In Depth: Kentucky Lawmakers Elect Leaders As Session Begins

One of the longest serving members of the Kentucky House has withstood a strong challenge to his leadership position, as races were settled on the first day of the 2011 session.

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Rep. Larry Clark has served in the Kentucky House since 1984. He’s been House Speaker Pro Tem, or the number two man in the House, since 1993. Over the years, the 65-year old union electrician from Louisville has built a reputation as a tough, but fair leader and a strong negotiator in the marathon, 11th hour, closed-door meetings from which state budgets emerge.

Despite all that experience, Clark faced a stiff challenge in this year’s House leadership races from former Speaker Jody Richards of Bowling Green. But when the dust settled, Clark was again victorious.

“This is starting my 19th year as Speaker Pro Tem, working for four different Speakers, four different administrations,” said Clark. “I’m very honored.”

And Clark says he didn’t have to make any promises to win House Democratic votes.

“I’m straightforward,” said Clark. “I tell them, ‘Look, I want to work with you, I want to represent you.’ Try to work them all I can. It got pretty hairy at the end, but I felt I was going to win all along.”

Owensboro Rep. Tommy Thompson is the new House Majority Whip. That’s the vote counter. He knocked off Rep. John Will Stacy of West Liberty. Thompson’s win brings more geographic balance to the majority leadership, which has been dominated by eastern Kentuckians.

“But again, we’re all elected from individual districts,” said Thompson. “And of course, that’s job one, our district. But the decisions we make, affect the entire state. And we need to be unified in those decisions to try to make this state have more opportunities.”

Former House Minority Leader Danny Ford is back in leadership. The Mt. Vernon Republican replaces Rep. David Floyd of Bardstown as Minority Whip.

“We want to move our caucus forward,” said Ford. “We want to continue to try to elect new members to our caucus. Our goals right now are to take care of the budget and make sure we don’t have the run and spend everything that we get our hands on, and hopefully tighten the reins a little bit.”

At the other end of the Capitol, former Gov. Julian Carroll of Frankfort was rebuffed in his bid to replace Ed Worley of Richmond as Senate Minority Leader. Worley did not seek re-election to the Senate. Sen. Carroll says, in the end, he made the motion to elect Sen. R.J. Palmer of Winchester (at right in photo with Sen. David Williams) as Democratic leader.    

“I became convinced that my relationship with David Williams creates such difficulty that it did not appear to be in the best interest of my caucus for me to represent my caucus,” said Carroll, “because we have not only committee assignments, and appropriations issues as well as redistricting issues – all of which are going to be considered in this upcoming session.”

Sen. Palmer, who served one term in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2001, says he just wanted a new challenge, and rallying the Democratic minority fulfills that need.

“It’s important that we stay together, understanding that President Williams and the Senate Republicans do have 23 votes,” said Palmer. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t participate in this process. If we stick together and talk about things that we want to talk about and that are important to us, I will try to cultivate that type of atmosphere in our caucus.”

Senate Republicans made no changes in their leadership. Currently, there are 15 Democrats, 22 Republicans and one Independent in the Senate, but Independent Bob Leeper of Paducah caucuses with the Republicans, led by Senate President David Williams.  

After the leadership elections, House Democrats sent a message to Williams, who’s seeking the Republican nomination for governor. All 58 House Democrats voted unanimously to endorse Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s bid for re-election.

By Tony McVeigh

Veteran broadcast journalist Tony McVeigh has been covering Kentucky politics since 1986, reporting for Clear Channel Communications before joining Kentucky Public Radio in 2004. His stories are aired by seven KPR affiliates, whose signals blanket the Commonwealth and parts of surrounding states. McVeigh began his broadcasting career at WRFC in Athens, Georgia, while earning a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Georgia. He has extensive anchor/reporter experience, including stints with South Carolina Network and Georgia Radio News Service in Atlanta. In 2007 and 2008, McVeigh was named Best Radio Reporter in the Kentucky Associated Press Awards. He also picked up consecutive AP Awards for Best Political Coverage. McVeigh won four Kentucky AP Awards in 2009, six in 2010 - including Best Political Coverage and Best Hard News Feature - and three in 2011. His coverage of the 2007 Kentucky governor's race topped the Political Reporting category of the Society of Professional Journalists Green Eyeshade Awards of 2008. In 2009, McVeigh placed second in Courts and Law Reporting in the Atlanta-based competition for journalists in 11 Southern states. McVeigh is also the proud recipient of an Individual Liberty Award from the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The Brunswick, Georgia, native is a die-hard UGA football fan who enjoys photography, astronomy, live music, hiking Kentucky's Red River Gorge and exploring the state's beautiful back roads. McVeigh and his big, fat, black cat Simon, reside in Frankfort, KY.