Kentucky Senate President David Williams declared himself "a Tea Partier" on Wednesday and called for repeal of a constitutional amendment that took the power to appoint U.S. senators away from state legislatures and gave it to voters.
Williams' comments came during a presentation to the University of Kentucky Law School Federalist Society. They drew strong reaction from Williams' rival in next spring's Republican primary election for governor and from Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning, Kentucky's two U.S. senators.
David Adams, campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate Phil Moffett, said Williams was lifting Moffett's idea, while McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer and Bunning defended the voting process.
"Taking that sacred right away from the American people and giving it to politicians would be a huge step backward for our democracy," Steurer said.
Bunning, who is retiring when his term ends in January, said in a statement, "The way it is now is the proper way to do it."
Williams, a Burkesville attorney, told about 50 UK law students that most of the problems with the federal government stem from the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1913.
He contended it prevents state legislatures across the country from having input into the ever-growing role of the federal government with its various mandates, such as this year's health insurance overhaul.
Williams warned the students to "be mindful of the intervention of the tentacles of the federal government," which attaches requirements "to every dollar it sends to the states."
Williams, chairman of the Lexington-based Council of State Governments, noted President John F. Kennedy said during his June 1963 speech at the Berlin Wall in West Berlin, "Ich bin ein Berliner."
The phrase, translated "I am a citizen of Berlin," underlined America's support for West Germany 22 months after the Soviet-supported Communist state of East Germany erected the Berlin Wall to prevent movement between the East and West.
"In my statement, I am a Tea Partier," Williams said, adding that most Tea Partiers are "angry at the federal government at the level of taxation, at the level of expenditures and at its encroachment."
Asked after his presentation why he is raising the issue of the 17th Amendment now, Williams said he was asked to come to the law school to discuss "the problems that are inherent as to the level of checks and balances between the various branches of government."
He called it "an intellectual discussion with law students that is being replicated all over the United States of America as people are afraid of the centralization of power in the United States Congress."
Williams acknowledged the chance is "almost nil" that Congress would initiate repeal of the 17th Amendment.
He also said he would not spend much of his time on the gubernatorial campaign trail talking about the 17th Amendment.
"But I will talk about it when asked and will tell the people that I don't think it has served the country very well," he said.
Williams said Kentucky's state legislatures, which have been dominated by Democrats for much of the last century, would have become more familiar and involved with federal issues without the 17th Amendment.
"Kentucky would have grown more conservative sooner, electing more Republicans to the state legislature," he said.
Asked what he means when he calls himself a Tea Partier, Williams said: "What is driving the Tea Party movement? It is anger, anger about federal government intervention. Not having a balanced budget. To that extent, I'm a Tea Partier."
Williams said that angry mood propelled Republican Rand Paul to victory last week over Democrat Jack Conway in their race for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky.
Adams, from Moffett's gubernatorial campaign, accused Williams of going to Moffett's Web site "to try to pick off some Tea Party ideas."
Adams noted that in September Moffett told a Libertarian Party meeting in Lexington that he favored repeal of the 17th Amendment.
"Tea Partiers appreciate converts, but David Williams has supported too many tax increases and signed off on too many billions in state debt for anyone to take him seriously on this," Adams said.
Matt Osborne, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear's re-election campaign, said the governor is focused on creating jobs.
"We're not going to get into these issues between Williams and Moffett in the GOP primary," he said.