Choosing sides in House leadership races

While many Americans look toward Election Day on Nov. 4 as the airwaves fill with ads and candidates refine their stump speeches, another election coming next year has many in Kentucky politics just as interested.

Following a legislative session this spring that left many lawmakers frustrated, the leadership elections in the Kentucky House next January promise to be a more competitive and dramatic undertaking than in years past.

Rep. Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat, has already announced he will challenge House Speaker Jody Richards of Bowling Green for the chamber’s top post.

And Daviess County could have a seat at the leadership table with Rep. Tommy Thompson, a Philpot Democrat, running for House majority whip in a field that has the most contenders.

“It’s going to be an interesting time,” Stumbo said during a recent interview.

Stumbo, who served as House majority floor leader before being elected state attorney general, returned to the legislature this spring after winning a special election.

Though technically a freshman legislator, Stumbo was called upon by leadership on many occasions because of his experience, and he negotiated with Senate President David Williams on legislation regarding water and sewer projects.

After much speculation this spring and summer, Stumbo announced last month that he would challenge Richards, the longest-serving speaker of the House in state history.

Stumbo kicked off his campaign by sending a survey to House members asking six questions that cover the budgetary process, support staff for legislators, how the caucus’ money is divided and how the House conducts its business each day while in session.

Richards had sent word to lawmakers after Stumbo’s announcement that he would be concentrating on Democrats campaigns leading up to the Nov. 4 election and not House leadership races, and his chief of staff, David Kaplan, reiterated that last week.

“The speaker has promised our members that he would not run the speaker’s race in the media because it’s an internal caucus matter,” Kaplan said.

Richards has been talking with House members about his plans and to get input about next session, Kaplan said.

Richards has pledged to support Rep. Joni Jenkins of Louisville, who will be challenging Rep. Larry Clark of Louisville for the speaker pro tempore position.

Stumbo and others claim Richards has already formed a slate of candidates, but Kaplan said that’s not the case.

Stumbo said during a recent interview that he understood Richards was also backing current House Majority Caucus Chairman Charlie Hoffman of Georgetown and Rep. John Will Stacy of West Liberty for House majority whip. “His slate’s formed,” Stumbo said.

Kaplan said Richards hasn’t publicly expressed support for anyone but Jenkins. “Speaker Richards does want to make it clear that Rep. Stumbo’s statement that Speaker Richards has formed a slate is factually inaccurate,” Kaplan said.

Although no official sides have been drawn, some speculate Stumbo could support Thompson to provide a western Kentucky perspective to Stumbo-headed slate.

Thompson deflected any speculation about who he might be backing for speaker or who might back him for whip. “There’s a lot of rumors around, and there will be more going around,” Thompson said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Speaker Richards and Rep. Stumbo. … As I’ve said, I’m concentrating on my race.”

Thompson and Richards have had a close relationship in the past, with Thompson helping Richards campaign for governor last spring and Richards pushing for Thompson to be named chairman of the House Banking and Insurance Committee in 2007.

Stumbo also dismissed any speculation that he had picked who he would like to see as whip. Stumbo praised Thompson but stopped short of endorsing him.

“I think that Tommy Thompson would be an excellent choice for any type of leadership position,” Stumbo said. “He’s a proven quantity, and he’s just a guy that I admire a lot.”

As part of his campaign, Thompson said he will be pushing for better communication within and outside the Democratic caucus and helping ensure important legislation is taken up earlier in the session.

This spring, a number of pieces of legislation failed when the clock ran out on the 60-day session, and the legislature even kept working past the midnight deadline for adjournment on April 15.

“We don’t need to be discussing those important pieces of legislation in the 12th hour where we don’t have the information that we need to make sound decisions,” Thompson said.

But Thompson is also facing the most opponents of any leadership race. Along with Stacy, Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo of Lexington and Rep. Arnold Simpson of Covington have expressed interest in the position.

“As the race progresses, we don’t know what might happen,” Stumbo said.

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