Politics & Government

He’s the first Republican to lead Ky.’s House in 95 years. ‘We have to start off slow.’

Kentucky House Speaker-elect Jeff Hoover on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 in Jamestown, Ky.
Kentucky House Speaker-elect Jeff Hoover on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 in Jamestown, Ky. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

— Jeff Hoover choked back tears as his hands gripped the podium at the Russell County Auditorium Complex.

Hoover was winding up one of the best months of his life. His beloved Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years, then he led Republicans on their charge to take control of the Kentucky House for the first time in 95 years and was elected as the third Republican speaker of the House in Kentucky history. Now, just two days before Thanksgiving, his voice struggling to remain steady, all he could think of was two people he wished were there most.

“Many of you have mentioned my parents and I know they would be very excited,” he said of Welby and Mae Hoover, both of whom were once elected to represent this swath of Southern Kentucky in the House. “I know they’re watching.”

Jeff Hoover, 56, is about to take on one of the most daunting tasks in Frankfort — satisfying a thirst for change in Kentucky that enabled Republicans to bulldoze their way into a 64-36 majority in the House of Representatives.

Hoover’s approach is simple: manage the expectations of how much will happen during the first law-making session in which Republicans control the House, Senate and Governor’s Mansion.

Folks have to realize that we have 23 brand new members, some of them who have never been to Frankfort.

House Speaker-elect Jeff Hoover

“Folks have to realize that we have 23 brand new members, some of them who have never been to Frankfort,” Hoover said.

He’s hoping to pass only three to five major bills during the 30-workday legislative session, which begins Jan. 3.

“If we pass those then I think it will show them that we’ve got a plan, a long-term plan to do the things that we want to get done.” Hoover said. “But we have to start off slow.”

Hoover wants to put social issues on the backburner and focus on the economy first.

“It’s all about creating jobs,” he said. “If you create jobs, you grow the economy, if you grow the economy, you generate more revenue without additional taxation to address the problems that we have in this state.”

When asked about specifics, Hoover names three popular Republican economic proposals: legislation that would eliminate workplace requirements for union membership, comprehensive tax reform and an overhaul of the civil litigation system.

“I think there are some policies that we can put in place that will make Kentucky more attractive to businesses that want to locate here and create jobs,” Hoover said. “I think there are some policies we can put in place that would encourage existing businesses to grow and expand and invest more in Kentucky. I think there are policies we can put in place that would encourage entrepreneurs to locate here and create jobs.”

The biggest push for the speaker-elect, and Gov. Matt Bevin, is comprehensive tax reform, but no one expects lawmakers to tackle the thorny issue in the upcoming session. A more likely scenario is Bevin calling a special law-making session once details of a tax overhaul have been worked out.

Experts are already working on a plan, Hoover said.

“I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but there’s no question we have to have comprehensive tax reform in this state to make us more competitive with other states,” he said.

Leadership

With his new title comes the most power Hoover has ever had in Frankfort.

Learning to govern, he said, will take time since no living Republican lawmaker or their staffers have ever held a position on a House majority leadership team. Still, he acknowledges “there’s a lot of pent-up frustration” from voters and lawmakers who have been stymied for decades by House Democrats.

“So what I need to get our caucus to understand is, there are things we want to get done, but we’re not going to get everything done this first session,” he said.

Often seen as a moderate Republican, Hoover will have lawmakers to his left and right on the political spectrum. One of his first major tasks will be figuring out how to placate Tea Party members of his caucus who hope for a more aggressive agenda.

“We’re diverse, we’ve always been diverse, we just have more diversity now in larger numbers,” Hoover said. “Over the years, I think I’ve been able to manage that pretty well.”

So far, his caucus appears to be cooperating. When they met Wednesday to elect the rest of their leadership team, the caucus selected leaders with a similar ideological bent.

“When we walk out those doors we’re united as a caucus,” Hoover said.

Hoover also has the external threat of unexpected legislation being handed down from the Senate or pushed by the governor. He hopes to avoid that by establishing clear joint goals with Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, and Bevin.

“We’re going to work with the governor, we’ll work with the Senate,” Hoover said. “I expect that’s going to work well. There may be times we have disagreements.”

On Wednesday, Stivers indicated he is on the same page with Hoover, saying Senate leaders also plan to focus on economic legislation rather than social issues.

Even from a young age, Hoover has been a peace maker, according to Tony Kerr, the Russell County Clerk who is a close friend.

“He could always get a consensus, even when a consensus wasn’t easy to get among teenagers,” Kerr said.

Hoover proved his leadership in the House as well, serving as minority floor leader for 16 years, sometimes fending off challenges from other House Republicans in years he wasn’t able to deliver on his promise to flip the House.

I didn’t always agree with him, but he had a job to do and he did it. He obviously did it well because he was the longest serving minority leader.

State Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg

“He did his job,” said State Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg. “I didn’t always agree with him, but he had a job to do and he did it. He obviously did it well because he was the longest-serving minority leader.”

After spending so long in the minority, Hoover said he wants to approach the new Democratic minority with an open mind and listen to their ideas. In one of his first actions as speaker-elect, he named a bipartisan transition team.

“I want to change the tone in the House of Representatives,” Hoover said. “That it’s not always animosity. And that we can work together. And that at the end of the day if it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea, whether it’s a Republican or Democrat idea. And I mean that.”

Social Issues

Every Sunday, Hoover wakes up at 5 a.m. to prepare to teach a Sunday school class at First Baptist Church in Russell Springs.

“I think Jeff is very much of the mold that God’s first, then family, then everything else falls into place,” said Stephen Branscum, a longtime friend of Hoover’s who runs a construction company in Russell County and is in Hoover’s Sunday school class.

Hoover’s political views are often guided by his faith. In one of his most publicized moves as House minority floor leader, Hoover helped lead a Republican walk-out of the chamber in 2004 to ensure that Democrats took up a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Though the Supreme Court ruled that such laws are unconstitutional in 2015, Hoover said he still personally believes marriage should be between a man and a women but acknowledges that the state must follow federal law.

With the marriage debate resolved, the battle over LGBT rights has shifted to transgender bathroom laws, which would require people to use the bathroom that coincides with the gender on their birth certificate. North Carolina has already approved such a law.

I’m really hopeful and confident that we will do a pro-life bill. What that will consist of, I’m not sure. But I am very strong pro-life as is most of our caucus.

House Speaker-elect Jeff Hoover

Although the issue was featured in numerous GOP television and direct mail advertisements this fall, Hoover has kept his distance, saying he’d rather focus on revitalizing the economy. That approach appears to have the support of Bevin, who joined a lawsuit challenging federal guidelines for accommodating transgender students in bathrooms but has not pushed for the state legislature to take action.

“We have folks that are interested and we’ll have to look at it,” Hoover said. “Part of it is what effect does it have in North Carolina, what effect would it have here? That’s just something the caucus will have to talk about.”

Hoover said if only one social issue can be addressed this upcoming session, he’d rather take up an anti-abortion bill.

“I’m really hopeful and confident that we will do a pro-life bill,” Hoover said. “What that will consist of, I’m not sure. But I am very strong pro-life as is most of our caucus.”

Small Town Roots

Hoover is a large man in a small town. At 6-foot-4, he towers over most, his meaty hands enveloping theirs, his long arms scooping people into hugs, his booming laugh echoing through the hall.

Jamestown is home. Both he and his wife grew up on Hoover Road here. He’s gotten oatmeal for breakfast at the Jamestown Cafe most days when the legislature wasn’t in session for the past four years.

Hoover was a record-setting basketball player for Russell County High School before moving on to play at Centre College in Danville. He majored in government before going on to earn his law degree at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala.

He came back to Jamestown, degree in hand, to open up a law office. Years later, after his mother died in 2008, he bought out his brother and sister to own his parent’s country radio station: 104.9 FM.

“As we go through life, we’ve all had choices of where to go and what to do,” Branscum said. “But this is home.”

Hoover still remembers going to Wrigley field with his father as a 9-year-old fresh off his first year of little league baseball, watching as Ken Holtzman no-hit the Atlanta Braves. He still has the box score.

He remembers having hair so big his head didn’t fit in any of the standard-issue high school football helmets, earning himself the nickname “Bucket.” His nieces and nephews still call him Uncle Bucket.

Jeff is the kind of person you want to have as a friend, because if he’s with you, he’s with you.

Russell County Clerk Tony Kerr

Friends say Hoover is fiercely loyal.

“Jeff is the kind of person you want to have as a friend, because if he’s with you, he’s with you,” Kerr said.

If there’s anyone who got Hoover involved in politics, it’s his parents. They were both active in the local and state Republican Party.

“My parents were just always involved in the community. That’s one thing they impressed upon all of us, and that was to be involved,” Hoover said.

His father, Welby, a former field representative for U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, was elected as a state representative in 1986 but died days before he was sworn into office. Hoover’s mother, Mae, won a special election to take over the seat.

“My father loved people,” Hoover said. “When he ran for state representative in 1986, there was a quote in the local paper. He said, ‘some people love golf, some people love to fish, I love politics and being around people.’”

Hoover said his favorite part of politics is the people, too. Interacting with them. Chatting. He particularly enjoys campaigns, made more enjoyable by the fact that he hasn’t had opposition since he first won office in 1996.

And the people who came to see “Bucket” the Tuesday before Thanksgiving are people who will have his back.

As he wrapped up his speech to a standing ovation, Jerry Westerfield, a Russell Springs radiologist, applauded.

“He’s got a good, kind heart, doesn’t he?”

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics

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