By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, Tuesday became the first woman ever elected to a Democratic state House leadership post, unseating Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, for Caucus Chair.
But two other challengers failed in their attempts to win seats on the Democratic House leadership team.
Johnny Bell of Glasgow lost to current Democratic Whip Tommy Thompson of Owensboro and Arnold Simpson of Covington lost to Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark of Louisville.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg and Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook had no opposition.
On the Republican side of the aisle, Jeff Hoover of Jamestown was re-elected Minority Leader with no opposition; Bob DeWeese of Louisville retained his post as Caucus Chair, turning back challenges from Brad Montell of Shelbyville and Steve Rudy of Paducah.
John “Bam” Carney of Campbellsville beat Adam Koenig of Erlanger for the post of Republican Whip. That post was vacant after Rep. Danny Ford of Mt. Vernon did not seek re-election to the House last fall.
Leadership posts are powerful positions, especially for the majority party. The five leaders determine who will chair important committees and their members, the flow of legislation and they can kill legislation they don’t like or punish lawmakers who have crossed them.
Votes are by secret ballot and vote tallies aren’t announced by the committee which counts them. But going most Democratic members said their sense was that all three races were likely to be close. Most thought Overly had the best chance of the challengers to win, however.
Overly, an attorney, was first elected to the House in 2008 and chaired the House Transportation Subcommittee of the Appropriations and Revenue Committee. She has been viewed as a rising star and has even been mentioned as a potential candidate for Congress.
“It’s a humbling experience to be the person to be the first woman to serve in House leadership,” Overly said as she stood with the other four leaders after the votes were announced.
“It’s an honor to serve as chair of the caucus and I’ve had an opportunity over the past five years to get to know members of the caucus and I felt like the time was right for me to make that move within our caucus,” Overly said.
Damron, considered a conservative Democrat even by Kentucky standards, was serving his second stint as Caucus Chair before losing to Overly. He was beaten once before by Rob Wilkey of Scottsville but regained the post after Wilkey left the legislature.
Stumbo said he does not believe Damron’s loss might prompt him to consider switching parties. (Damron previously told CNHI News that he would remain a Democrat regardless of the outcome of his race.)
“Bob has been a very honored member of this caucus, and knowing Bob as I do, I believe Bob will remain with our caucus,” Stumbo said.
Clark has been Speaker Pro Tem since 1993. His tough, straight-forward style and a reputation for a long memory has over the years left some bruises among some of his fellow Democrats. He’s been challenged in the past, but as he did this year, Clark always seems to collect enough votes to keep his powerful post.
Simpson was seeking to become the first African American member of the leadership team and said he wasn’t running out any personal grievance but “to give the caucus a choice.”
Clark said campaigned by telling members of “my experience working with six governors and three speakers and also standing up and fighting the fights for them when it’s necessary, my toughness and also my integrity, my truthfulness with them.”
While Stumbo downplayed any division in the caucus which is now at only 55 members, matching its recent historical low, Clark said leadership elections have a tendency to divide the caucus – at least temporarily.
“I’m glad the election is behind us,” Clark said. “It has a way of sort of dividing the caucus somewhat so now we have to get them back together.”
Simpson said he was happy with the race he ran and expected the race to be close.
“The caucus has spoken and I’ll abide by their wisdom,” he said. Laughing, he added: “What is the old saying? Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.”
Bell also knew going in his race to unseat Thompson as Whip was likely close. Arriving at the capitol Tuesday morning he said he could either win or lose by a couple of votes. Like Simpson, Bell insisted his challenge was not prompted by grievance but a desire to open up decision making in the caucus and give rank and file more of a voice.
Disappointment showed on Bell’s face as he left the closed caucus meeting shortly after the vote counts were announced, but he said he bore no one any ill will.
“That’s what (members) wanted and I’m good with that,” Bell said of the vote. “I’ve got no problems with that.”
Bell was asked if he feared retaliation.
“If they want to retaliate it won’t bother me,” Bell said, adding he didn’t think that would be the case. “Look, they won. They’re the leaders. I’m not. I’m okay with that.”
Bell said he was happy he was part of a challenge which produced the first woman in leadership.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.