Reps. Gooch, Butler embracing new party in first week of session after defecting from Democrats

01/10/2016 03:06 PM

A week into their first legislative session after leaving the Kentucky Democratic Party, Republican Reps. Denny Butler and Jim Gooch admit they’re still getting acquainted with life in the minority caucus.

While their defections helped shrink the House’s Democratic majority to 50-46 and drew swift rebukes from House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who has said the KDP is exploring legal action against the two for defrauding the party, both say their former rank-and-file Democratic colleagues have treated them cordially thus far. They declined to comment on Stumbo’s remarks.

Both will face differing electorates back home, according to an analysis of 2014 and 2015 top-of-the-ticket election results. Gooch, of Providence, says most of the feedback from constituents in his 12th House District has been supportive, and Butler says he’s been explaining his decision to join the GOP ranks to voters in Louisville’s 38th House District.

His decision to leave the KDP revolved around his calls to audit the Kentucky Law Enforcement Foundation Program Fund, and a dispute with some in Democratic leadership. Leaders in his former party ignored his request to examine the fund that doles out incentive pay for police and firefighters, he said.

“I don’t think there’s a party that should take place over transparency over taxpayer dollars, and whether I’m a Republican or a Democrat, I’m going to hold that party accountable. It’s troubling to me when those taxpayer dollars that I saw lack transparency around it were meant for policemen and firemen,” Butler, whose father also served in the House, said in an interview with Pure Politics.

“I’ve communicated that with my constituents,” he continued. “Obviously there are some that are very disappointed, and I’ve explained to them, I’ve offered to meet with all of them, any of them, privately, in a group, and discuss my position of why I did it. Not that I want them to have to agree with me — I just want them to understand it.”

Butler said he met with Auditor Mike Harmon on the topic before he was sworn into office and plans to follow up.

He believes Harmon will make auditing KLEFPF “a priority.”

For Gooch, his decision to join the Republican Party of Kentucky came after realizing that he no longer identified with the national Democratic Party philosophically.

He says of those constituents who’ve contacted him since his departure from the KDP, “10 to 1 have been positive.”

“I know there are people out there who don’t like what I did, but they haven’t been the ones who’ve contacted me,” Gooch said in a separate interview with Pure Politics. “… I just wasn’t sure how people would react. You know, I was elected as a Democrat, but I think the difference was that when I gave them my reasoning, they understood that those reasons were valid.”

Both say their change in party affiliation does not change their core beliefs as elected officials.

It’s unclear how their switches will impact their work in the General Assembly. The House’s Committee on Committees is expected to announce committee assignments this week, but most of their interim committee assignments were stripped after they announced their moves following the Nov. 8 elections.

Also unclear is how they’ll fare politically in this year’s election cycle after joining the RPK.

Gooch has yet to draw an opponent, while Democrat McKenzie Cantrell, staff attorney for the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, has filed to run against Butler.

Butler’s district will be tough to defend for Republicans. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won more than 56 percent of the vote in a nearly 16-point win in 2014, but he lost the 38th House District, not counting absentee ballots, after earning 43.4 percent of the vote there. Gov. Matt Bevin, who won nearly 53 percent of the vote in his 9-point win last fall, but 40.2 percent of the electorate in Butler’s district, sans absentees, cast ballots for him.

Butler, who’s finishing up his second term in office, says he understands the consequences for “standing up for what’s right.”

“Overall I think the taxpayers know that the state is hurting financially, and when we can add transparency to taxpayer dollars, I think both parties should accept that,” he said.

Gooch faces a kinder electorate. Not counting absentees, McConnell won the western district with 68.1 percent of the vote and Bevin carried it with 61.3 percent of ballots cast in November.

Still, he expects a Democratic challenger to emerge this year.

“I’m sure that there’s no question they’ll try to find someone that will challenge me,” said Gooch, a member of the House since 1995. “Someone who doesn’t agree with my decision, and that’s fine. I understand that. I knew that when I did it I was probably going to have opposition either way.”

Those who change party affiliations have mixed electoral results. When Senate Majority Caucus Chair Dan Seum and former Sen. Bob Leeper, of Paducah, joined the RPK in 1999, they tipped control of the chamber to Republican hands.

The Fairdale Republican won his next campaign against firefighter Bruce Roberts by more than 15 percent of the vote.

He said he expects Gooch and Butler to win their re-election contests, calling them “quality guys. Very smart, very bright.”

His advice as they face the electorate on the GOP ticket?

“Stay on task, communicate with your constituency,” Seum said. “They appreciate that, and if you do your job and show up where you’re supposed to show up and be a class act, which I think most of us Republicans are, then you will get re-elected.”


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