LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- When the Kentucky General Assembly begins its 2015 session in Frankfort next month, it could be the first time in more than 20 years that a lawmaker from Louisville is not among the five Democrats who effectively control the state House of Representatives.

Jefferson County's most powerful legislator, House Speaker Pro Tempore Larry Clark, announced in November he would not run for re-election to his leadership position.

Jefferson County Democrats have tapped Rep. Darryl Owens of Louisville to step into Clark's role, but his election to the position on Jan. 6 is far from certain.

And even if Owens wins the post, many Louisville leaders worry Clark's decision to step aside means less clout for the state's most populous and economically important county.

“No matter how you shuffle the deck, Larry's leaving leadership is a problem for Jefferson County,” said David Karem, who represented Louisville for more than 30 years in the state senate, ascending to Democratic floor leader.

Karem, now president of the Louisville Waterfront Development Corp., said it would take Owens or anyone else “time to build up credibility” in the speaker pro tem position, which is the No. 2 post in the House, after Clark has occupied it for 21 years.

“Larry had a very good knowledge of the budget and how it worked. I am not sure that's been Darryl's interest,” said Rep. Steve Riggs of Louisville, who supports Owens despite having had his own interest in being Jefferson County's candidate to succeed Clark.

At stake, according to officials in the House and observers, is a voice for Louisville in the small group of Democrats who control which lawmakers sit on committees, which committees get certain bills, and which bills get a vote.

Owens said the leaders decide the “life or death of legislation.”

“Obviously, to do that without the largest the part of the state being involved, it's critical (for Louisville to have a seat),” he said in interview.

The leaders of the House and Senate also comprise the conference committees that work out which projects make it into the final version of the state's two-year budget.

“When you are slicing up pieces of the pie, it helps to have a hand on the slicer,” said longtime political observer Al Cross, a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky.

Clark's influence

Clark, a retired electrician who has represented his Okolona-area district since 1984, said last month that he probably would not seek another term in the House. He could not be reached for this story.

In terms of influential lawmakers from Jefferson County, Cross puts Clark in the same league as Karem and Norbert Blume, who was house speaker in the 1970s.

Louisville businessman Jonathan Blue, a University of Louisville trustee and advocate of state legislation to allow a statewide vote on casinos, said Clark's stepping aside “threatens our allocation” of state dollars to the Louisville region.

“I would love to have an anointed successor who (could do) for the city what he did. I don't know what will happen,” Blue said, commending Clark for his support for U of L.

“(Clark) has really taken care of Jefferson County -- he has been a supporter of Louisville, and that will be missed,” said Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau President Karen Williams.

Williams cited Clark's support and guidance earlier this year in winning state funding for a $180 million expansion of the Kentucky International Convention Center in downtown Louisville.

Rep. Jim Wayne, another longtime Louisville lawmaker, said Clark “deserves credit for the many things that we have accomplished in the last quarter century in Jefferson County.”

Just one example, Wayne said, is Clark's securing of funding for a Louisville program helping pregnant teenagers continue their high school education.

Yet, for all Clark's influence, he has had a contentious relationship with some fellow Democrats in the Jefferson County delegation, and he was not always a reliable supporter of Louisville leaders' priorities in Frankfort.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer's top legislative goal the last two years has been to advance a local-option sales tax, and members of Fischer's coalition were able to convince House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who opposed the idea earlier this year, to change his mind and get behind it. It's now the top-priority bill in the House.

But local-option backers were not able to persuade Clark, who said the sales tax should remain in the control of state lawmakers instead of local officials.

“It's kind of been unfortunate that Larry, in his role, has not had the best of relationships with the mayor – or with any mayor,” said Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville, who unsuccessfully challenged Clark for the leadership post in 2003.

In 2002, a month before she lost her bid to unseat Clark, Marzian told The Courier-Journal it was time for "somebody who has qualities of temperance and listening" in the position.

