Teacher’s win in Kentucky primary sends warning shot for Republicans

Published 6:40 am Thursday, May 31, 2018

PAINT LICK — In last Tuesday’s primary election, Kentucky teachers, other public employees and labor unions fired a warning shot at the people running the commonwealth, and it was more than just a scare for the fastest-rising star in the state Republican Party.

House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell of Lancaster lost his re-election bid in the 71st District by less than 1.5 percent of the vote, short-circuiting his promising career and sending a message that this November’s elections are likely to be different than most midterms.

The surprise winner was R. Travis Brenda, who lives in the knobs of southern Garrard County, south of Paint Lick, and teaches math at Rockcastle County High School. He isn’t a member of the Kentucky Education Association, but KEA boosted him with a mailer to members that blasted Shell, and many of its members and leaders did volunteer campaigning in the district.

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The state AFL-CIO labor federation likewise pushed Brenda in the diverse district, where union sympathies are more common than you might think; the 71st includes most of western Madison County (which Shell won) and borders Fayette and Clark counties.

In Rockcastle County, where the edge of the East Kentucky coalfield meets the Eastern Pennyroyal region and Brenda has taught for 19 years, he racked up an 847-vote margin that carried him to victory. Shell’s margin in their home Garrard County was only 320 votes.

While Shell apparently didn’t tend to his home ground enough, the district got the sort of concentrated attention from outside forces that is rarely seen in state House elections, and should serve as a warning to legislators who aren’t on the same page with teachers and have substantial opposition.

There are doubts that KEA can replicate such an effort in multiple districts this fall, but KEA President Stephanie Winkler told me its success against Shell makes success in the fall even more likely, based on “the number of calls, emails and texts that I received” on election night and the next day.

“They were all, ‘OK, what are we doing next?’ ” Winkler said. “They’re excited about the elections coming up, and the other part that will be exciting are so many candidates who didn’t have a primary and are educators.” About 40 educators, broadly defined, filed for legislative seats and about 30 are still in the running.

State employees and labor will be in the mix again, too. “I think we’re pretty united,” Winkler said. “Anyone who was pro-labor had a hand in getting people pretty engaged across the state. … We were all battling the same thing, and that doesn’t happen very often.”

The same thing or the same man? What seems to energize labor forces is Gov. Matt Bevin, who has pushed anti-union laws through the legislature and famously disparaged teachers.

“This administration has just played way below the belt,” Winkler said. “Public school educators just being publicly demonized and called out when they know how hard they work. It was the last straw. West Virginia lit a fire, and we just ran with it.” (West Virginia teachers won a pay raise with a strike in March.)

Winkler said that at last count, KEA’s membership was 45-percent Republican, and the group will make endorsements on a race-by-race basis: “Education is not partisan issue, and we cannot afford to take any one side.” But KEA endorses mostly Democrats, she said, “because they support labor and public education, and the Republican platform has been anti-union and pro-private-school vouchers.”

In addition to Bevin’s remarks, teachers were also mobilized by a video showing the “sneaky” Shell putting a pension bill into an unrelated bill, as the KEA mailer called him. The bill affects current teachers only by limiting their accumulation of sick days for retirement, but they say its less generous provisions for new teachers will make recruitment for the profession harder, especially in rural areas.

Shell was trying to be responsive to teachers. His bill replaced a tougher Senate bill, and the House forced the Senate to accept tax increases to fund a budget that is more friendly to schools than Bevin proposed. “He just had a target on his back,” Winkler said of Shell.

Yes, he did, and so may 6th District Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr. He now faces former fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who beat Lexington Mayor Jim Gray for the Democratic nomination. She has a group of energized supporters, too — many of them women motivated by the #MeToo movement in a historically chauvinist state. And most teachers are women.

Kentucky women tend to vote more heavily than men in presidential elections, but they lag male turnout in midterm voting. That pattern could change this fall, and if it does, it will make a difference.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column originally appeared in the Courier-Journal.