FRANKFORT, Ky. — Three years ago, Robin Cooper voted for Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. On Saturday, she vowed not to do it again.
The occupational therapist in Kentucky’s second largest school district has been one of the thousands of educators protesting at the state Capitol in recent weeks to oppose changes to their pension system and to ask lawmakers for more school funding.
They lost the pension fight, but Friday more than 30 school districts across the state closed so teachers could travel to the Capitol and ask Republican lawmakers to override Bevin’s veto of a two-year operating budget that included increased classroom spending. They did. Bevin responded by guaranteeing somewhere a child had been sexually assaulted, ingested poison or used illegal drugs because they were left home along by single parents who could not afford to find child care on short notice.
“This is not what I would have voted for had I known he was going to harass and try to ridicule and try to intimidate teachers,” Cooper said. “That makes me second guess his character and his vision for the Kentucky that I want.”
After electing a Republican governor in 2015 and giving the party full control of the state legislature for the first time in 2016, it seemed the GOP had solidified its grip on Kentucky for years to come. But the legislature’s rush to change the state’s troubled public pension system, coupled with Bevin’s burn-the-bridges approach to politics, have led to a wave of protests and prompted at least 40 current and former teachers to run for public office this year — most of them Democrats.
Kentucky is one of several states, including West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, to be roiled by teacher protests in recent weeks. The surge of activism is enough to cast doubts on whether Republicans can keep control of the state House of Representatives in the fall and whether Bevin, an ally of the Trump administration, could survive a re-election campaign in 2019.
Bevin has not said if he will seek a second term. Representatives in his office did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Republican Rep. Melinda Gibbons Prunty, one of 17 new GOP members who ousted Democratic incumbents in 2016, said Saturday she did not know if Bevin’s political future is in doubt. But she knows her own re-election is in trouble.
“I’m embarrassed by (Bevin’s comments). I can’t defend it,” she said. “I felt like we were finally getting some calm and he just kind of, you know, stirs the hornets’ nest.”
Saturday, the final day of the state legislative session, House Democrats filed a resolution to officially condemn Bevin’s comments about the sexual assault of children, saying they are “so beyond the pale that they are unworthy of repetition in this honorable chamber.”
It’s unclear if the House will act on the resolution. Acting House Speaker David Osborne declined to comment. And Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said he had not seen the video of Bevin’s comments and it would be inappropriate to comment on it. But he scoffed at the notion of Republican rule being in jeopardy.
“I think Republicans will control both chambers this time next year,” Stivers said. “I don’t see any type of political turmoil or problems.”
Republican Rep. Jim DuPlessis has seen it in his district. Six months ago, he said people would speak kindly to him in public. Now, some confront him with “a different mentality than they ever had before.”
“(Gov. Bevin’s) rhetoric made this a toxic situation,” DuPlessis said. “It’s hard for us to get our jobs done because it made people think we were out to get them to when we truly weren’t.”
Other Republican lawmakers facing contested re-election campaigns said they weren’t worried about the future of the party. The included Republican Rep. Adam Koenig from the northern Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati, where Bevin has some of his strongest support. He noted the pension changes they passed do not affect current or retired teachers, and once people realize that “I think a lot of this will go by the wayside.”
But Koenig noted he had many constituents call him and ask that he vote to override Bevin’s veto of the two-year operating budget that included increased classroom spending.
“They are all going to get calls from me saying you asked and I delivered,” he said.