Politics & Government

Kentucky Democrats choose state Rep. Sannie Overly as chairwoman

Sannie Overly spoke to reporters and supporters at Wild Eggs in Lexington in November during the 2015 gubernatorial campaign.
Sannie Overly spoke to reporters and supporters at Wild Eggs in Lexington in November during the 2015 gubernatorial campaign. palcala@herald-leader.com

The Kentucky Democratic Party on Saturday chose state Rep. Sannie Overly of Paris as its new chairwoman for what promises to be a tumultuous election year.

Overly, 49, will remain chairwoman of the House Majority Caucus, where she is responsible for defending Democrats’ control of the state House through campaign fund-raising and candidate recruitment. Last fall, she ran for lieutenant governor on a slate with Democrat Jack Conway, who lost to Republican Matt Bevin by 9 percentage points.

This year’s elections will include contested races for president, Congress and the General Assembly. But Overly said her priority remains the state House, which has 50 Democrats and 46 Republicans, with four open seats to be filled by special elections on March 8.

“I’m very interested in making sure that this party works hand in hand with our caucus to ensure that we run professional, well-funded races,” Overly said at Democratic Party headquarters after she was chosen by the party’s Central Executive Committee.

Overly replaced Northern Kentucky lawyer Patrick Hughes, who resigned after less than a year. During that year, Republicans won the Governor’s Mansion and three other constitutional offices, and they picked up seats in the state House, the last bulwark of Democratic power in Kentucky.

Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Kentucky in voter registration, 1.67 million to 1.27 million. But many of those registered Democrats are conservatives in rural areas who have no problem pushing the button for a GOP candidate.

Overly acknowledged that Democrats will have a more difficult time raising money after the departure of two-term Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. Republicans now firmly control the state’s executive branch and its congressional delegation, which means Democrats have less to offer those who write the checks.

“Certainly when you don’t have a sitting governor, it’s a different sort of fundraising environment,” Overly said. “But there are people in this state who are committed to moving this state forward. There are people in this state who care about the future of Kentucky’s education system, who care about the future of our health care system, and who care about continuing the work of Governor Beshear in improving the economic climate in this state.”

Overly, a lawyer, was elected to the House in 2008. She quickly rose in the ranks. A civil engineer by training before law school, she was put in charge of the House budget subcommittee that oversees the state’s Road Fund.

There were occasional conflicts for her in the House, where about 80 percent of the members are men and nearly half are 60 or older. Last year, former state Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, accused of sexual harassment by several legislative staffers, said in a deposition that he once “spanked the knee” of Overly. In response, he said, Overly told him “if I ever hit her on the knee again, she’d knock me out.”

Overly’s next challenge is leading Democrats in a state where the Democratic president, Barack Obama, is hugely unpopular, so much so that some Democratic politicians are reluctant to say his name in public or admit they voted for him.

Would Overly say whether she voted for Obama?

“Well, you know, it’s interesting, because I ran for lieutenant governor last year and we were asked about that a number of times. And I told everyone that I voted for the Democratic nominee for president, and I will continue to do so,” she said.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

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