Gov. Matt Bevin appointed state Rep. John Tilley of Hopkinsville as state justice and public safety secretary Thursday — a move that could make it easier for Republicans to win control of the state House next year.
Tilley, an attorney, was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and has been a Democratic member of the House since 2007. It was not immediately known if he has changed party registration. He could not be reached for comment.
With the election last month of Bevin and several other GOP constitutional officers, Republicans are now focused on taking over the state House next year. That would give the GOP control of the governor’s office and both legislative chambers. The state Senate has been controlled by Republicans since 2000, thanks in part to the party switches of a few members.
Last month, Rep. Denver Butler, a longtime Democrat from Louisville, filed to seek re-election as a Republican.
All 100 House seats will be up for election next year. Democrats had held a 54-46 advantage in the chamber. That dropped to 53-47 with Butler’s party switch.
Two House Republicans will be leaving soon. Rep. Mike Harmon of Danville will become state auditor in January and Rep. Ryan Quarles of Georgetown will become the state agriculture commissioner. Special elections will be held to fill those two seats.
A special election also will be called to replace Tilley in the 8th House District that includes Christian and Trigg counties. The district has 16,331 registered Democrats and 8,077 registered Republicans, but Bevin carried both Christian and Trigg counties last month over Democratic challenger Jack Conway, winning Christian 4,830 to 3,446 and Trigg 1,746 to 1,342.
John will be a strong advocate for our state police, prosecutors, public defenders, corrections officers and all other Justice Cabinet employees.
Gov. Matt Bevin
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he is disappointed with Tilley, the Associated Press reported.
“I thought John Tilley had more character than that. But of course I thought Denny Butler had more character than that,” Stumbo said. “What that really gives people is the impression that their government is for sale, it’s for sale to the highest bidder.”
Stumbo said he knows of at least six House Democrats who have been approached by Republicans about switching parties. He would not name them.
Later Thursday, House leaders selected Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, to replace Tilley as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, was elated with Tilley’s appointment.
“John Tilley is one of the most respected members I’ve had the pleasure to work with,” Hoover said. “Gov. Bevin could not have made a better choice.”
“John’s work on penal reform and addressing Kentucky’s growing drug addiction problems have won him national praise, and has served as a model all across the country,” Hoover said. “His bipartisan spirit in passing tough legislation has won him the respect and admiration on both sides of the aisle.”
Tilley is a former prosecutor who has been recognized for his work on criminal justice reform and drug policy.
Bevin said in a statement that Tilley “is well qualified to lead the effort to keep our citizens safe and improve our criminal justice system.”
“He will bring a high level of passion and innovation to this role,” Bevin said. “John will be a strong advocate for our state police, prosecutors, public defenders, corrections officers and all other Justice Cabinet employees.”
Tilley said he was honored to become a member of the Bevin administration.
“I have a passion for public safety and the governor and I have discussed a vision for the Justice Cabinet that protects citizens, restores victims and reforms wrongdoers; all in a focused environment where everything we do will be measured for accountability and performance,” Tilley said in a statement.
Tilley, who will turn 47 this month, has chaired the House Judiciary Committee since 2009 and co-chaired multiple bipartisan House and Senate task forces on criminal justice.
A graduate of the University of Kentucky and Chase College of Law, Tilley is a board member for the Council of State Government’s Justice Center and co-chairs the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Law and Criminal Justice Committee.
Tilley will get a pay raise as a cabinet secretary. Rank-and-file state lawmakers make about $21,000 a year while cabinet secretaries in the Bevin administration initially will make $130,476. That will increase to $137,000 a year in six months. Cabinet secretaries under former Gov. Steve Beshear earned $140,636 in 2015, according to state records.