Thursday, August 26, 1999

Will GOP's bite be as big as its bark?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Picture that pooch in the neighborhood, the one that loves to chase cars. Imagine the hound finally catching up to a bumper and latching on for a ride, a bemused “what do I do now?” look on his little doggie face.

        You now have a firm grasp of the situation facing the Kentucky Republican Party, which after years of chasing after the Democrats in Frankfort has finally captured control of a General Assembly chamber.

        Ready or not, the GOP has for the first time in history become the majority party in the Kentucky Senate.

        Let's all sit back now and prepare for the greatest display of governance, democracy, decorum, progress and foresight since the First Continental Congress. That's what the Republicans have been promising for years if they could just get those pesky Democrats out of the way.

        Well, be careful what you wish for, Republicans.

        You've won the Senate. You've caught the car.

        Now what?

        “Push a Republican agenda,” said GOP state Sen. Jack Westwood of Erlanger.

        “Lead the state Senate and try to do what is best for the citizens of the commonwealth,” said state GOP Vice Chairman Damon Thayer.

        “Stick to conservative values,” chimed in Sen. Dick Roeding, a Lakeside Park Republican.

        Should we be kind and say the GOP was just given keys to the darn place four days ago, give it time to settle in?

        Or should we be blunt and ask if the Republicans, who like all pols can talk a good game, are up to the challenge of leadership?

        What's great about politics, government and leadership is that time always tells. By early April we'll have a pretty good idea how the Republicans fared as a majority party in the General Assembly legislative session that begins in January.

        Thanks to a couple of disenchanted Democratic senators who have switched parties this summer — Bob Leeper of Paducah and Louisville's Dan Seum — the Republicans head into the millennium with a 20-18 Senate majority.

        Such a development was unheard of as recently as the dawn of the 1990s, when only nine Republicans held Senate seats.

        The Republicans can pat themselves on the back for making huge strides in what was once a rock-solid Democratic venue. But the Democrats can thank themselves for opening the door to GOP rule.

        Democrats always ran Frankfort with pretty much of an iron fist, but as the GOP slowly began to pick up seats and credibility, the Dems became increasingly arrogant, confrontational and bitter toward the Republican members who were once little more than political whipping boys.

        Instead of mustering their numbers and beating back Republican bills with votes and deal-making, the currency of Frankfort, some Democratic committee chairmen would simply refuse to call those bills, letting them die in committee without a vote.

        Note to Democrats: Voters can forgive bad legislation, but don't mess with democracy. Legislation is meant to be voted on, not swept into a closet because a spineless politician didn't have the guts to cast a vote.

        That misuse of power gave the GOP plenty of righteous fodder to accurately portray some Democrats as good ol' boys who did what's best for the party and themselves, not necessarily the voters and taxpayers.

        Plenty of Dems who used to strut and swagger around the Senate chamber, or lean back in their chairs and grin smugly as bills died without a vote, no longer have the prefix “Senator” attached to their names. They were sent packing by the voters.

        While the Democrats received and deserved plenty of criticism over the years for running a one-party machine in the state capitol, the Republicans have also spent, and wasted, lots of time carping, whining and moaning about how the Dems governed.

        Well, now we get to see how the Republicans will lead. Because if they play politics, use their majority to muscle and punish Democrats, hold up Democratic-backed bills and basically behave as some of the Dems have, then they will be held up as hypocrites and opportunists instead of statesmen and leaders.

        Before the Republicans start celebrating too much, it must be pointed out that the takeover happened without the blessing or involvement of the electorate.

        Sens. Leeper and Seum are party-switchers, both of whom had a falling out with Senate President Larry Saunders, a Louisville Democrat, giving the appearance that their decisions were personal as much as political or philosophical.

        Still, the voters could be the big winners in this sharing of power between the now GOP-controlled Senate and the House, where the Democrats still hold a 65-35 majority.

        Frankfort could use a balance of power. Now it has one.

        The loser may be Gov. Paul Patton, who can no longer count on loyal Democrats carrying his agenda in both chambers. He'll also go down as the Democratic governor who was in charge when the party lost control of the Senate for the first time.

        The General Assembly's 60-day sessions are long, often tedious, always contentious and never predictable.

        But this next one is going to be special. Never before have we had a situation like we will in January. Will it mean progress or gridlock?

        Patrick Crowley covers Kentucky politics for The Kentucky Enquirer. His column appears Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 578-5581, or (502) 875-7526 in Frankfort, or by e-mail at