Gov. Steve Beshear on Monday named state Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, to an open Fayette Circuit Court judgeship, creating a scramble for her state Senate seat.
"Senator Stein's extensive legal experience and long tenure in the legislature demonstrate her commitment to public service, and she is well-qualified for the position of family court judge," Beshear said in a prepared statement.
Beshear set a special election for Dec. 10 to fill the seat representing the newly redrawn 13th Senate District, centered around downtown Lexington and the University of Kentucky campus. It's traditionally a staunch Democratic district. For last year's presidential election, it had 41,157 registered Democrats, 18,606 Republicans and 7,152 independents.
"It would seem like a safe Democratic district," said Betsy Farley, chairwoman of the Fayette County Democratic Party. "But I'll tell you, we'll be out there working hard for our candidate and knocking on doors. We're not going to assume anything about the outcome."
Fayette County's Democratic and Republican parties each will choose a nominee for the election using their party's respective rules.
On the Democratic side, two men said Monday they planned to seek the nomination: Reginald Thomas and Richard Moloney. For the Republicans, Lexington-Fayette Urban County Councilman Chuck Ellinger II said he would seek his party's nomination.
Thomas is a lawyer and professor of criminal justice and business law at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. He ran unsuccessfully for the state House's 88th District seat last year.
"I think that I bring leadership," Thomas said. "Just look at my record of involvement in Fayette County for the last 30 years. I've been involved in education, I've been involved with the Chamber of Commerce, I've been involved in tourism, I've been involved in a lot of efforts."
Moloney is a former member of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council who recently announced his retirement as the city's commissioner of environment and public works. He said if he doesn't receive the Democratic Party's blessing, he might consider running as an independent.
"I think I am ready for it because of my council experience," said Moloney, who also served for three years as Beshear's director of housing, building and construction. "I also have a great relationship with both the Senate and the House."
Ellinger said he was a moderate fiscal conservative who has been able to find common ground with colleagues during his more than 10 years at city hall.
"I would do the same in Frankfort," Ellinger said. "I will work with all constituencies to reach a positive consensus."
Stein defeated Ellinger when he sought the Senate seat in 2008.
Stein, 58, said she expected to assume her new responsibilities in family court immediately.
"There's no time to mess around, because they've been without a fourth judge for a while," said Stein, a UK law school graduate who practiced a mix of family and criminal law. "I'll have to borrow somebody's robe. I need to go online and order one, I guess."
The court vacancy followed the Aug. 2 retirement of Judge Jo Ann Wise. Family court judges hear cases relating to divorce, child custody, adoption, termination of parental rights, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect.
Lexington voters elected Stein to the state Senate in 2009 after she had served in the state House since 1997, including a stint as House Judiciary Committee chairwoman.
Stein was one of the few outspoken liberals in the General Assembly. After she clashed repeatedly with Senate Republican leaders, they tried in 2012 to move her district to northeastern Kentucky, effectively removing her from office. But she challenged the redistricting plan in court, and it was struck down as unconstitutional.
More recently, in September, Stein called for an investigation into how House Democratic leaders handled the job transfer of a legislative staffer who complained of sexual harassment by state Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia.
"Kathy has done a good job as a senator. She's taken it on the chin a few times when she's had to stand up to people," said Farley, the county Democratic chairwoman.
As a family court judge, Stein will make $124,620 a year, more than double the pay of most part-time legislators.
Because of changes the legislature made in 2005, lawmakers can boost their state pensions considerably by taking jobs for a few years in the judicial or executive branches before retiring.
Other lawmakers to accept judgeships include Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville; Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield; and state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, D-Lexington, who was Stein's predecessor in the 13th Senate District.