A month ago, all three candidates in a Dec. 10 special election to succeed Democrat Kathy Stein in the Kentucky Senate were registered Democrats. By last week, they were seeking votes in Lexington as a Democrat, Republican and independent.
Richard Moloney, a commissioner in the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government who will retire at the end of the month, said he changed his party registration to independent when he realized Lexington attorney and Kentucky State University professor Reginald Thomas would get the Democratic Party's nomination.
Michael Johnson, a Lexington minister who is making his first bid for public office, made a last-minute party switch to Republican, even though he has previously volunteered for the GOP and founded a Tea Party group in Lexington. Johnson narrowly convinced Republican leaders in the district to nominate him instead of Lexington councilman Chuck Ellinger II.
In addition to the political oddity of the party switches, the winner will make history. Either Thomas or Johnson would be the first black candidate from Lexington elected to the Kentucky Senate. Moloney would be the first independent candidate from Lexington to win a Senate seat.
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Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear appointed Stein to a Fayette Circuit Court judgeship Oct. 14, setting up the need for a special election in the heavily Democratic 13th Senate District, which covers downtown Lexington and the University of Kentucky. The winner will serve the remainder of Stein's term, which runs through the end of 2016.
State lawmakers altered the boundaries of the 13th Senate District during a special legislative session in August, but it remains more than 2-to-1 Democratic. Voter registration figures with the Fayette County Board of Elections show 43,406 Democrats in the district, 20,210 Republicans and 8,136 other.
It has been called the most liberal, most diverse and one of the best educated legislative districts in the state.
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. She was one of the most outspoken liberal members of the General Assembly, often clashing with Senate Republican leaders.
Many political observers thought Moloney would be the Democratic nominee, given his long history in state and local government. He has served seven terms on the city council, was state housing commissioner from 2008 to 2010, was chief administrative officer for Lexington for two years and is finishing a stint as the city's commissioner of environment and public works.
Moloney also is blessed with a well-known political name. He is the grandson of the late Senate Majority Leader Richard Moloney and the nephew of former Senate budget chairman Michael R. Moloney, both of whom represented the 13th Senate District.
But the five members of Fayette County's Democratic nominating committee — George W. Mills, P. Branden Gross, Michael Haskins, Michael Moynahan and Alayne White — chose Thomas.
Mills said three people showed up at the public nominating meeting to seek the party's blessing — Thomas, Moynahan and Megan Smith.
Mills said Fayette County Democratic Chairwoman Betsy Farley called Moloney before the meeting to see if he wanted to be nominated, "and he said no."
Moloney told the Lexington Herald-Leader he wanted the Democratic nomination, but knew he didn't have enough votes on the nominating committee.
"There was no reason for me to be at the meeting," Moloney said. "I knew the votes were there for Reggie."
Moloney said he knows it's difficult for independents to win elections, "but I have worked with people of both major parties and people know how hard I work."
He said his accomplishments in office include more green space in Lexington, better water and sewage systems, and more affordable housing.
As a senator, Moloney said he would "want to make sure Lexington gets its fair share of state dollars." He said the city also needs improvements on New Circle Road and more affordable housing, especially for veterans.
Moloney, who was born deaf, also said he would push legislation to make insurance companies pay for hearing aids.
Of the three candidates, he is the only one who said in recent interviews how much money will be needed during the short campaign. He put the cost between $40,000 and $150,000.
He said his supporters will include his uncle, Mike Moloney, and former University of Kentucky basketball coach Joe B. Hall, who called Richard Moloney "a strong friend."
Moloney declined to say which party he would caucus with in the Senate if he wins as an independent.
"After I get elected, I will see what is best for Lexington in deciding that," he said.
Thomas, who lost a bid for a state House seat in Fayette County last year, said he is proud of his record of public service in the community, especially pushing for a new Bryan Station High School.
As a state senator, Thomas said he would focus on jobs and education, and help Gov. Beshear.
"I'm a big fan of Steve Beshear," he said.
A resident of Pimlico Parkway, Thomas said he did not reside in the 13th District until lawmakers moved the boundaries in August.
He was previously in the district represented by Republican Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr and said he had no input in the change.
"I got phone calls, saying I was in the 13th, and I put forth the energy and time to get the Democratic Party nomination," he said. "There were no back room deals. I got the nomination on the first ballot. It was a truly democratic process."
A plus for him, he said, is that his campaign team from last year already is in place for this year's race.
"Reggie has been active in the party and he ran a good race last year his first time out," Mills said. "He cares about the people of Lexington."
Many political observers expected Ellinger, the son of a former mayoral candidate and at-large council member, to emerge victorious at the Republican nominating meeting last week, but Ellinger and Johnson tied on the first vote.
Fayette Republican Chairwoman Carol G. Rogers declined to say how many votes were taken by the GOP county executive committee, which includes about 50 people, before Johnson won the nomination.
"I guess anytime you have a new face in politics like Michael Johnson, people are going to ask questions," Rogers said. "But this was a fair process. Many people know Michael for his ministry work in the community and volunteer work for the Republican Party. The Republican Party would have supported either Michael or Chuck."
Did she know Johnson was a registered Democrat until recently?
"I knew that and that doesn't make any difference," she said.
Ellinger had little to say about losing the GOP nomination.
"Just say I was surprised and disappointed," he said. "The field is complete."
Johnson said he thinks his work for the Republican Party and its leaders — from former state Senate President David Williams to U.S. Rep. Andy Barr — helped him win the party's nomination.
He also credited his home church, Southland Christian, with motivating him "to serve people even more."
Johnson is a "good friend" of John Kemper, a Lexington businessman who is an ardent supporter of the Tea Party and an unsuccessful candidate for state auditor in 2011.
"Michael is a treat to work with. He genuinely wants to help the community," Kemper said. "He'll make a fine state senator."
Kemper said he knew Johnson had been a Democrat, but said "he's really taken to the conservative values. He saw the light."
Johnson founded the Tea Party of the People in Lexington last year to encourage minorities to learn more about the conservative movement.
"I had been contemplating for a long time to change to a Republican but the Senate race made me actually do it," he said.
Asked why he got the GOP nomination instead of Ellinger, Johnson said, "I really have no thoughts on that. Chuck is a great businessman. I guess it's just what God wanted to be done."
Michael E. Johnson
Date of birth: Aug. 24, 1959
Education: Attended Western Kentucky University and Kentucky State University
Occupation: Ordained minister with Hands On Ministry in Lexington
Family: Married with two children
Campaign website: None yet
Date of birth: March 11, 1960
Education: Associate degree in business, Lexington Community College
Occupation: Retiring as Lexington commissioner of environment and public works
Campaign website: www.richardmoloneyforsenate.com (not yet up)
Date of birth: May 20, 1953
Education: Bachelor's degree in government, Dartmouth College; law degree, Harvard
Occupation: Attorney, tenured professor at Kentucky State University
Family: Married with three children
Campaign website: www.Reggie4Ky.com (not yet up)