Politics & Government

Meet the teachers who won Kentucky primaries — and sent shockwaves through the GOP

Thousands of Kentucky school teachers marched April 2 in Frankfort to protest education cuts and changes to their pension plan.
Thousands of Kentucky school teachers marched April 2 in Frankfort to protest education cuts and changes to their pension plan. cbertram@herald-leader.com

On Tuesday, Jenny Urie, an Owen County High School social studies teacher, won the Democratic nomination for Kentucky's 62nd House District.

On Wednesday, she was back in the classroom.

Urie said she believes "the disrespect for educators by the GOP leadership in Frankfort helped catapult many of us in the primary races. Many Kentuckians have educators in their families and are ready to stand by to support them."

She was one of several educators — including teachers, but also a superintendent and a school board member — who emerged victorious in Kentucky legislative races on Tuesday's primary ballot. One race in particular grabbed national headlines: the 71st House District made up of Garrard, Rockcastle and part of Madison counties, where House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell narrowly lost to Rockcastle County High School math teacher R. Travis Brenda.

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On Tuesday, Jenny Urie, an Owen County High School social studies teacher, won the Democratic nomination for Kentucky's 62nd House District. Photo provided

Educators sent a strong message this week to the Republican Party of Kentucky, political observers said: That they are more than ready to oust state legislators who don't support them.

"From what we saw in Tuesday's primary elections, especially with the defeat of the House leader who was a rising star in the Republican Party, the expectations for Republicans at the polls this November are choppy waters," said Western Kentucky University political science professor Scott Lasley.

"The races this fall for Republicans are going to be more challenging than anyone could have ever imagined a year ago," he said. "This has been a rough year for them."

Shell, a farmer who has been in the House since 2012, was a primary pusher of a public pension bill backed by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin that angered teachers and state employees. He also enjoyed the support and financial resources of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. McConnell had tapped Shell to recruit GOP candidates in the party's historic takeover of the House in 2016 for the first time since 1921.

Shell was mentioned as a likely candidate for House speaker in January 2019 and a possible candidate in years to come for state agriculture commissioner and governor.

His campaign war chest for re-election dwarfed that of Brenda — $131,243 to $16,126.

But Brenda, who is making his first bid for public office, railed against the pension bill and all who supported it, most notably Shell and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. Brenda pledged to never vote again for Bevin, who criticized teachers, and picked up the endorsement of the Kentucky Education Association's political action committee.

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.

In his November general election, he'll face Democrat Mary J. Renfro of Berea, a member of the Madison County school board.

Urie and Brenda weren't the only educators who fared well in Tuesday's primary.

Linda Edwards, a retired Marshall County teacher, and Tom Williamson, a retired social studies teacher at Grayson County High School, won their Democratic primaries. Lisa Willner, a member of the Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education and a licensed psychologist teaching at Bellarmine University, also won, as did Patti Minter, a history professor at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.

Ohio County Schools Superintendent Scott Lewis attributes his winning the Republican nomination in the 14th House District to his position as an education leader. Lewis said he is likely among the first working superintendents in the state to run for a seat in the General Assembly.

"I think it played a big role in it, obviously. With everyone following what went on in Frankfort this past session and some of the rhetoric back and forth between the governor's office and teachers. I think that did play a role in some of it," said Lewis, who beat Jordan Lanham for the Republican nomination. Lewis will run against Elizabeth Belcher, a Democrat, in November.

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Ohio County Schools Superintendent Scott Lewis attributes his winning the Republican nomination in the 14th House District to his position as an education leader. Lewis said he is likely among the first working superintendents in the state to run for a seat in the General Assembly. Photo provided

"I think people know that I'm going to stand up for public education and I'm not shy about telling that," said Lewis.



Williamson, in Grayson County, had been a KEA representative for the last several years of his career. He successfully defeated Elizabethtown Independent School Board member Matt Wyatt for the Democratic nomination in House District 25. In November, Williamson will compete against Republican incumbent Jim DuPlessis.

"I think the teacher vote may have been split because both of us were advocates of education," said Williamson. He said that he understands the difficulties teachers face, but "my campaign is not just about education."

"i want to be a true public servant that supports the majority of people that feel like they are being left behind in our district," Williamson said.

Teachers did not win in every primary to determine party nominees for November's general election.

Losers included Republican David Graham, a Warren Central High School band director; Democrat Susan Back, a counselor at Simon Kenton High School in northern Kentucky; Democrat Ryan Neaves, an English teacher at Tichenor Middle School in northern Kentucky, Republican Matt Anderson, a Whitley County High School teacher; Republican Keith Hays, a Jackson County High School principal; Republican Charles Clark, a West Carter County Middle School assistant principal; and Republican Russell Halsey, a retired teacher and administrator for the Johnson County Public Schools.

The Associated Press reported that at least 40 current and former educators filed to run for seats this year in the legislature. Sixteen of them had Democratic or Republican primary elections on Tuesday.

Seven of the candidates with ties to education who had primaries on Tuesday won, officials said. Overall, 74 percent of those who ran will advance to the November general election (some had no primary opponents), Kentucky Education Association officials told the Herald-Leader Wednesday.

KEA President Stephanie Winkler's said Tuesday's primary "clearly articulated that educators are serious about protecting our students and their schools. "

This drone video shows the crowd outside the Capitol on Friday as teachers and others rallied for education funding.

WKU professor Lasley said he does not think teachers' anger with legislators who voted for the pension bill will lead to Democratic control of the House. Republicans now outnumber Democrats in the chamber 63-37.

"But it could lead to the defeat of some Republicans in the House, making the margin tighter and things interesting," he said.

Retired University of Kentucky political science professor Donald Gross said it's hard to say one election is a clear indicator of what is to come, but Shell's loss was "an opening salvo in the teachers' fight," he said.

"In the long run, that race might put Republicans more on notice and make them realize they are in for a fight."

Gross noted that voter turnout is expected to be low in this November's races. "You get the biggest turnout for presidential years, and that won't happen until next year.

"A low turnout bodes well for teachers to extract some retribution if they can stay engaged."

Voter turnout in Tuesday's primary elections was 23.5 percent.

Gross said it would help Republicans to emphasize that they approved full funding for public pensions and increased funding to schools.

"I also think it would help if the governor were less snarky," he said.

University of Louisville political science professor Dewey Clayton said the Shell defeat "shows the potential teachers have at the ballot box if they stay mobilized. "

"If I were running as a Republican this year for the state House, I would be concerned," added Louisville political consultant Danny Briscoe. "The most desirable endorsement for any candidate this year in Kentucky that of the teachers. I think they will remain worried about their pensions and will remain mobilized."

Despite Tuesday's result, Republican Party Executive Director Sarah VanWallaghen reminded everyone that the 71st House District "remains a strong Republican district and we look forward to working with Travis Brenda as he moves toward victory in November."

She added that Kentucky "has not seen the last" of Jonathan Shell.

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.

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