FRANKFORT — In a surprise on the first day of Kentucky's 2015 General Assembly, House Democrats elected former speaker and gubernatorial candidate Jody Richards of Bowling Green to their No. 2 leadership position in a runoff vote.
House Democrats also elected Rep. Johnny Bell of Glasgow to be their whip — the leader who counts members' votes behind the scenes.
Bell was the subject of accusations last week that he intended to "clean house" if he were elected to leadership by terminating the employment of one of the women staffers in the legislature who alleged they were sexually harassed by former state Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis.
Yolanda Costner, who worked for former Majority Whip Tommy Thompson of Owensboro, said in an email that a candidate for House leadership planned to fire her. Her attorney, Thomas Clay of Louisville, identified the candidate as Bell and said Bell was angling to replace Costner with one woman in particular.
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Bell, an attorney, said after the House Democratic caucus that he will evaluate the staff of Thompson's office and decide later who will be on his staff.
He said the accusations against him hurt him personally and that there is a realization that there were "some falsehoods" in the accusations against him.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said it is not unusual for newly elected legislative leaders to name their own staff members.
Stumbo won re-election to the House's top post without any opposition. So did House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook and House Majority Caucus Chairwoman Sannie Overly of Paris, who is running for lieutenant governor this year on a ticket with Attorney General Jack Conway.
It required 28 votes from the 54 House Democrats to win a leadership post.
Richards, who was House speaker from 1995 to 2008, replaces Larry Clark of Louisville, who did not seek re-election to leadership. Richards said he would determine his own staff.
Richards won the leadership spot by defeating Dennis Keene of Wilder in a runoff of the top two finishers in a four-candidate race. The other two candidates were Darryl Owens of Louisville and Jim Glenn of Owensboro.
Legislative leaders help determine the flow of legislation in the General Assembly.
Reporters from Louisville and Northern Kentucky asked Stumbo if those regions would be hurt by not having anyone in leadership. Stumbo said leaders "take a statewide view."
Before House Democrats elected their leaders, they invited Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes to their closed-door session to thank her for helping them keep control of the 100-member House by running for U.S. Senate. She lost to Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell.
Meanwhile, the 46 House Republicans re-elected Jeff Hoover of Jamestown as their floor leader. He was challenged by Adam Koenig of Erlanger, who contended that Hoover did not do enough to help Republicans take control of the House in last November's elections.
Hoover was elected to his eighth consecutive term and is the longest-serving GOP floor leader in the state's history.
"Kentucky has stayed in the status quo for too long because of continued inaction by the House majority leadership on a number of key issues, and I stand ready along with my fellow House Republicans to fight to see that our commonwealth reaches the success it justly deserves," Hoover said.
Also selected during Tuesday's GOP caucus elections was Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, as House Republican caucus chairman. He replaces Rep. Bob DeWeese of Louisville, who chose not to run for re-election to the leadership post. Lee defeated David Osborne of Prospect for the position.
Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, won election as House Republican whip by defeating Sal Santoro of Florence and Ken Upchurch of Monticello.
DeCesare replaces former GOP whip John "Bam" Carney of Campbellsville, who announced in December that he would not seek another term as whip.
Senate Republicans and Democrats selected their leaders late last year.