Democratic Rep. John Tilley appointed Justice and Public Safety Cabinet secretary in Bevin administration

12/10/2015 11:25 AM

UPDATE WITH TILLEY INTERVIEW, STUMBO REACTION: Dealing a blow to House Democrats, Gov. Matt Bevin named Rep. John Tilley as the next Justice and Public Safety Cabinet secretary on Thursday.

Tilley had served as the House Judiciary Committee chairman, where he helped shepherd substantial bills addressing topics like penal reform, drug trafficking and addiction, and dating violence through the General Assembly.

The Courier-Journal first reported on Tilley’s appointment earlier Thursday.

Bevin praised Tilley’s qualifications for the post. Tilley was first elected to the House in 2006, and he had chaired the chamber’s judiciary committee since 2009.

“He is well qualified to lead the effort to keep our citizens safe and improve our criminal justice system,” Bevin said in a statement. “He will bring a high level of passion and innovation to this role. John will be a strong advocate for our state police, prosecutors, public defenders, corrections officers and all other Justice Cabinet employees.”

In an interview with Pure Politics, Tilley said politics never entered the conversation between he and Bevin as they discussed the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.

“Gov. Bevin and the team was quick to point out that they were interested in finding the best candidate for the job, Republican or Democrat, and it didn’t matter to them,” the Hopkinsville Democrat said.

Tilley said the appointment dovetails with his work as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, a post he’s held since 2011. It’s also the right move personally for his family, which Tilley said had grown somewhat weary of the amount of time he’d spent maintaining a law practice while raising money, politicking and speaking to national audiences.

“Anybody who’s followed the work we’ve done in judiciary and in a very bipartisan way in the legislature over the past seven to eight years can see my passion for criminal justice issues, public safety, drug policy, domestic violence and abuse, all those things fall squarely in the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, and I’m proud of the work that I’ve done with my co-chairs in the Senate, starting with Sen. (Tom) Jensen and now Sen. (Whitney) Westerfield,” Tilley said. “Couldn’t have had better gentlemen to work with.

“I’m proud of the work we’ve done in the House with the speaker. Despite the comments, I’ve been proud to carry some legislation for him, and he has stepped out to tackle some of the toughest problems” like prescription drug abuse.

When asked about issues he will try to advance as cabinet secretary, Tilley said he would like to see low-paid corrections staff earn higher wages and increase funding for state police and juvenile justice. Funds for those initiatives could come through reinvesting some cost savings realized through penal reforms.

The topic of switching parties never came up in talks with Bevin and his transition team, and Tilley said he would remain a registered Democrat.

The move potentially puts Republicans one seat closer to holding a majority in the House for the first time since 1921, with Democrats down to a 52-47 lead with Tilley’s departure. His 8th House District will be up for a special election, as will seats held by GOP Reps. Ryan Quarles and Mike Harmon, who won races for agriculture commissioner and auditor, respectively.

Those seats will be open once the two take office Jan. 4 or they step down before then. Bevin has the authority to set special election dates once those seats are vacated, but that power will tilt to House Speaker Greg Stumbo if no special elections are set for the 54th and 62nd House Districts by the time the General Assembly gavels in Jan. 5, under state law.

Republican Rep. Denny Butler, of Louisville, joined the GOP ranks on Nov. 19, citing inaction by House Democratic leaders on the fund for incentive pay for law enforcement. Internal politics — with Butler’s brother, at the time, seeking to replace retiring Rep. Larry Clark, who endorsed Democrat Alan Gentry in that race — may have also played a role in Butler’s decision.

House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover called Tilley “one of the most respected members I’ve had the pleasure to work with” in a statement Thursday.

“John’s work on penal reform and addressing Kentucky’s growing drug addiction problems have won him national praise, and has served as a model all across the country,” said Hoover, R-Jamestown.

“His bipartisan spirit in passing tough legislation has won him the respect and admiration on both sides of the aisle, I can’t think of a better choice for Secretary of the Justice Cabinet. I and the other members of the House Republican Caucus look forward to working with him as we approach the 2016 Regular Session.”

Speaking to reporters in Louisville, House Speaker Greg Stumbo decried Tilley’s decision to accept the appointment and the GOP’s use of the post to draw him away from the House.

“Trying to buy government to me that’s repulsive,” said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.

Stumbo said that Tilley had not called him to break the news of his defection from the House Democratic caucus, nor has Rep. Denny Butler, R-Louisville, who recently flipped to the GOP.

“When I was raised up, Mommy always said, ‘Usually when you’re afraid to talk to somebody and tell ‘em what you have done — you done wrong,’” he said.

Tilley took offense to Stumbo’s remarks insinuating that he took the job for its higher salary. As his name churned through the Frankfort rumor mill as a potential Bevin appointee in recent weeks, Tilley said Stumbo never called to broach the topic.

Tilley said he and the speaker exchanged text messages before the appointment went public Thursday, and he had a lengthy late-evening conversation with House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins.

Although he declined to discuss specifics, Tilley said House Democrats made him an offer to keep him from accepting the cabinet secretary post. Most of the feedback he’s received has been positive from Republicans and Democrats alike.

“Despite those comments, any suggestion that I’m for sale is absolutely untrue and offensive,” Tilley said.

“They asked me to reconsider and there was an attempt to offer me certain things that might get me to reconsider. Nothing unethical. … Let’s be clear, though: I didn’t request any conversation of the sort. I simply fielded the calls out of respect for colleagues I admire, and I’ll leave it at that.”

When asked what he thought would happen in the 8th House District, which includes parts of Christian and Trigg counties, Tilley said he would “leave that to those politicos who know best.”

Additional reporting by Pure Politics Managing Editor Nick Storm.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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