As Republicans take control of the state House for the first time in 95 years, it’s easy to forget that during Kentucky’s long era of one-party rule, that one party spanned the political spectrum from liberal left to far right, taking in intellectual elites, tobacco-chewing fundamentalists, urbanites, hill farmers.
Rep. Greg Stumbo, who was unseated Tuesday after 32 years in the legislature, rode herd over that fractious Democratic coalition for 26 years, as House majority leader from 1985 to 2003 and as House speaker the last eight years with a four-year stint in between as attorney general.
Often bringing to mind the old saying about not wanting to see sausage or laws being made, Stumbo was not squeamish. Elbows deep in the sausage vat, he doled out his special blend of arm-twisting, ego-stroking, deal-making or a big dollop of asphalt when needed to get a critical vote. Like all effective lawmakers, he didn’t let the perfect thwart the good. Nor did he blink in showdowns with the Senate, which came under Republican control in 2000.
His political skills and leadership moved Kentucky forward. Stumbo helped guide into law the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 and accompanying tax increase, protections against an invasion of out-of-state garbage, a legislative ethics code that we wish were stronger but is still one of the country’s best, creation of an independent Kentucky Community and Technical College System and stronger protections from domestic violence.
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We often criticized the House for pandering on hot-button issues like abortion and gun rights and groveling before the coal industry. But Stumbo’s decisions to advance bills abridging women’s rights or the constitutional separation of church and state were realpolitik, accommodating his members’ political needs and their genuine beliefs. We should note that the House’s misguided support for a constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2004, which backfired on Democrats by turning out anti-gay evangelicals, happened during Stumbo’s term as AG.
Under Stumbo, the House has approved a statewide smoking ban, voting rights and an increased minimum wage, all of which died in the Republican Senate. The House’s Democratic majority also often blocked attacks on women’s and LGBT rights, the poor, organized labor and public schools, but no more.
Stumbo, who represented his native Floyd County while also keeping a home in Lexington, predicted that his opponent couldn’t beat him “but Donald Trump can.”
Petty even in victory, Gov. Matt Bevin declared “good riddance” and said Stumbo “will not be missed one bit.”
Stumbo’s Republican counterparts Speaker-elect Jeff Hoover and Senate President Robert Stivers, who have a deeper understanding of governing and Kentucky, recognized Stumbo’s long public service. In that, we join them.