No obvious successor

Clark's resignation from his leadership post in November “surprise(d) many people,” and Clark might have been worried about finally losing the seat in the statewide caucus vote after resisting challenges over the years, Wayne said.

“He may have read the tea leaves and decided, ‘this is time for me to step aside,'” Wayne said.

With no obvious successor from Louisville, the other 12 House Democrats decided in a meeting earlier this month to throw their support behind Owens instead of Denny Butler, of south Louisville, and Riggs, of the Jeffersontown area.

Clark, who was absent from that meeting, appears to be the only Jefferson County Democrat not supporting Owens for speaker pro-tem, Owens said in an interview.

Owens said he “understand(s)” Clark supports Rep. Dennis Keene of Northern Kentucky, his friend and roommate in Frankfort.

The 54 House Democrats will decide on a new speaker pro-tem by secret ballot on Jan. 6, according to Brian Wilkerson, communications director for Stumbo's office. If no candidate gets a majority, the top two will have a runoff, he said.

With the support of the 12 Democrats from Louisville, Owens said he likes his chances of making it to the runoff and winning the seat.

“As I look at it, I think I've got a real good shot… I think I'll be one of those top two,” he said.

A lawyer and former Jefferson County commissioner, Owens got back into politics in 2004 with his election to the state house. His district runs along the Ohio River encompassing some of city's poorest neighborhoods in west Louisville and some of its richest off River Road, he noted.

In his nine years in the General Assembly, Owens has been a champion of restoring voting rights to nonviolent felons and of tighter regulation on payday lending. Earlier this year, he sponsored a key bill to allow for the expanded convention center by allowing a 1 percentage point Louisville hotel room tax to finance the construction debt.

Owens would be the second African American elected to a leadership role in the General Assembly after Sen. Gerald Neal of Louisville, who earlier this month was chosen as chairman of the Democratic caucus in the Senate.

Neal's ascent gives Jefferson County its second leadership post in the Republican-controlled Senate alongside majority caucus chairman Dan Seum of Fairdale, whose district straddles the Jefferson-Bullitt county line.

Role of the House

A leadership role in the House, however, is especially important because that body takes up the state budget before the Senate, Karem said.

The Democrats in House leadership “have a huge amount of influence on what goes in the budget...The further it goes along in the process, the harder it is to make monumental changes,” Karem said.

Clark told The Courier-Journal in November that it doesn't matter whether Louisville has a lawmaker in leadership because others like Stumbo, of Prestonburg, and Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook understand that Louisville needs “love and attention” as the “economic engine” of the state.

But Cross said that notion bears “only a passing resemblance to reality.”

In the 11th hour, when lawmakers are deep in negotiations about the budget or other bills, “The principle that the state's No. 1 economic engine needs to be taken care of can get lost,” he said.

Wayne said Clark “needs to remember, as we all do, that Jefferson County needs a voice at the table.”

Marzian, who has represented a Highlands-area district since 1994, said Jefferson County probably deserves two positions in the House leadership.

"We give the biggest amount of revenue into state coffers and if you don't have somebody in there when the budget is being divvied up, it all goes to Western and Eastern Kentucky and Cental Kentucky, and we may get a little bit," she said.  

Fischer, for his part, said he is “hopeful” that Louisville will retain Clark's seat in the House leadership.

“But if not, people (in the leadership) understand the importance of Louisville, as we understand the importance of the state to us,” he said.

Riggs, a nearly 25-year veteran of the House, said the situation should be a wake-up call for other Jefferson County representatives to “step up their activity and their involvement” instead of being satisfied with the occasional “trinket” for their districts.

That's not always easy, Riggs said, since the governor or mayor tend to get credit for big accomplishments like Ohio River Bridges Project or the KFC Yum! Center, even though lawmakers play a key role.

“We need to make it clear to these folks in leadership what we need as a community,” he said. “There has been a lot of parochialism over the years.”

WDRB political reporter Lawrence Smith contributed to this story. 

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