Tuesday, August 24, 1999

GOP exults after taking Senate rule

Leeper switch changes scene

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT MITCHELL — Leading Northern Kentucky Republicans were basking in euphoria Monday over their historic takeover of the state Senate, thrilled with control of the chamber but pledging to work with and not against Democrats in the 2000 legislative session.

        The GOP will have an agenda of “traditional Republican issues” and will more than likely move to oust Democratic Senate President Larry Saunders in favor of Republican floor leader David Williams.

        “For the first time in history, we control the state Senate and we're the majority party in one chamber of the Kentucky General Assembly,” said Sen. Dick Roeding, R-Lakeside Park.

        “That's an absolutely wonderful feeling, but we're going to do this right. We're going to govern right and do what's best for the people of Kentucky based on good policy, not politics.”

        Over the weekend, Sen. Bob Leeper, a Paducah Democrat, said he plans to switch parties and become a Republican. Just six weeks ago another Senate Democrat, Sen. Dan

        Seum of Louisville, switched parties.

        The defections give the Republicans a 20-18 majority in the Senate going into the General Assembly's 2000 legislative session that begins the first week of January.

        Democrats still control the Kentucky House, 65 to 35.

        The Democrats may have more party-switchers to deal with before the session begins. Mr. Williams said Monday that two or three more Democrats are considering changing to Republicans, but he wouldn't name them.

        Republicans say the people and voters of Kentucky are the real winners in the Senate takeover because the days of one-party rule are over in Frankfort.

        “It's not healthy to have a one-party system,” said State Republican Vice Chairman Damon Thayer of Grant County.

        “A lot of bills that should have been heard in the past were locked away in committee and never heard,” he said. “I think you're going to see a lot more floor debate when it comes to a bill, and a lot more openness in general.”

        Sen. Jack Westwood, R-Erlanger, said the majority will allow the GOP to push an agenda.

        “I think we'll see all of the traditional Republican issues,” he said, mentioning lower taxes, reducing the size of government, opposition to abortion and more traditional forms of classroom instruction than offered by the Democratic-backed Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA).

        Republicans said Monday they aren't interested in retaliating against years of sometimes hard-line Democratic rule or playing politics with legislation.

        “With leadership not only comes power, but the responsibility of leading the upper chamber in the Kentucky General Assembly,” Mr. Thayer said.

        “And we're interested in trying to do what's best for the citizens of Kentucky,” he said.

        House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, said the GOP takeover will definitely play a role in the power structure of the legislature, but its impact on legislation probably won't be that great.

        “I think it's less of an issue once we get into session because people vote, or at least they should, based on what their constituents want and need, not what the party wants,” he said.

        “But it depends on if someone wants to make it more political. That can always happen,” Mr. Callahan said.

        Republicans actually took a big step toward parity in the Senate nearly two years ago, when Mr. Saunders and a small group of dissident Democrats joined Republicans to boot former Democratic Senate President John “Eck” Rose of Winchester.

        The so-called “coup” had a distinct Northern Kentucky flavor, with former Boone County State Sen. Gex (Jay) Williams helping plot and orchestrate the ouster of the Democratic leadership.

        Though the Democrats still had a slim 20-18 majority after the coup, Republicans were given more say in the leadership of the Senate by the ruling bipartisan coalition. GOP members were even handed some of the committee chairmanships so many lawmakers covet.

        Republicans were hesitant to talk Monday about how the power will be delegated under the GOP, with none saying how committee chairmanships will be handled.

        But there seemed to be agreement that Mr. Saunders will be removed as Senate president in January.

        “We have the majority,” Mr. Thayer said. “David Williams should be the president.”

        Democrats said the Senate defections should be a wake-up call to the State Democratic Party.

        “This should light a fire under the Kentucky Democratic Party to get some Democrats elected to the Senate” in 2000, said Kristi Nelson, chairwoman of the Boone County Democratic Party.

        In the fall of 2000, the next round of statehouse elections, the Republicans have eight seats to defend and the Democrats have 10 seats up for re-election.


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