After uproar, few Ky. teachers win seats in legislature
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- They promised to remember in November during protests that drew thousands to Frankfort earlier this year, but dozens of teachers who hoped to join the state’s General Assembly received a bruising introduction to Kentucky politics in Tuesday’s elections.
Of 43 candidates with education backgrounds who challenged incumbents or ran for open seats in the legislature on Tuesday, only 11 were successful.
What’s more, Republicans who passed legislation reforming the state’s pension offerings despite throngs of teachers storming the Capitol in protest hung on to their supermajorities in the House and Senate.
Democrats netted two seats in the House, but Republicans clung to a 61-member supermajority in the lower chamber. The GOP added a Senate district to its column after Senate Minority Caucus Chair Dorsey Ridley lost his re-election bid by 484 votes.
“Rarely does a profession put you in a position to win an elected office,” Republican political consultant Les Fugate said Wednesday. “Your positions matter, and most of the candidates running as teachers were Democrats in a very, very conservative state, so they start off behind the eight ball.”
Two of the educators who won legislative races Tuesday – Democrats Jim Glenn and Cluster Howard – have previously held the seats they won by razor-thin margins.
Glenn, a professor at Owensboro Community and Technical College, topped Rep. D.J. Johnson, R-Owensboro, by a single vote in the 13th House District while Howard, a professor at Hazard Community and Technical College, beat Rep. Toby Herald, R-Beattyville, by seven votes in the 91st House District. Johnson has already indicated that he will seek a recanvass of his one-vote loss to Glenn.
Their wins were two of four in which Democrats wrested control of legislative seats from Republicans. Tina Bojanowski, an elementary school teacher, topped Rep. Phil Moffett, R-Louisville, by 7.1 points in the 32nd House District, and Maria Sorolis, who works part-time with recovery students, beat Rep. Ken Fleming, R-Louisville, by 1 point in the 48th House District.
The other successful races had no impact on the political makeup of the House, and no current or former educators won their campaigns for state Senate. Many teachers who lost fell by significant double-digit margins.
Still, some came within single-digit margins of upsetting GOP senators.
Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, topped Democrat Paula Setser-Kissick, a resource teacher, by 1.5 percentage points, or 772 votes, in the 12th Senate District. Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, beat Democrat Jeanie Smith, a middle school teacher, by 4.7 points in the 32nd Senate District, and Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, bested Democrat Denise Gray, a middle school paraeducator, by 6.7 points in the 28th Senate District.
Democratic political strategist Jared Smith, mentioning those races specifically, said it would be “a little bit of fool’s gold” to think that teachers and public education won’t be factors in upcoming political campaigns.
“I do think the teachers need to learn what worked, what didn’t work and then kind of evolve so that way they can play a bigger role in 2020,” Smith told WDRB News, adding that he felt educators running as Democrats should broaden their messaging to include topics like health care and renewable energy if they re-enter the political arena.
About a third of the educators who won seats in the General Assembly will represent Jefferson County in the House.
Aside from Bojanowski and Sorolis, Democrat Josie Raymond, an academic coach at the University of Louisville, won the open 31st House District seat by nearly 20 points Tuesday while Lisa Willner, a part-time psychology professor at Bellarmine University and vice chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education, took the open 35th House District seat in a 36-point win.
Bojanowski, Raymond and Willner were endorsed by Better Schools Kentucky, the Jefferson County Teachers Association’s super PAC.
JCTA President Brent McKim said those candidates were strong in their own ways “and a good fit for their respective districts.” He also indicated that the recent effort by the Kentucky Department of Education to place Jefferson County Public Schools under state management put education into greater focus locally, another potential boost to their candidacies.
“I think that probably has elevated the importance of education in Jefferson County particularly,” he said.
Whether the numerous losses by educators will embolden Republican lawmakers heading into the 2019 legislative session remains to be seen. Items on many conservatives’ wish lists include allocating funds for charter schools, which were made legal by the 2017 General Assembly, and passing tax-credit scholarships.
Fugate said this year’s protests prompted Republicans to pump more money into per-pupil funding for public education in the biennial budget, but lawmakers who were “weak in the knees” in the face of frustrated teachers this year might be “emboldened to take the steps that they believe are necessary to move the state forward.”
“I don’t think you’re going to see as many people fretting because leadership will now say, ‘We couldn’t have been in a worse environment than what we went through in 2018,’” Fugate said.
But Smith said such legislative actions would only spark further outrage from teachers “who are better equipped to run better races next time.”
McKim said his sense is that leaders, particularly in the House, are “sincerely interested in finding common ground with educators and moving away from some of the more divisive, controversial issues.”
“I’m sure there will be bills filed, but I don’t think those will be the top priority” of House GOP leaders, McKim said when asked about charter school funding and tax-credit scholarships.
Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, said while current and former educators weren’t successful at the ballot box, they sent a message to lawmakers in Frankfort by marching on the Capitol and running for legislative seats.
“I think that clearly the legislature will more than likely, at least if nothing more, take pause when they move forward and realize the fact that teachers are at the point now where they’re not just going to docilely sit back and take what’s coming to them,” Clayton said.
“They’re going to actually be involved, and so I think that will, if nothing more, cause the legislature to sort of realize that this is an interest group that is beginning to roar a little bit.”
Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.
Copyright 2018 WDRB News. All rights reserved.
Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that eight of 40 current or former educators won legislative elections. Those numbers have been updated.