By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT – There are at least two and probably three races for Democratic House leadership posts going on as lawmakers get ready to return to Frankfort next week.
Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, is running for Majority Whip against Rep. Tommy Turner, D-Owensboro, and Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, will challenge Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, D-Okolona.
Bell and Simpson again Monday confirmed they are asking Democratic colleagues to support them. CNHI was unable to reach Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, who did not return a message asking for an interview, but Simpson said she has told him she’s at least “considering” a race against Majority Caucus Chairman Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville. CNHI was also unable to reach Clark for comment.
No one has announced – at least publicly – they plan to challenge Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, or Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook.
Bell and Simpson said their campaigns aren’t about personalities or personal ambition. They say they want a change in style and direction in the way party leaders deal with the Democratic caucus.
“I have nothing against anyone up there or any member of the current leadership,” Bell said Monday. “It’s solely about a change in direction for the caucus.”
Bell said he wants to see leadership be “more open” with the membership and he wants more power delegated to rank and file members.
“I want to make sure we’re all pulling in the same direction, make sure we all have a good understanding of what we’re doing and where we’re trying to go,” Bell said.
Simpson said his decision was motivated by a desire to see a change in direction, too, and he said he’s concerned about “the decline in our numbers.” Republicans picked up four seats in the House in the fall elections and now have a total of 44 seats to Democrats’ 55. (There is one vacancy, created by Rep. Sara Beth Gregory’s election to the Senate, but the 52nd District is heavily Republican and the GOP is likely to retain that seat in a special election.)
Simpson said the Kentucky House is “one of the last stands” for Democrats in southern state legislatures which have steadily gone Republican over the past 15 years.
“Unless we change our direction, I sense we could lose our majority in the next election or so,” Simpson said.
Like Bell, Simpson said he wants a less “top-down” system of making decisions.
“Any type of management system where most decisions are determined by a small group, I think is potentially bad,” Simpson said. “I think the best form for our members is to use all the tools in our toolbox and our tools are our 55 members.”
Simpson said he’s making calls to colleagues and “I think I’m in the game,” but concedes it’s hard to determine how many promised votes are solid. But he said he tells his colleagues his challenge isn’t about personality or ambition but rather “about the direction of the caucus.”
“I tell them, quite candidly, if they’re satisfied with the status quo, they probably don’t need to vote for me,” Simpson said.
Stumbo said Friday he isn’t working on behalf of any candidates for the other offices and seemed to agree that the challenges from Bell and Simpson aren’t directed personally at their opponents.
“It seems to be more about issues and style than personalities,” Stumbo said.
Bell said he wants to see rank-and-file members given an opportunity to express their views on major issues facing the legislature, things like tax reform, pension reform and re-districting, rather than have leaders set the course and then ask members to follow.
“I think we need to get everyone involved,” Bell said. “We need to sit down and listen to everyone. We need an environment where people can speak their mind and not take a punitive action against them when they do. We are all a lot more alike than we are unalike.”
Both Bell and Simpson say they feel good about their chances.
“Right now I feel real positive,” Bell said. “But I’m going to continue to work. I feel confident that we all – at least Arnold and I – have an avenue to win.”
On the Republican side, the only known race is to replace retiring Majority Whip Danny Ford. Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, and Rep. John “Bam” Carney, R-Campbellsville, are running for that post.
The two parties in the House will choose their leaders during the first couple of days when the General Assembly reconvenes on Jan. 8.
Senate leaders have already been chosen by their parties but the offices of President and President Pro-Tem must be elected by the full Senate.
Republicans have a 23-14 majority (with one independent who usually votes with Republicans), sufficient to elect Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, President and Sen. Katie Kratz Stine, R-Southgate, President Pro-Tem.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.