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Can this angry teacher unseat a top Republican leader in the Kentucky House?

Rockcastle County High School math teacher R. Travis Brenda, left, of Garrard County and House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell of Garrard County are running in the Republican primary election in the 71st House District.
Rockcastle County High School math teacher R. Travis Brenda, left, of Garrard County and House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell of Garrard County are running in the Republican primary election in the 71st House District.

One of the more popular chants from thousands of teachers at the Capitol this spring protesting a controversial pension bill was "We'll remember in November."

Its message was blunt: Teachers will defeat at the polls any lawmakers who backed the pension legislation.

Rockcastle County High School math teacher R. Travis Brenda of Garrard County is hoping that scenario plays out this spring.

Brenda is challenging House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell, a Garrard County farmer who was front and center in the handling of the pension measure, in the May 22 Republican primary election in the 71st House District.

The race is a prominent test of how teachers may fare in this year's legislative elections.

The Associated Press reports that at least 40 current and former educators are running for seats in the Kentucky legislature. Sixteen of them have Democratic or Republican primary elections on May 22, including four against Republican incumbents.

Many of the teacher-candidates are members of the Kentucky Education Association, which often sides with Democratic contestants. Brenda, however, is not a member of KEA. He said he has not joined because he does not agree with many of the candidates the National Education Association endorses.

"I believe many teachers will support me, be they with the KEA or not," said Brenda, 43.

Rockcastle County high school math teacher Travis Brenda of. Garrard County is hoping to knock off incumbent House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell of Garrard County in the May 22 Republican primary election.

Shell, 30, is confident he will win the race in the district that covers Garrard and Rockcastle counties and part of Madison County. First elected in 2012, Shell rose quickly to House leadership as he helped recruit GOP House candidates in 2016, when Republican's won control of the chamber for the first time since 1921.

"I'll be OK if we can get rid of the lies being told about me," Shell said.

He said some of the people against him are making "wild claims" for political reasons.

"Look at what we did and you will see it had little to do with current teachers," Shell said.

He noted that lawmakers voted to put new teachers in a hybrid pension plan similar to a 401(k) plan, fully funded the teachers' retirement system for the next two years and raised basic school funding to an all-time high of more than $4,000 per student.

House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell faces opponent R. Travis Brenda in the Republican May 22 primary election for the 71st House District, which includes Garrard, Rockcastle and part of Madison counties.

Brenda said he thinks the pension bill will be declared unconstitutional. "You just don't have an agreement with the people and then break it," he said.

Brenda accuses Shell of "looking out more for the interest of the state chamber and his political future than he is for teachers and other working people."

The tax measure Shell and other leaders got approved "definitely hurts the working people.," Brenda said. He said he specifically was referring to a provision that applies the state's 6 percent sales tax to various services, including car repairs.

"Why raise taxes on mechanics and not attorneys?" asked Brenda. "It seems like everything Shell does is for his campaign donors."

Shell said the tax changes were necessary to fully fund teachers' pensions and to increase money for schools.

"He keeps talking about raising school funding but the $4,000 figure doesn't look that good when it is adjusted for inflation," Brenda said. "We are still way behind in education funding."

As for his political future, Shell said he is concentrating solely on this year's House race but would like to remain in leadership in the state House. He declined to say if he will run next January for House speaker, the chamber's top job.

The two candidates have different views on Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

"I've not said anything nasty about the governor," said Shell. "My opponent wants me to, but I will not. I will say the governor's comments about teachers were not wise, but I back several of his initiatives."

Bevin angered many teachers late in the legislative session when he tied their absence in classrooms to an increased risk of children being sexually assaulted or harmed by drugs.

The governor later apologized, but many doubted his sincerity.

Brenda said he voted for Bevin for governor in 2015 because of his Christian and moral values, "but I won't again. He has been way too strident against teachers and I can't accept that."

Shell substantially leads Brenda in campaign dollars.

The latest campaign finance reports filed with the state show Shell's receipts totaled $131,243, compared to $16,126 for Brenda.

Shell started running a TV ad May 18 that features him working on the farm and praying at the dinner table with his family. Brenda doesn't have money for TV ads.

Brenda highlights the fact that much of Shell's campaign money comes from outside the primarily rural district.

"That's because the position of majority leader attracts interest from many people across the state," said Shell.

The winner of the May primary election will face Democrat Mary J. Renfro of Berea in the November general election. Renfro, who is involved in real estate, is a member of the Madison County school board.

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