Rep. Siler hopes for better government, leadership in Kentucky

05/29/2010 07:53 PM

Lawmakers give Rep. Charlie Siler a standing ovation on May 29, 2010  for his legislative service.

FRANKFORT — During Rep. Charlie Siler’s 20 years in the General Assembly, he voted for Kentucky’s two most important education bills, advocated for veterans and union workers and went about his business in such a way that his colleagues describe him the same way — as a statesman.

“He is a true man of vision, a true man of character and integrity,” Rep. Harry Moberly, a Richmond Democrat, said in a floor speech Saturday honoring Siler. “He is a historic figure in the history of this General Assembly.”

Siler, a Corbin Republican, was one of two incumbents who lost their re-election bids in the May 18 primary. Rep. Ancel “Hard Rock” Smith, a Democrat from Leburn in Knott County who was in his fourth term, also was defeated.

But because of both his length of service and the issues he championed, Siler, 80, leaves Frankfort with a legacy few can match, which is even more impressive considering he spent his entire legislative career as a member of the minority party. He has been one of the few lawmakers who could make a statement with his vote because he often crossed party lines and sometimes went against the grain.

Earlier this week, Siler cast one of two “No” votes against the state budget bill during a committee meeting.  Often, he said while explaining the “symbolic” opposition, he’s had to vote for imperfect bills. But this was not only a budget that failed to bolster education and health care, it was one that was “no better than the one that was before us at the end of the regular session,” he said.

“We’d have been much better to have gone ahead and done our best then and not have to be back here this time,” he said.

He later voted twice in favor of the bill on the House floor.

Siler, in an extended interview with cn|2 Politics on Saturday, said he is saddened by the political friction that has increasingly gotten in the way of good government in recent years.

“I think highly of the leadership of both chambers,” he said. “But I think perhaps the philosophical gap may have widened over the years. I think what’s being reflected on a national level is rebounding into Kentucky.”

He has seen his friends in the House and Senate leadership teams increasingly lose sight of the big picture because they were blinded or distracted by winning political skirmishes.

“I don’t expect there to be total harmony,” he said. “But I think those differences ought to be identified as early as possible in these sessions so they can be ironed out instead of going after the midnight deadline” as the legislature did several years ago.

Getting back to leadership

Siler began his legislative career in 1985 as part of the same rookie class as David Williams, a fellow southern Kentucky Republican who would go on to be Kentucky’s first Republican president of the Senate.

“He was the youngest member, and I was the oldest member of the freshman class,” Siler said. “I have always found him to be a reasonable person in the sense that he’s got strong ideals but he will also listen to yours.”

While Siler didn’t say anything negative about the legislative leaders or governors with whom he served, he said he hopes those top officials can figure out a way to work better together to avoid the last-minute deals, the frantic votes on several hundred-page bills and the need for special sessions to finish crucial legislative business that have marred the past decade of Kentucky politics.

All of the leaders, including Williams, have played a part in those breakdowns.

“He went through some tough years when there were only eight (Republicans) in the Senate,” Siler said of Williams. “He’s been able to increase his caucus, and for that I applaud him. But at the same time, he may have lost sight of the mission to get this done on time under constitutional guidelines.”

Need for a referee

The governor also needs to play an active role in making sure key legislation — such as the state’s budget — gets passed, Siler said.

“That I think is the responsibility of a leader — to seek grounds on which you can work,” Siler said. “Some have been better than others”

Of the seven governors with whom Siler served, he said former Democratic Gov. Paul Patton was the best at working with lawmakers. Patton served from 1995 through 2003.

Siler recalled sitting by his pool one Saturday in the summer of 1997 when he got a call from Patton asking for advice and thoughts about revamping Kentucky’s public colleges and universities, including the controversial proposal of splitting off the community colleges from the University of Kentucky.

“My response was that I thought they should have a higher calling than to shepherd community colleges and produce a basketball team,” Siler said. “He said, ‘I tend to agree.’”

Rep. Charlie Siler, right, and Rep. Charlie Miller listen to Rep. Hubie Collins, left

Siler pledged to help round up votes for Patton’s plan, which wasn’t popular among many lawmakers and University of Kentucky backers. Even Greg Stumbo, who was the Democratic floor leader at the time and is now House speaker, opposed Patton’s measure. But it passed.

Future governors can learn from that, he said. To work effectively with the legislators, a governor needs to be positive, flexible and engaged in the process, Siler said.

Current Gov. Steve Beshear didn’t help matters by proposing in January a budget that was “not attainable,” Siler said. Beshear’s budget was partially built on revenue from expanded gambling — which didn’t pass the General Assembly.

‘A role model’

Siler has credibility on the issue of leadership.

He served 26 years in the U.S. Army, starting as a 17-year-old private in 1947. That year, he went to Japan to serve at the International Military Tribunal that tied up the disciplinary loose ends from World War II. Five years later, he served in a rifle company in the Korean War.

In 1965, Siler, then a major, served as the top press officer for the Army, which was dispatched to guard Martin Luther King Jr.‘s symbolic march through Montgomery, Ala., downtown. Siler had to placate the New York Times, which, along with the three TV networks, demanded a corner at each intersection on the march’s course.

Siler, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, brought his focus on veterans to the state legislature and helped establish a veterans affairs subcommittee focused on issues such as constructing nursing homes and funding veterans’ cemeteries.

“Veterans never had a better champion than the gentleman from Whitley,” said Rep. Tanya Pullin, a Democrat from Sandy Shore.

She called him “a role model” for sticking up for his principles while “working across the aisle” on many issues.

In the area of education, Siler voted for the Kentucky Education Reform Act and the accompanying tax increase in 1990 that cost him re-election later that year. But he won the seat back in 1994.

“The 1990 vote for KERA was my greatest vote,” Siler told his colleagues Saturday after they honored him with floor speeches and a plaque for his service.

His greatest disappointment, he said, was the failure of the legislature to pass his bill that would bolster and expand work programs for the disabled. That bill, which Siler has pushed the last four sessions, stalled in the Senate.

Siler said he will leave Frankfort clinging to hope for Kentucky’s future. And he said there might be a lesson for others in his election loss.

“I think legislators need to be more attuned to the desires of their constituency. We may be at a time when the people are ahead of the leaders in what’s wanted and expected of them,” Siler said. “People want to maintain a quality of life that the current economy will not support.”

- Ryan Alessi

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