FRANKFORT — Kentucky Senate President David Williams, a Republican reviled by the Democrats he has stymied for nearly 13 years, will resign his post Nov. 2 to accept a judicial appointment by Gov. Steve Beshear.
In a widely anticipated move, the Democratic governor selected his longtime political foe Friday to fill an open circuit court judgeship in Southern Kentucky.
The Burkesville Republican's appointment leaves a void in Republican Senate leadership for the first time since Republicans assumed control of the Senate in 2000.
Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said late in the day he had contacted Senate Republicans to inform them that he will pursue the presidency if the GOP remains the majority party in the Senate after the Nov. 6 elections.
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Stivers said he did not advise Williams about the judicial position, "but I wish him the very best."
Senate State and Local Government Chairman Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said if Stivers seeks the presidency, he would run for Senate majority leader. Thayer worked unsuccessfully with Beshear this year in trying to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow expanded gambling.
Larry Forgy, a Lexington attorney and Republican consultant, predicted that if new Senate GOP leaders link up with gambling interests, "they will lose the support of most conservative voters in this state and cause the party to lose the Senate majority in the next few elections."
With Williams' departure from the Senate, "we conservatives have lost our best man," Forgy said. "It's a day of mourning for me."
Martin Cothran, spokesman for The Family Foundation, which opposes expanded gambling, said in a statement that "the shortest path to a judicial appointment in Kentucky is to become a legislative impediment to Gov. Steve Beshear's pro-gambling agenda.
"If lawmakers are smart, they will be lining up to oppose the governor, hoping for a regular paycheck and a good retirement package. This provides us with a great recruitment tool in the General Assembly."
A Senate Republican caucus meeting will be held on Nov. 1 — the day before Williams is sworn in — to elect a temporary leader. The Republican caucus will then meet again in December to elect a permanent leader.
Williams was one of three people recommended Thursday by a judicial nominating commission for the seat left vacant by the death in September of Judge Eddie Lovelace. Lovelace's family said the longtime judge died after receiving fungus-tainted steroid injections in Nashville.
The 40th Circuit includes Cumberland, Clinton and Monroe counties.
Williams, 59, will serve the remaining two years of Lovelace's term and said he will run for re-election in 2014. He is scheduled to be sworn in as judge at 11 a.m. CDT Friday in the Cumberland County Justice Center.
Williams, in an interview Friday at his Capitol Annex office, said that he had long dreamed of being a circuit court judge. Lewis Williams, his father, wanted to become a lawyer but he "starved out" of law school.
Lewis Williams later became county clerk and would often take his son to court with him.
Williams said that he has declined two federal judgeships and an appellate judge position over the years.
Williams, in a 30-minute interview with the media, said he was looking forward to going home to Burkesville where his elderly mother lives.
"There are very few people who are able to go home and start a new career," Williams said. After 27 years in Frankfort, he is also looking forward to a life away from the sharp elbows and barbed tongues of politics. "I hope whatever time that I have remaining, it will be the best portion of my life. I want to be the best man that I can be...I want to become more involved in my church and I want to become more involved in my community."
Thanks to a 2005 change in the law that Williams voted for, legislators can count their highest years of pay in another branch of government toward their pensions. A circuit court judge makes $124,000 a year, more than twice the average salary of a part-time legislator.
But Williams said Friday that he does not plan to draw down his legislative pension because he plans to remain a circuit court judge for a long time.
Steve Hurt, a former district judge in Burkesville who now is a senior judge, said he may run against Williams in 2014 for the circuit judgeship.
Hurt said he thinks Beshear's appointment of Williams was motivated by politics. He called it "purely political expediency" and that qualifications had "zero to do with it."
"I'm more disappointed in the governor than I guess I am in David," Hurt said.
Over the past three years, Beshear has appointed two other Republican senators to key positions in state government in an unsuccessful effort to upset the balance of power in the Senate.
Beshear and Williams had been at political loggerheads since Beshear took office in 2007. The governor had called Williams an "obstructionist" for repeatedly blocking Democratic efforts to approve expanded gambling at racetracks. Williams had countered that Beshear is a "caretaker governor."
But in a written release announcing the appointment, Beshear said Williams "is an experienced lawyer and is familiar with the district, having represented the area in the legislature for more than 20 years."
Williams said Friday he would not question Beshear's motives for appointing him.
"I'm not going to say anything to impugn him," Williams said. "My career here in Frankfort is over. I'm not going to meddle. I'm not going to criticize. I'm not going to try to back seat drive."
Williams ran unsuccessfully against Beshear in the gubernatorial race in 2011.
Over the years, Williams has been criticized for a domineering leadership style, dubbed by Democrats as "the bully from Burkesville."
But he has been praised for remaking the Republican Party in Kentucky.
The party grew in numbers and in clout in the Capitol under Williams' watch.
Williams said that he has not picked a successor and plans to stay out of the leadership race. Williams said he was proud that during his 12 years, there have been no financial scandals in the Senate, the state's infrastructure improved and that the legislature was able to pass several education reform measures. Williams also said that he hoped that the legislature would finally reform the state's pension system and institute real tax reform.
Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Louisville said, "David's 25 years in the state Senate stand as one of the most accomplished tenures in the history of the Commonwealth. His legacy is carried out every day through the countless communities across Kentucky that have benefited from his leadership."
Williams was first elected to the House in 1985 and then to the Senate in 1987.
Beshear now must call a special election to fill Williams' seat.
Republicans and Democrats in that district will nominate potential candidates. The 16th Senate District includes Clinton, Cumberland, McCreary Monroe, Wayne and Whitley counties.
At least two people are pursuing the nomination — state Rep. Sara Beth Gregory, R-Monticello, and Albany attorney David M. Cross.
Cross, 55, said he will be seeking the nomination, which will be determined by party leaders in the district.
If he gets it, he said he would have to resign as member of the State Board of Elections.
He called Williams "an excellent senator for the entire district who has helped the district try to catch up after being on the back burner of Frankfort for so many years."
Gregory, 30, an attorney, was elected to the 52nd House District, which includes McCreary, Pulaski and Wayne counties, in 2011.
Gregory is on the board of the Somerset-based Center for Rural Development, which U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, established in 1996.