From Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh
The torch has been passed in Frankfort. Kentucky House Democrats last night pulled a stunner, and sent their top leader packing.
House Speaker Jody Richards appeared relaxed and in a jovial mood as he opened the 2009 session of the Kentucky General Assembly.
Richards knew he was facing the first serious challenge to his leadership since becoming speaker in 1995, but he radiated confidence. The Bowling Green Democrat was sure he had the votes for another term.
“Because I have 44, probably. And mine are solid,” said Richards. “You gotta listen to what they say. And I’ve listened to what they say and I’m very comfortable.”
Challenging Richards was his old friend and ally, Rep. Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg. Fourteen years ago, when Stumbo was House majority leader, he backed Richards for speaker. Then-Speaker Joe Clarke confidently predicted he had the votes to beat Richards, but suffered a stunning defeat.
Now, it was Stumbo predicting he would do the same to Richards.
“I think he’s gonna probably get a surprise this afternoon,” said Stumbo. “Change is in the wind.”
When the Democrats finally caucused behind closed doors, a crush of reporters and lobbyists anxiously milled around outside. Rumors spread that Stumbo had struck a deal and was heading for victory. A later rumor discounted that claim.
But when the doors opened almost three hours later, former Attorney General Greg Stumbo was speaker of the Kentucky House.
“I consider it to be the pinnacle of my political success,” said Stumbo. “If I die tonight, I’ll die a happy man, politically.”
Stumbo was gracious in victory.
“I want to congratulate Speaker Richards for his wonderful tenure of public service. He’s been a great speaker. I supported him through the years. I hope we will still be friends. We said in the caucus that we started this day as Democrats and we’re gonna end this day as Democrats,” said Stumbo.
Standing beside Stumbo was House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark of Louisville. Clark split from Speaker Richards after the 2008 session, when the two argued over the handling of the casino gambling bill, which failed. Clark, now on Stumbo’s slate, was re-elected.
“I think he is better suited for the job – intellectually,” said Clark. “I think he has a knack for bringing members together.”
As Stumbo continued to field reporters’ questions outside one door, an ashen-faced Rep. Richards exited another.
“Well, I think we’ve left the state in better shape than I found it,” said Richards.
But Richards was gracious in defeat.
“I congratulate Greg Stumbo. It was a pretty close race. And I’ll do whatever I can to help him,” said Richards. “I’m not the super counter I thought I was, I guess.”
Richards, who was just re-elected to his House seat, says he intends to finish his two-year term. Of course, he’ll lose the perks and spacious office suite he enjoyed as speaker, but his sense of humor remains intact. He joked he’s likely headed for some lousy committee assignments.
In other leadership races, Rep. John Will Stacy is the new House majority whip, a seat left vacant by the retirement of Rep. Rob Wilkey. And Rep. Bob Damron regained the House majority caucus chair he lost two years ago.
The only change for House Republicans was in the whip’s race. Rep. David Floyd defeated former Whip Stan Lee. Senate Republicans kept the same leaders, but Democratic Senator Jerry Rhodes is the new minority whip. Senator Joey Pendleton, who formerly held the post, did not seek re-election.