Ky. independent takes on new role
State Sen. Bob Leeper's political future seemed a bit uncertain just four years ago after he broke ranks with Republicans and became an independent.
But now, Leeper is moving from political outskirts to a more powerful role in the Kentucky General Assembly. He will head one of two legislative panels that control the state's purse strings.
"Being in this role, having more input on, more impact on things, definitely kind of gets the juices flowing a little bit and makes you want to stay involved," said Leeper, a senator from Paducah since 1991. "I never backed away from being involved, but you wonder is the 8-hour round trip to Frankfort worth it. Being in this role kind of rekindles those juices and I'm excited."
Leeper was the beneficiary last week when state Sen. Charlie Borders left the Senate for a position as chairman of the Public Service Commission. Borders, a Grayson Republican, had been chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee until accepting Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear's appointment to a job that pays more than $100,000 per year.
Kentucky Republicans led the Senate with 21 of 38 seats before Borders' resignation last week. Republican Sen. Gary Tapp of Shelbyville has already announced he's not seeking re-election, and there could be more changes.
Any vacancies give Democrats an opportunity to pick up ground in the Senate when seats are perhaps their most attainable -- when they're empty. If Democrats were to pick up two more seats, they'd be tied in the Senate.
Theoretically, Leeper would be the tiebreaker in that scenario as an independent.
Leeper says he doesn't dwell on that. Previously the budget committee's vice chairman, Leeper said his ascension was based on him being next in line.
Not everyone views it that way.
Senate Minority Floor Leader Ed Worley, a Richmond Democrat, said he thinks it's a move by GOP leaders to retain Leeper's vote. Despite Leeper's party registration, he's known to vote heavily with Republicans, Worley said.
"It's obvious that Bob Leeper has been given that appointment so that he will continue to vote with the Republican caucus," Worley said. "I don't think that the purpose of it was to put a maverick over there who really is an independent, that could objectively function outside of the leadership of the Republican caucus."
It was Leeper, 50, who a nearly decade ago swayed the balance of power in the state Senate over to the GOP after he dropped ties to the Democratic Party and became a Republican. He became an independent in 2005 after a squabble with leadership over disputed election results for a Louisville Senate seat.
That move didn't make life easier for Leeper.
"It was a little bit of an outsider role for a period. I anticipated that" Leeper said. "It wasn't as uncomfortable as I thought it could have been, but there was a period where it was uncomfortable."
Paducah Mayor Bill Paxton said he thought the move to being an independent hurt Leeper for a time. Now, however, Leeper's role as the Senate's budget chairman shows a respect for him and is likely to help his district back home.
"Democrats or Republicans do not like independents, and I admire Bob for taking that stand," Paxton said. "But I do think it's probably hurt him as far as getting leadership positions in the past.
Scott Lasley, a political scientist at Western Kentucky University, said the move is not much of a reach for Republicans. Leeper has been a de facto Republican since his defection, Lasley said.
Rather, the move seems designed to ensure Leeper seek another term and prevent any further deterioration to the overall GOP ranks, Lasley said.
"Every Republican becomes pretty important," Lasley said. "He's still been a pretty good ally of the Republican Party. Even though there's an 'I' there, overall they tend to see him as a Republican, or at least an ally."
Still, Gerald Watkins, a city commissioner in Paducah, said some local insiders have not always thought Leeper would survive politically.
"Every time Bob switched, there would be people around here who would say, 'Well Bob's finished,"' Watkins said. "He's proven to be a strong vote-getter in his own right and his own name regardless of what label he has on him."