FRANKFORT — It was just more than a year ago when U.S. Sen. Rand Paul appeared before a state Senate committee to push for a bill that would automatically restore voting rights for some nonviolent felons who had completed their sentences.
On Wednesday, neither Paul nor the bill appeared before the Senate State and Local Government Committee, leading two men to sit down on the committee floor in protest, asking loudly that House Bill 70 be considered.
The bill was not heard, and both Jordan Mazurek and Greg Capillo were dragged from the committee room by Kentucky State Police, lying flat on the floor outside of the room and singing Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, the folk song that became the theme of the 1960s civil rights movement.
Capillo said he and others demonstrated because a "more radical and more vocal step" was needed to bring attention to their cause, given that Wednesday's meeting was the last scheduled gathering of the committee during this legislative session.
Paul, a likely presidential candidate, has brought an enormous amount of attention to the issue over the past year, including his testimony a year ago, but Capillo said Wednesday that Paul has been missing in action as supporters pushed for a vote this year.
In fact, Capillo said, Paul failed supporters last year when he agreed to an amendment, sponsored by state Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, that would have made felons wait five years before having their voting rights restored.
"No," Capillo said when asked if he thought Paul had his back on the issue. "And I don't think he had our back last year. He was present for a committee hearing where a completely unacceptable series of amendments were attached to gut the bill."
Dan Bayens, Paul's state spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday that "Sen. Paul is one of the most vocal advocates in the country and in the commonwealth for restoring voting rights."
"He simply believes it is the right thing to do," Bayens said. "He has raised the issue in public and in private, in front of groups big and small, all across Kentucky. He has urged the General Assembly to pass a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights and will continue to do so."
Bayens also said that Paul introduced federal legislation last month with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid that would restore voting rights for many nonviolent felons in federal elections.
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who said recently at an event announcing her re-election campaign that she was "proud to have led" on the issue of felon voting rights, appeared before the committee on a separate issue Wednesday but left before the demonstration began.
Thayer said Wednesday that he had opposed the legislation last year until Paul offered the waiting period as a compromise. The revised bill would have required felons to wait five years, with no misdemeanor or felony convictions during that time, before they could register to vote. It also would exclude felons with multiple prior offenses.
House Democrats later rejected the changes.
"They had a chance, and until they come with a bill including a reasonable waiting period, I'm uninterested in addressing the issue," Thayer said Wednesday.
The ACLU of Kentucky, which lobbies for felon voting rights, estimates that more than 180,000 Kentuckians are now barred from the polls, including one in four black adults. More than half of those people would have remained permanently disenfranchised under the Senate's version of the bill last year, according to an analysis by the League of Women Voters of Kentucky.
The animosity between Thayer and advocates for felon voting rights was on display again Wednesday, just as it was last year when supporters vocally mocked Thayer for telling them during a committee meeting that he thought they should show some "gratitude" because he was offering a compromise.
While a number of senators left Wednesday's committee meeting through a side door, Thayer asked a Kentucky State Police trooper to escort him through the protesters.
As they kept singing, Thayer told them they were "out of tune," adding what sounded like: "Go commit some more felonies." Thayer later said he was misheard and had told the protesters "don't commit any more felonies."
The remark led one protester in the small crowd to shout an expletive at Thayer.
State Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, said he thought the protest was unfortunate.
When asked if Paul had asked him to consider the bill this year, Bowen said no.
"Let me put it this way: Why would you want to have a hearing if it was going to fail?" Bowen said. "This doesn't have the support of the majority caucus."
Bowen said he thought last year's compromise bill was a "good bill," and this year, in a shortened session, "we've got other fish to fry and we don't have a lot of time left to fry (them)."
Neither Capillo nor Mazurek was arrested after Wednesday's demonstration, but they were prevented from returning to the meeting. Their singing, however, was clearly audible in the committee room.
Capillo, who said the law was both racist and "a relic of the Jim Crow South," said he wasn't sure whether the demonstration would advance his cause.
"I don't know that we will ever be able to move certain folks with their egos the size that they are," he said. "But hopefully we'll empower senators who have remained silent on this bill to stand up and speak out."