Investigations Politics

Bullitt County Republicans on Thursday night will select their candidate to replace state Rep. Dan Johnson in a special election on Feb. 20.

The Republican nominee will compete against Democrat Linda Belcher, who served three terms before Johnson beat her in 2016. The Democratic Party announced Belcher’s nomination Thursday. The Bullitt County GOP planned to select its nominee for the seat Thursday evening in a secret vote at a private meeting.

The 49th District seat was left vacant after Johnson died by suicide this month. The winner of the special election will finish out Johnson’s term; the primary for the regularly scheduled election will be held in May.

“We hope the 49th District will go to the polls and vote for a candidate of whom we can all be proud,” said Rebekah Witherington, chair of the Bullitt County Democratic Party, in a press release.

Belcher won the seat after her husband, Larry Belcher, died in 2008 during his third term as the 49th District’s state representative.

Rebecca Johnson, Dan Johnson’s wife, said in media interviews after his death that she would seek to fill his seat.

Johnson’s suicide came two days after the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting published a five-part series examining the Republican lawmaker’s life.

The report refuted numerous claims Johnson had made about his biography, including that he served as chaplain to the White House under three presidents, that he earned a doctorate of divinity degree and that he set up a temporary morgue at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, and more.

The report also included allegations that Johnson sexually molested a teenage girl in 2013 in the basement of the Heart of Fire Church he pastored in Fern Creek. The Louisville Metro Police Department confirmed after the story’s publication that the criminal investigation into the case was reopened.

Johnson dismissed the report in a Dec. 12 press conference and said the accusations against him were untrue. He killed himself on Dec. 13.

Rebecca Johnson announced in an interview the next day that she’d seek to fill his seat.

“Dan is gone, but the story of his life is far from over,” she said in an interview with a television station. “His fight will go on.”

Secret Process

Candidates in the special election are dictated by Bullitt County’s local political parties and, in this case, were shrouded in secrecy. Officials from both parties select candidates in closed meetings and provide few details about who casts votes or who seeks the nomination.

Paul Ham, chair of the Bullitt County GOP, refused to say when and where officials would meet Thursday night to hear pitches from residents interested in becoming the nominee. He also refused to say what, if anything, party officials did to broadcast meeting details to the general public beforehand.

“Let us do our business,” Ham said. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

The winner of the special election will only serve a few months before the seat is again up for election in November.

But state legislators have a full agenda during that time, said Tres Watson, spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky.

The General Assembly is set to meet through the end of April and big-ticket items, like the state budget and potential legislation dealing with tax reform or pensions, could be held until the last minute.

“There will be some very important legislation happening past that February election date that whoever is sat is going to have a chance to vote on,” Watson said.

Local party leaders said their nomination processes follow the state party’s guidelines.

Ham, the Bullitt County GOP chair, said a committee of precinct-level officials and county officers will cast secret votes to select the Republican nominee. Other elected Republican officials who live in the county can also join the vote, according to Republican Party of Kentucky guidelines. If there are multiple candidates, the committee narrows the field until one person gets at least 50 percent of the committee’s votes, Ham said.

The committee only votes on residents nominated by committee members, said Watson.

“It’s not like Joe Schmo can show up not knowing anybody and get nominated. You’re going to have a member of that voting body know you,” Watson said.

Witherington, chair of the county’s Democratic Party, said Democrats can nominate themselves in hopes of getting the nod for the special election.

“It’s a democracy,” she said. “Anybody that would want to run can come in.”

Beyond that, she said the process for selecting a candidate is largely similar to that of the Republican party — a committee of local party leaders casts votes in a closed session.

Witherington said Belcher was selected unanimously, but she refused to say who was on the committee or who else sought the nomination.

“We had who we needed, and that’s who was there,” Witherington said.

All nominees must be registered with the Kentucky Secretary of State by Tuesday to be on the ballot for the special election.

Ham, the GOP chair, said write-in candidates must file by Feb. 9.

By Thursday evening, two candidates had filed to run for the 49th District seat: Jennifer Baird Faith, a Republican, who registered before the special election was announced, and Belcher.

Jacob Ryan can be reached at jryan@kycir.org and (502) 814.6559.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.