Teachers show strength in Kentucky primary elections
LANCASTER, Ky. (AP) — A Kentucky teacher has schooled a leading politician, defeating him in the GOP primary for a state House seat.
Republican voters in central Kentucky ousted state House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell, a key figure in the legislative moves that prompted weeks of protests at the state Capitol, in favor of Travis Brenda, a high school math teacher who had never run for public office.
Brenda’s victory on Tuesday sent perhaps the loudest signal in Kentucky of a potentially raucous election year. As the GOP nominee, Brenda will face Democrat Mary Renfro in November.
Democrats chose another newcomer to politics, former fighter pilot Amy McGrath, to push for what is expected to be the state’s most hotly contested congressional race, against incumbent Republican Rep. Andy Barr.
And Rowan County Democrats denied David Ermold the chance to take on Kim Davis, the clerk who denied him a marriage license in 2015 because of her religious objections to same-sex marriage. Instead they chose Elwood Caudill Jr., who ran a low-key campaign.
The mandate was clearer in Shell’s race. Voters appeared to turn on him because he co-authored a bill that made changes to the state’s public pension systems covering hundreds of thousands of teachers and state workers.
“They picked on the wrong group,” said Brenda, a fourth-generation farmer and 20-year teaching veteran at Rockcastle County High School. “Not just the educators, but all state employees are rising up and we’re not going to be let things be done to us.”
Shell was one of four Republican incumbents facing primary challenges from teachers on Tuesday. He was the only one to lose. But he was also the only one to vote for the pension bill.
“He lied to us,” school bus driver Carol Plummer said. “I hope it sends a message.”
Shell co-authored a bill that moved all future teachers into a hybrid pension system. Lawmakers passed it on one of the last days of the legislative session, in such a rush that it was never made available for public review beforehand.
When Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signed it into law, so many teachers marched on the Capitol that schools had to close in more than 30 districts.
Shell did not answer a phone call from The Associated Press seeking comment after the race Tuesday.
Brenda credited a groundswell of teacher support for the win and said it sends a message that teachers and public workers won’t be silent. Kentucky’s protests were part of a national wave of demonstrations by teachers and others calling for increased pay and other benefits.
Others in the Republican-dominated legislature could face their own reckoning in November, when dozens of other teachers will be on the ballot. At least 40 current and former educators have filed to run for office this year in Kentucky. Sixteen of them had primaries on Tuesday. Of those, seven won or were leading late Tuesday evening.
Johnny Baker, a Baptist minister and small business owner, said Shell’s ouster means other lawmakers should take note that “you’re still accountable to the people.”
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