Politics & Government

At age 29, he’s one of the most important Republicans in Kentucky

Jonathan Shell had been sitting in the Capitol parking lot with his wife, Brooke, for 45 minutes.

They had talked. They had called their pastor. They had prayed.

The couple had just spent their day at a seminar on campaign management sponsored by the Farm Bureau in Louisville. On the advice of local politicians, Shell, then 24, had filed to run for a city council position in Lancaster.

But Brooke thought he should aspire to more.

He had gathered signatures to run for State Representative in the 36th District, his check was written and the papers necessary to declare his intent to run were complete.

All he had to do was get out of the car, walk into the Secretary of State’s office and file to run. Instead, he put his keys in the ignition, started the car and began to drive away.

• • • • • 

Shell’s political ambitions began inside the VIP Express gas station in Garrard County.

“There’s actually places in there where you can sit down and eat lunch,” he explained.

Shell likes a bologna sandwich with hot sauce. Occasionally, he’ll grab a bag of Lays potato chips, pour hot sauce inside and shake it around. While eating, he and other regulars at the VIP Express would watch TV news and start talking about it.

“You know, I’d just be beating my fist at the table, woe is me about government, just complaining,” Shell said. “And I decided to do something about it.”

Now, years later, Shell is finally in a position to do something about it. Shortly after Republicans gained control of the Kentucky House of Representatives in November, Shell was named House Majority Floor Leader on the day before his 29th birthday. That means he has a big say in which bills get a vote on the House floor, despite being the youngest member of the GOP caucus.

“The Republican Party, my party, is not the one that’s saying you’re too young, wait your turn,” Shell said. “I have never, not one time since I’ve gotten into politics, had that barrier put in my way.”

Shell is the rare millennial in the General Assembly.

He and his wife don’t have cable, just Netflix and Roku. He Snapchats, plays video games and firmly believes in the power of technology.

“We see technology as something we can help invent our lives with and make it better,” Shell said. “So instead of having to go to Blockbuster and get out and go, we have Netflix now. Whatever it is that we’re seeing now, we love technology in our generation and sometimes it looks lazy to other people, but it’s not.”

Kentucky House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell, 29, works on his family’s farm in Lancaster. Photo by Mark Mahan

Shell embraces his role as a young person involved in politics, often urging high school and college students to join the cause.

“All the decisions that we make in Frankfort today are going to directly affect me and my kids,” Shell said. “I’m 29 years old, so it’s nothing for me to make a decision today that I’m going to see the impact of in the long term. I will see the definite impact of what we’ve done.”

When asked about Shell’s potential, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell instead pointed to how much Shell has already achieved in Kentucky politics.

“He’s one of the most important Republicans in Kentucky already,” McConnell said. “And he’s not 30 years old.”

• • • • • 

On November 7, Shell was sitting in a brown leather armchair in his family room, playing Angry Birds. His most optimistic count for the election the next day was 57 Republicans in the 100-member House, but for now he was hedging his bets at 52.

The next day, he watched as voters across the state painted Kentucky red. He got 64.

“I think the angst and the sentiment that was rampant across Kentucky and the nation, the anger and the disenfranchisement that people felt with their government and the way that Donald Trump communicated it, that is what carried us to 64 members,” he said.

Of course, Shell also helped.

Since the 2014 election, when McConnell won re-election handily but House Republicans came up short, Shell has played a large role in GOP efforts to win the state House for the first time since 1921.

When McConnell called a meeting of Republican leaders to create a strategy to win the majority, Shell was chosen to lead an effort to recruit candidates in every district, even ones Republicans didn’t expect to win.

“He’s highly intelligent, extraordinarily energetic and focused,” McConnell said. “And I remember someone telling me at the beginning of my career the most important word in the English language is focus. Jonathan has focus.”

Shell readily admits that his focus can be aggravating to some, but it drives results.

“There’s not a candidate that was on the ballot in November that I was not in direct contact with on a regular basis…” Shell said. “It would have been very disingenuous of me if I did not try to see them into the end, whether I thought they were going to win or whether I didn’t.”

Support, he noted, is not always financial.

“Advice, steering people in the right direction, being a punching bag sometimes whenever they’re mad, trying to be inspirational whenever they’re down in the dumps, keeping people at a level during the campaign is extremely important, because there’s so many high highs and low lows,” Shell said.

State Rep. Walker Thomas, R-Hopkinsville, didn’t receive much financial backing from the Republican Party or from political action committees during the fall campaign since he had recently lost a special election by a large margin, but Thomas said Shell was always available nonetheless.

“He was always willing to listen,” Thomas said. “He was a great asset all the way through the process.”

The effort paid off. As Republicans stood in the Galt House in Louisville watching election results, they were winning in districts that hadn’t even been on their radar.

“A lot of us participated but he was the indispensable man in getting us the majority,” McConnell said.

• • • • • 

“I pitched a perfect inning in little league,” Shell said on a gray January day, as he guided his black Chevy pickup truck through Lancaster, the town he’s lived in his whole life but still pronounces incorrectly.

“Just one inning?”

“Just one inning. I got in for one inning and pitched a perfect inning. That’s going to be on my Twitter profile. That’s going to be the bio on my Twitter profile. I can eat a handful of peppers and I pitched a perfect inning.”

Shell is in good spirits this day. Just a week earlier, he and the Republican-led General Assembly passed several conservative bills within a week of taking control of the House. Now, he’s spending the legislature’s month-long break gearing up for what’s next when they return to work Feb. 7.

