Fayette County Schools employee Nema Brewer is nervous about the Nov. 6 elections.
“This one can affect teachers and state workers for the next 50 years,” she said.
During nearly every waking hour this fall outside her job as multimedia productions specialist for Fayette County Schools, Brewer has been working to oust Kentucky lawmakers who voted this year for the controversial public pension bill.
She has attended teacher protests at the state Capitol, initiated a “sick day” for teachers at the Capitol the day after the pension bill passed, participated in an Oct 6 “Move ‘Em Out’ rally at the Capitol, co-founded a group of educators and state workers called KY 120 United, sent and evaluated questionnaires to the various legislative candidates, made numerous calls for candidates, distributed yard signs and campaign materials, and is planning a Get Out the Vote weekend.
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With Election Day less than a week away, the big question in almost every Kentucky legislative race boils down to this: Will the thousands of teachers and other public employees who marched on the state Capitol in the final days of this year’s legislative session follow through on their promise to seek revenge at the ballot box?
“I think we will remember in November,” Brewer said. “I’m excited but nervous. There is always so much uncertainty in elections.”
Many of Kentucky’s state workers and 42,000-plus public teachers said Republican leaders ambushed them with unexpected pension legislation and rushed it through the General Assembly in a matter of hours with no public input. They also did not like that the law put new teachers into a pension plan similar to a 401(k) rather than a traditional defined-benefits plan.
Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, eventually signed the bill into law, but it is being challenged in court by Attorney General Andy Beshear on behalf of the Kentucky Education Association and the state Fraternal Order of Police. Beshear won in Franklin Circuit Court and the case now is before the Kentucky Supreme Court.
Despite the unprecedented level of anger teachers and other public workers displayed in April, there’s no clear consensus about how that will impact Tuesday’s election, when 90 of Kentucky’s 100 House seats will be contested.
Teachers got a boost of confidence in the May primary election when Rockcastle County High School math teacher R. Travis Brenda narrowly defeated House Majority Flood Leader Jonathan Shell of Garrard County in the GOP primary for the 71st House District in Garrard, Rockcastle and parts of Madison counties.
Shell, a farmer who has occupied the seat since 2012, had the backing of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell as a potential rising star in the Kentucky GOP, but his prominent role in handling the pension bill appeared to cost him at the polls.
Overall, though, turnout among Kentucky’s 3.3 million registered voters in the May 22 primary was a meager 23.5 percent, well below the 30 percent predicted by Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
“Turnout is key Nov. 6,” said Knox Central High School social studies teacher Christina Trosper of Barbourville, who works with Brewer on KY 120 United. “All of our efforts for teachers and state workers will be nothing if they don’t turn out to vote and no one can say with certainty what will happen.”
‘Momentum and energy’
Politicians are divided along party lines about the impact teachers will have at the polls Tuesday.
House Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, said he is “very optimistic” about Democrats’ chances to take back the House.
Republicans gained control of the chamber in 2016 for the first time since 1921 and now hold a 63-47 majority. Republicans also control the Senate, 27-11.
“We have the most momentum and energy on the ground that I’ve seen in my entire political career,” said Adkins, who has been in the House since 1987 and is considering a bid for governor next year.
Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Ben Self was more circumspect in an Oct. 23 memo, noting that 11 Democratic incumbents are retiring this year.
“Kentucky Democrats started with a tough playing field; but a strong team of Democratic candidates has paved the way for cautious optimism,” Self wrote. “It’s a wave midterm election, and with this kind of momentum any outcome is a possibility. One thing is certain: Democrats are poised to make gains in the statehouse on Election Day ...”
Adkins said the impact of teachers is evident by “the sheer number who signed up to run for office.”
Former KEA president and public schools advocate David Allen says 37 educators are running for the General Assembly this fall — 10 in the Senate and 27 in the House.
Adkins, who has no opponent in the 99th House District that covers Elliott, Lewis and Rowan counties, noted that schools are the biggest employers in many Kentucky counties. “That will help us even more, especially with many schools out because of Election Day,” he said.
Tres Watson, a spokesman for the state Republican Party, said on Kentucky Educational Television Oct. 1 that he thinks the margin of control in the House will remain “relatively similar” after the elections and that Republicans have “a strong possibility of retaining our super majority in the House.”
A super majority is made up of at least 60 members of the same party. Democrats could gain a victory of sorts by lowering the number of Republicans in the House below 60. A super majority of votes is needed to pass tax measures during odd-numbered-year sessions and proposed constitutional amendments.
House Speaker Pro Tempore David Osborne, R-Prospect, said he is “100 percent confident that Republicans will retain control of the House” and keep a super majority of at least 60 seats.
Osborne, who is being challenged in the 59th House District in Oldham County by Democrat Diane Seaman, a former official at Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, said it is difficult to project the precise number of House seats the Republicans will hold after the November election. He said it is “quite likely that we will flip seats currently held by Democrats.”
Instead of blaming Republicans for changing their pension system, he said teachers should be upset with Adkins and former Democratic majorities in the House for not fully funding their pensions in years past, as Republicans did this year.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said no one is expecting Republicans to lose control of the Senate. He said teachers and state workers “will have an impact” on the Nov. 6 elections but it will be a matter of degree.
“After all the noise of the session, many people now see the legislature did a pretty good job,” he said.
What will they remember?
That’s not the feedback KY 120 United and the candidates it supports have been getting from teachers.
“I knock on doors and call voters and they will tell me they’ve already heard from teachers in the district,” said Corbin attorney Stephanie Kingsley, a Democrat running against Republican state Rep. Regina Bunch Huff. “I am glad to tell them I have their support.”
Kingsley has the endorsement of KY 120 United, but the Kentucky Education Association’s political action committee has not endorsed Kingsley or her opponent, who is a retired middle grades special education teacher from Williamsburg in the 82nd House District made up of Laurel and Whitley counties.
“Will teachers remember in November?” asked Kingsley. “They will, and so will their mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, cousins and nieces and nephews.
Huff was elected to the state House in 2011 in a special election, succeeding her husband, Dewayne Bunch, who was fatally injured while breaking up a student fight at the high school where he had taught. She also voted against the pension bill.
“The teachers in my district know me. They will remember me,” said Huff. “I ran against a teacher in the primary and still won by 1,200 votes.”
Huff said she voted against the pension bill “because I thought it was wrong. It was the final vote on the bill and that’s the one that counts.”
KY 120 United’s Trosper said her group’s members are flooding social media and “speaking out” for Kingsley, who called the group “the most motivated group I’ve ever seen.”
Whatever happens on Nov. 6, Brewer and Trosper said, their group is not going away.
“We want to be around and voice our views for candidates who will protect education,” said Brewer. “I hear there’s a governor’s race next year. Here’s hoping we remember in 2019.”