Politics & Government

Meet Lexington's next state senator, who lives 200 miles away

Sen. Dorsey Ridley has lived in Western Kentucky his whole life and has represented his part of the state in the legislature off and on since 1987.
Sen. Dorsey Ridley has lived in Western Kentucky his whole life and has represented his part of the state in the legislature off and on since 1987. Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — The day after state Senate Republicans shifted Democrat Dorsey Ridley's district 200 miles to the east — from Henderson to downtown Lexington — the jokes flowed like water down the halls of the Capitol Annex.

"Can I give you a tour of Rupp Arena?" cracked Judy Taylor, the longtime Keeneland lobbyist, as she gave Ridley a hug.

"Are you one of my constituents now?" Ridley himself joked to various people as he walked to his office.

But just a few minutes after the House gave final approval to a bill containing redistricting plans for the General Assembly, Ridley, 59, turned serious about the plan to move the 13th District held by Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, to northeastern Kentucky while placing Ridley's 4th District in Lexington. (The plan will become law as soon as Gov. Steve Beshear signs it, which is expected in coming days.)

"This disenfranchises Kathy Stein, it disenfranchises my district in Western Kentucky, and it accomplishes an end that (Senate President) David Williams was unable to do at the ballot box," Ridley said. "This was thrown upon us. At the end of the day, it's a small group of Republican state Senate leaders who have made this choice, not the 114,000 people that each of us represent."

In the 2011 gubernatorial election, Williams lost Fayette County to Beshear by a 3 to 1 ratio.

Because of varying election cycles, Stein's term ends this year, and she would have to move to the new district before the end of January to seek re-election in 2012.

Ridley's term doesn't end until 2014, so he can represent Lexington for the next two years. If he chooses to run again in his home county in Western Kentucky, Ridley will have to run against Sen. Jerry Rhoads, a Democrat whom he knows well. His sister is married to Rhoads' brother.

Ridley also knows Stein well. In an odd detail, Ridley's Senate office shares a wall with Stein's, although his space is decorated with Audubon prints and bright-red memorabilia from his alma mater, Western Kentucky University, while hers is filled with photos of John and Robert Kennedy and copies of Mother Jones magazine.

"I'm middle of the road," Ridley said in comparison to Stein's unabashed liberalism.

"Senator Ridley is a fine legislator who's very bright and very personable," Stein said of her neighbor. "But he doesn't have the relationships with the mayor and the council and various other people that will be crucial."

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said Thursday that his chief of staff spoke with Ridley on Wednesday and that Stein has said she will introduce Ridley to the Lexington community.

"I know Kathy will continue to work for Lexington. She is a committed community leader who is passionate about improving our city and state," Gray said in a statement. "And I am committed to working with all of our representatives and to reaching out to Kathy's constituents to help Senator Ridley make sure their voices are heard in Frankfort."

Ridley has lived in Western Kentucky his whole life, and he has represented the area off and on since 1987, when he was elected to the House from Webster County. He served until 1994, when he returned home to help raise four children and continue as the third-generation owner of a General Motors dealership.

Ridley said he realized that GM was no longer a sure bet, so he got out of the car business and became president of Independence Bank in Henderson. His 2011 financial disclosure lists income from the bank plus rent from properties in Kentucky, Indiana and Florida; and coal, oil and gas royalties. His wife, Glenn Hodge Ridley, is a school counselor for the Henderson County Board of Education.

In 2004, state Sen. Paul Herron died, and Ridley was asked to run in a special election for that seat. He won, and he was unopposed in the next two elections. Until now, he has represented a district that stretches along the Ohio River in Caldwell, Crittenden, Henderson, Livingston, Union and Webster counties.

Ridley said he thinks he has been re-elected because he makes himself available to his constituents, a style he intends to continue with his new electorate. He said he has worked hard to bring the Interstate 69 project through Western Kentucky because he thinks the new road will improve people's lives.

"He has been a tremendous person for this district," said Henderson Mayor Steve Austin, who worked with Ridley on the I-69 project and on many other issues. "In fact, in my opinion, the loss of him in that region is absolutely devastating. He's a good person, and he works hard for our county."

Ridley conceded that representing Lexington will be a little different from the largely rural farming and coal-mining district he knows well. But, he joked, "it's important that people know I'm a UK Wildcat fan."

As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he knows a lot about the horse industry, and he has always been interested in higher education. His largest new constituent is the University of Kentucky.

He's also a longtime friend of Lexington lawyer Brent Rice, who is chairman of a task force charged with creating a new downtown district that includes a renovated Rupp Arena.

Ridley met UK President Eli Capilouto this summer, and he said he liked Capilouto's recent message about putting housing and classroom needs above state funding for Rupp Arena.

"I think Dr. Capilouto was right on target and I have to support his leadership," he said.

Ridley also serves on the Banking and Insurance Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

State Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, knew Ridley's parents and has known him since Ridley was a child.

"He's an excellent legislator, thoughtful and someone who constantly looks out for the middle class," Richards said. "He understands the issues, particularly higher education."

Ridley said he would survive the redistricting, but the real victim might be the General Assembly's reputation.

"Unfortunately, it gives the voting public the impression that we really have no concern for their voices," he said. "It's a disservice to them."

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