By John David Dyche
The scandal arising from sex harassment allegations against recently retired Democratic state representative John Arnold of Sturgis should be a major turning point for Kentucky's General Assembly. But pressure from powerful people protecting their personal and political interests may prevent much needed real reform.
There has been some positive change already. The atmosphere and results in Frankfort have improved considerably since Robert Stivers of Manchester replaced his fellow Republican David Williams as Senate president.
Williams was a smart, strong leader who did a lot of good during his long tenure. But he was often caustic, confrontational, petty, and vengeful toward political friends and enemies alike.
Stivers is as savvy and tough as Williams, but his style is completely different. He will not pick so many fights, but when matters of principle are at stake his foes will find him every bit as formidable.
In the House of Representatives, Democratic speaker Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg (or is it Lexington?), is a relic of the old kind of Frankfort that is on its way out. To the extent any single legislator is responsible for the obnoxious, outdated culture in the capital city it is Stumbo.
Yet Stumbo has gotten an easier ride from Kentucky's political press than Williams did. Even if nothing else of value comes out of the Arnold affair, however, fallout from the shameful mess should end his reign.
But Stumbo will do whatever is necessary to survive. And with the state's political press corps preoccupied with praising Governor Steve Beshear's transformation into Mr. Obamacare, the speaker just may get away with sweeping the whole sordid mess under the rug.
One transparent Stumbo gambit is his appointment of a five-member House special committee to investigate the allegations against Arnold. The representatives who accepted this assignment (even as Stumbo was trying to frustrate fact-finding by the full Legislative Research Commission) did so in good faith, but theirs is a fool's errand as long as Stumbo still wields ultimate power.
Former LRC director Bobby Sherman is one witness who presumably knows where some of Stumbo's political bodies are buried. Sherman resigned in the wake of the Arnold fiasco, but then he returned to the Capitol on a Sunday to shred documents in the company of LRC staffers.
It is not unreasonable to suspect that Sherman may have destroyed what some might consider evidence potentially damaging to Stumbo. When House Republican leader Jeff Hoover demanded a state police investigation of the shredding party Stumbo went along, but he is probably confident that not even the cops can reconstruct what Sherman disposed of.
(According to Lowell Reese's insider newsletter Kentucky Roll Call, Sherman departed with "an annual pension in the neighborhood of $128,700." But that is another scandal for another column.)
The wound to Kentucky's body politic continues to fester. Another LRC staffer recently claimed that she was transferred after complaining that Democratic representative Will Coursey of Symsonia harassed her.
At least one gutsy Democrat, Senator Kathy Stein of Lexington, has called for an investigation of Stumbo and other Democratic House leaders. There ought to be calls for his ouster.
Meanwhile, making Marcia Seiler the acting LRC director was a good move. Seiler, who was serving as the LRC's deputy director for education accountability, is experienced, smart, well-respected, and also a woman – which is not an insignificant attribute while trying to fumigate Frankfort from the sexual stench that pervades Capitol annex corridors.
There are two ways of doing what needs to be done. Democrats can pick a new leader from several suitable candidates, or voters can deprive that party of its House majority so Republicans can put new leadership in place.
The House has been in Democratic hands too long (almost a century) anyway, and there are ample reasons of state policy for giving the GOP a chance to run that chamber. But one thing is essential if a new day is ever to dawn in Frankfort.
After all the rot the Arnold situation has exposed, and a lot more the public will never know about, Kentucky needs a new House speaker. Greg Stumbo must go.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.