it's being very friendly and well-liked. Essentially, you've got two incumbents who are popular with the members."
Richards first won the post in 1995, ousting one-term Speaker Joe Clarke of Danville after a tumultuous session that saw House members stop the clock to keep working past their deadline.
It was Stumbo, as the Democrats' floor leader, who hand-picked Richards, the caucus chairman at the time, to challenge Clarke.
That '95 race was the last royal rumble over the speaker's gavel. Richards received a belated challenge in 2005 from recently retired Rep. Rob Wilkey of Scottsville, but prevailed comfortably.
Dealing with the Senate
Meanwhile, the Republicans took control of the Senate in 2000, placing the commanding personality of Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, across the negotiating table from Richards.
Both have repeatedly complained of not being able to trust each other.
"I can be tough when we have to be," Richards said of his approach.
For instance, he led an unprecedented move to shut down a special session that former Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher called in July 2007 to approve energy tax credits until a deal could be worked out ahead of time.
But Richards blamed the Senate for the rough conclusion of the 2008 session, which included a stalemate over several key bills and the stopping of the clock at midnight on the last day as they scrambled to pass a few more.
"We passed a lot of good legislation that died in the Senate," Richards said.
He also criticized Stumbo for striking "a side deal" with Williams to add $150 million in local projects to help entice lawmakers to vote for the state's budget bill.
But many lawmakers, at the time, said it was that move that saved them from potentially leaving Frankfort without passing a budget.
Stumbo is touting his deal-making skills and says Richards "seems not able to hold his own in debate or negotiations with Sen. Williams."
Stumbo has chastised Richards for doing little to advance proposals from Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, whose major proposal for allowing casino gambling died in the House without making it to a floor vote last year.
Stumbo, who served four years as attorney general before returning to the House last year, is not without political baggage.
His past controversies, including a protracted fight over child support for a son he fathered out of wedlock, have been well-documented.
But Stumbo said it's his past record of legislative leadership that will carry the day.
"They want to work with the Senate and come to resolutions without looking like we caved or capitulated," Stumbo said.
So after all this tough talk and fervent campaigning, one of the two former allies who have long described each other as "close friends" will walk out of that conference room Tuesday rejected by his colleagues and out of power.
"I think it's just a tough choice for a lot of members," said Rand, "whether they feel like it's time for a change or whether they feel Jody Richards has been solid."