“Kentucky can expect to see some kind of education reform,” Shell said, ticking off the policy changes on the GOP’s agenda. “Kentucky can expect to see some legal tort reform. And I personally am really excited to do some form of regulatory reform” to help businesses.

Shell’s primary goal is to create a business-friendly environment in Kentucky that helps create jobs. The state’s unemployment rate is hovering around 5 percent, but other data show that 42 percent of working-age people in Kentucky are neither employed nor looking for work, which is about 5 percentage points worse than the national average.

“At the end of the day we can talk about wages, we can talk about the different things that affect individual workers, but if we don’t have a business climate that enables businesses to make a profit to be here, to station here, then those jobs don’t matter,” Shell said. “If we can’t get businesses to locate here then those jobs aren’t here to begin with.”

Shell wants to see Kentucky become a manufacturing hub. Currently, 12.7 percent of nonfarm employees in Kentucky work in manufacturing, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. The state’s manufacturing output has grown since 2010 and Shell thinks if the state can recruit more manufacturing jobs, they’ll locate in Eastern Kentucky, where a downturn in the coal industry has devastated the economy.

“We’re only going to be as good a state as what we can bring East Kentucky to,” Shell said.

More products are being manufactured in the United States, but manufacturing jobs aren’t expected to reach pre-recession levels, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency predicts the manufacturing sector will lose around 550,000 jobs by 2022, due to technological advances that require fewer workers.

“It won’t be that every small town in East Kentucky is going to have a huge manufacturing facility that they’re going to be able to work at,” Shell said. “But if a person can drive 45 to 30 minutes to work, it’s going to be a big difference.”

None of Shell’s conservative stances on economics and social issues, such as his opposition to abortion, are new, but his opinions about them didn’t count for much when he was just another member of the minority party.

For example, former Democratic Rep. Tom McKee, who chaired the House Agriculture Committee until he lost re-election this fall, said he didn’t know Shell very well. Shell was removed from the Agriculture Committee in his second term, a decision that still rankles Shell and one McKee said was handled by Democratic leaders.

“He came in very young and we used to talk about tobacco issues,” said McKee, a fellow tobacco farmer.

• • • • • 

The Shell family has owned their 1,200-acre farm in Lancaster for three generations. Originally, the farm grew tobacco and raised cattle. Last year, they stopped growing tobacco and devoted more attention to their hemp crop, one of a handful that are part of pilot projects in Kentucky.

Agriculture has been a way of life for Shell, whether helping his father with the tobacco harvest or making sales in the greenhouse.

“We were raised to be a working family,” said Gary Shell, his father.

Farming also connected Shell with one of his closest friends, his former agriculture teacher Ken Parsons.

“He used to always say in high school in jest, and he still does, he’ll come up to someone and say ‘That Shell, he’s an idiot, but he’s a likable idiot,” Jonathan Shell said.

In high school, Shell took to leadership like a “duck to water,” Parsons said. He also occasionally enjoyed a good prank, once helping fill Parsons’ truck head-high with Styrofoam packing peanuts.

“Jonathan is a true friend,” said Parsons, a Democrat and Lancaster city councilman “He is as genuine as I know. I think what you see is what you get. If you don’t like it… he’s not going to change.”

Some think it’s odd that a 29-year-old can be best friends with a 65-year-old, Shell said, but Parsons was there for him when Shell hit his lowest point.

When Shell met his wife, he was “drunk on a bar stool,” as she described it. He had just gone through a difficult period. His grandmother, who he had been close to and helped take care of when she was sick, had just died. His high school girlfriend had broken up with him around Christmas.

So he started drinking.

Parsons sat him down and told Shell he needed to get himself together and Brooke told him she wouldn’t date someone who drank.

It has been almost eight years since he had a drink of alcohol, Shell said.

In that time, the Shells started a family. Their oldest child, Jaxson, is six and their youngest, Reagan, is 18 months. In between is 3-year-old Lydia.

Brooke and Jonathan Shell with their children Reagan (left) 1, Jaxson, 6, and Lydia, 3. Photo by Mark Mahan

The kids have grown up in a household consumed by politics. Shell makes sure to bring them along when he’s campaigning door to door, they’re comfortable at fish fries and festivals, and they know how to work a room.

“The kids know how to campaign, they know how to win an election,” Brooke Shell said. “They just kind of jump on the bandwagon, it’s what we’re doing so we literally all do it together.”

Politics has always been a part of the couple’s relationship. While they were dating, she used mnemonic devices to memorize the members of then President Barack Obama’s cabinet so she could keep up when the two were talking about politics. Their first date was at the Garrard County Fair, where she sat with him while he cooked for the Cattleman’s Association.

She still plays a large role in his campaigns. Before he sends out a post on Facebook, she proofreads it and gets rid of the insider language of the legislature. Whenever he needs an opinion on health policy, he turns to her since she’s a nurse practitioner.

Shell said he enjoys the intersection of family, farming and politics.

“I love what I do and so I don’t want to turn it off,” he said. “I want my kids to be a part of me being a state representative and the House majority leader. And I want being a majority leader to be impacted by me being a farmer and father and husband. So I don’t want to turn them all off. I don’t want to compartmentalize all these things.”

• • • • • 

As the Shells were driving away from the Capitol, Jonathan’s phone lit up with a text message. A friend told him the state Supreme Court had scrapped the legislature’s new redistricting plan. The old district, comprised of Jonathan’s home county, Garrard, and Brooke’s home county, Madison, would remain.

Shell took it as a sign. He turned around and declared his candidacy for state representative.

“The rest is history, man,” he said.

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