Capitol intrigue: Senate presidency race adds new wrinkles

06/18/2010 08:32 AM

Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville

During this spring’s General Assembly session, Sen. Julie Denton stormed out of a Republican legislative strategy session so frustrated that she announced to several Democratic senator bystanders that she was going to take on Senate President David Williams.

“She was highly upset,” said Sen. Joey Pendleton, a Hopkinsville Democrat who was in the group that encountered her. “She said, ‘I’m going to challenge him.’ She said she was going to be talking to us.”

Thus began the whispered makings of a potential coup that may or may not materialize because a lot of variables remain unsolved:

  • Which party will control the Senate after the November election and by how many seats?
  • How many Republicans, if any, will openly support Denton?
  • What role will Democrats be willing to play ?
  • And will Williams run for governor next year?

What is clear is that Denton, who announced her intent to run for Senate president to the rest of the world this week, has succeeded in introducing another dimension to the already complex, entangled geometry of Frankfort politics.

The Senate presidency is one of the three most powerful positions in state politics. Unlike the position of governor, voters don’t directly have control over who wins the Senate presidency and the House speakership. Those posts are chosen by lawmakers in each chamber during leadership elections in January of each odd-numbered year.

And Williams has held the Senate’s top spot for 10 years while Republicans have maintained the majority. Williams had the support this year of 21 senators. Democrats hold 17 seats.

Williams, meanwhile, said he doesn’t see that Denton has any Republican support outside of her own vote.

Senate President David WIlliams her own vote.

“I think this will pass,” he said. “I ultimately believe she will support me for president of the Senate.”

But Denton’s announcement, first reported by CNHI’s Ronnie Ellis and the Courier-Journal’s Tom Loftus, has raised the speculation of a bi-partisan coalition to oust Williams.

“I have talked to Democrats and Republicans about this because one of my strong qualities is building consensus,” Denton told cn|2 Politics in a phone interview Thursday. “I’m talking to everybody to make sure I have support in all members of the Senate. I don’t want to isolate myself and only talk to Republican members.”

The Democrats badly want to take back control of the state Senate in this fall’s election. And, as a back-up plan, they might settle for dealing with someone other than Williams, Pendleton said.

“Well, I think that would be a great possibility, yes,” Pendleton said of the prospect of backing Denton. “At this point in time, the Democrats would like to see what she’s going to do.”

The election test

First things first, though.

Control of the chamber is at stake in this fall’s election, where 19 of the 38 seats are on the November ballot. Of those, four senators, including Williams, are running unopposed.

Of the other 15 races, as many as 12 could turn competitive — depending on how hard the candidates work this summer and fall.

That has some Republican senators unwilling publicly support either Williams or Denton yet.

“I have found from my historical take on the legislature, that you don’t get committed early until the fall elections are over because you may not have anything to vote on if the other party takes control or if the candidate you were going to vote on losses re-election in November,” said Sen. Tom Buford, a Nicholasville Republican who doesn’t have Democratic opposition in November.

It also will likely mean that both Williams and Denton be campaigning for Republican candidates to gain their loyalty for the leadership election in January.

One district to watch will be in Paducah, where the Senate’s lone independent, Sen. Bob Leeper, is seeking his sixth four-year term in a three-way race featuring former Democratic state Rep. Rex Smith.

Leeper and Denton have been close allies. But Williams chose Leeper as the powerful Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee chairman in 2009 and has pledged his public support for Leeper’s re-election over a Republican challenger.

Another key race will be in Central Kentucky’s 34th District covering Madison, Lincoln and Rockcastle counties.

Denton may have made a misstep there. She confirmed that she had supported Kent Kessler, a Richmond doctor, in the Republican primary for the open 34th District seat that’s being vacated by Democratic Senate Leader Ed Worley. But Kessler narrowly lost to Jared Carpenter in the May 18 primary.

Denton said she already talked with Carpenter, who is a “delightful guy.” But Williams said she shouldn’t “count on Mr. Carpenter if she’s looking for her second vote” for the presidency.

Denton also has her own re-election to manage first, although she represents a solidly-Republican district in east Louisville.

Her willingness to work with Democrats on legislation and to announce a challenge to Williams hasn’t earned her any election relief, she said.

“I wish. Nobody has said, oh you’re running for Senate president so we’re not going to do anything on behalf of your opponent,” Denton said.

Handing out plums

Among other key decisions, the Senate president has the power to recommend committee chairmanships and affect committee assignments.

Those could be powerful bargaining chips when trolling for votes, Buford said.

“You can offer some pretty heavy plums,” he said.

Buford claimed that he hadn’t spoken with Denton about her challenge to Williams and wouldn’t reveal who he might be inclined to support.

Denton said dangling those positions as prizes isn’t her style.

“I’m not the kind of person who wants to rule by intimidation or by making promises to try to buy votes,” she said. “When we’re talking about who’s going to be chairman of a committee, that is going to be something the caucus decides. I don’t see the current chairmen are problematic. I think we have good chairmen.”

Williams, who has a reputation of leading with a firm hand, said he refrained from punishing Denton, the chairman of the Senate’s health committee, when he found out in April she was talking about challenging him.

“Even when I knew she was having these conversations, I did not take any retribution against her and take away her committee chairmanship,” he said.

Difficult challenge

Retiring Sen. Gary Tapp, a Republican from Shelbyville, said Denton will have an uphill fight to siphon any GOP support away from Williams.

“I think Sen. Williams has done a good job as president of the Senate,” Tapp said. “He has provided some really strong leadership. He’d be pretty tough to beat.”

Knocking off an incumbent legislative leader – especially one at the top – is rare.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo achieved it in 2009 with a narrow victory over Jody Richards, who had the distinction of the longest-serving speaker.

In that case, Stumbo mounted a campaign about how Williams had gotten the better of House Democrats in budget negotiations and other legislation over the years.

“You have to have forces at your back,” said former Democratic Sen. David Karem of Louisville, who was among a group of senators known as the “Black Sheep Squadron” to knock off incumbent leaders in 1980 using a push for legislative independence from the governor’s office.

“The force that Julie would have to have would be whatever frustration is out there in sort of the absolute authority that David Williams seems to have,” Karem said.

Denton said she wouldn’t criticize Williams publicly. But she offered hints at what her message to her colleagues will be.

“I like to build consensus and be inclusive … I have a different philosophy on being president of the Senate than David does,” she said.

Denton wouldn’t comment on what upset her at the Republican caucus meeting this spring that prompted her to first talk about challenging Williams.

Williams said “she did get mad at a caucus meeting. It was a vote on something that had to do with Passport,” which is the Medicaid program in Jefferson County.

“She started yelling and screaming and stormed out in a meeting,” he said. “She does that at the end of virtually every session. That’s part of her personality. We accept the fact that she is one of our most volatile members.”

Williams for governor?

One other wrinkle in the saga is Williams’ plans for the future.

He is mentioned among the Republicans who might be interested in or be in the best position to run for governor in 2011 and challenge Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.

Williams won’t rule out running but won’t confirm his interest either. “I am a candidate for Senate president,” he said Thursday.

When pressed on whether he felt like he could run governor and serve as Senate president simultaneously, he responded: “That’s a hypothetical. But I do not believe the two things are mutually exclusive.”

- Ryan Alessi


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