Sen. Neal pitches experience and influence against former aide, retired judge in primary debate

04/06/2016 12:13 AM

LOUISVILLE — With two Democratic challengers nipping at his heels, state Senate Minority Caucus Chairman Gerald Neal appealed to more than 75 assembled in the basement of King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church on Tuesday that his experience in the General Assembly should earn him another term.

Neal fended off spirited remarks from former legislative and political aide Charles Booker, who bristled at the insinuation that Neal was responsible for his career in government and politics, and retired Jefferson District Judge Toni Stringer, who repeatedly referenced Neal’s 27 years in the legislature and said someone else deserves a chance to represent the 33rd Senate District that includes impoverished west Louisville.

“Now we can look around this district and see that the needs of the district have not been met in 27 years just by looking at the district and the shape that the district is in today,” Stringer said at a debate for Democrats competing for the seat hosted by the Louisville Metro Democratic Club.

“Things need to change, and I want be your catalyst for change.”

Stringer noted that Neal’s career in the General Assembly trails U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s time in Congress by four years, and Neal sounded like the Republican in his 2014 re-election campaign, arguing that the two “newcomers” would not have near the influence he has in the legislative process.

The Louisville Democrat noted his leadership role in his Senate caucus and his seat at the budget conference committee table as lawmakers try to draft a two-year spending plan.

“I didn’t get into that position overnight by just wanting to be,” Neal said in his closing remarks. “I worked diligently developing the relationships and developing the respect among my colleagues to make an effective relationship to get outcomes that I think my record reflects.

“So I ask you to consider that. It takes years to do that. It does not make sense to move backwards in order to move forward.”

The candidates tackled a number of statewide issues and generally agreed in their support of increasing the state’s minimum wage, enacting a statewide fairness law to protect residents from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and the need for tax reform.

They also answered some questions specific to Louisville’s West End, such as their top legislative priorities for the blighted area, whether they would support a bill regulating the locations of methane plants and biodigesters, and how lawmakers can address the high number of homicides in west Louisville.

Neal said he has tried to bring community leaders together on the “complex” latter subject, saying “there’s very little the General Assembly can do about increased murders unless you improve the conditions in the community itself.”

“I think the bottom line is it’s going to take a community pulling together and dealing with those items of economic development, of dealing with housing, dealing with church, the spiritual growth, and all those things are necessary to make a community and bring it back together,” he said.

But for Booker — whose cousin, 21-year-old T.J. Booker, was gunned down on Easter — saying legislators can do “very little” to curb violence is “an absolute shame.”

One of his first legislative priorities if elected, he said, would be a comprehensive approach to addressing gun violence in his cousin’s name.

“I’m the young man that shouldn’t be here,” Booker said. “I’ve had guns pulled on me. I shouldn’t be alive today. Stereotypes say I should be dead or in jail now. We need holistic leadership. This is something that doesn’t just deal with legislation in Frankfort.”

Stringer agreed with her opponents that economic opportunities would help cut violent crime, but from her persecutive as a former judge, the state’s spending reductions in the judicial branch have also played a role as the courts and their various programs suffer.

She noted that the General Assembly passed a judicial branch budget this year despite warnings of dire consequences, but Neal said he expects that matter will be resolved before lawmakers adjourn sine die. The budget conference committee had agreed to a roughly $37 million appropriation for the judicial branch as part of its negotiations for a two-year budget.

Neal drew Booker’s ire early in Tuesday’s debate after saying he helped his former protégé land a state government job.

“And I’m also glad that I’ve been in a position to mentor him strongly with respect to that, but the fact of the matter is I am the chairman of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, and that is not something you come by easily,” Neal said. “In fact, it takes years to get into a position to do something like that. I set the agenda in the caucus.”

Booker, an aide for Neal in the 2010 session, thanked the incumbent “for assuming that you built my career.”

“It’s not an assumption,” Neal shot back.

“I appreciate that, and I won’t attack back, that’s fine,” Booker said. “Here’s the point: It doesn’t take 28 years to get anything done.

“My cousin died at 21. He didn’t have 28 years. Here’s the real issue I see: There’s a problem in Frankfort. There’s a status quo that’s hurting our community, it’s breaking our families, it’s hurting our future.”

The winner of the May 17 primary will face either Shenita Rickman or John Yuen, both Louisville Republicans looking for their party’s nomination, in the Nov. 8 election.

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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