Once an Aspiring ‘War Correspondent,’ Morgan McGarvey Settles into Senate

Freshman State Sen. Morgan McGarvey is built like his predecessor, Tim Shaughnessy.

He’s slight, lean, with a legislator’s firm handshake and a clean-shaven face. His frame is a little more wiry, though. The more noticeable difference is when he stands to speak on the Senate floor.

For 24 years, Shaughnessy, a Louisville Democrat, took command of his desk in such a way that made it seem to disappear to on-lookers, his voice was a familiar rallying beacon for other Democrats in the chamber.

McGarvey sits at the same desk Shaughnessy once inhabited. But when the 32-year-old McGarvey stands and reaches for the mic, it’s like watching a colt rise to its legs for the first time. Uncertain at first, then wresting itself from the ground, innervated and ready to run.

A Would-Be Reporter

Young and—evident from his age and position—ambitious, McGarvey didn’t set out to become a politician.

“My goal was to be a war correspondent,” said McGarvey, surrounded in his office by a Louisville Slugger in a a corner and a bright red bat engraved with his name and the logo of the St. Louis Redbirds, an amateur baseball organization.

At 18, he applied and was accepted to the Missouri School of Journalism. As a junior he worked for Columbia, Mo.’s NBC affiliate, KOMU.

He was an on-air reporter who got caught up covering state politics, including a tense political race in Missouri between then U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft and sitting Missouri Gov. Mell Carnahan for a U.S. Senate seat.

The race took an unexpected turn when Carnahan and his two sons were killed in a plane crash on the campaign trail and Missouri law prevented replacing the candidate on the ballot. McGarvey was in front of the camera for the whole thing.

But McGarvey quickly found out that reporting wasn’t for him.

“The story I always remember is going out there one really hot summer day, and a 4-year-old girl had been killed by her 13-year-old cousin,” said McGarvey, “And trying to get the family to talk about it on air—it was just a really horrible and empty kind of feeling. But as local news was becoming television news, it was covering garage fires, and doing things that I just didn’t want to do for a living.”

So he quit.

Entering Politics

He took a job as Jack Conway’s press secretary in Conway’s 2002 congressional campaign against Anne Northup. He played chauffeur to Conway and  licked envelops and handled media releases.

“And then, like most people who decide they don’t want to be a journalist, I applied to law school,” McGarvey said.

It’s no surprise that journalists end up working for campaigns. Both fields are pressure-cookers that come with long hours, huge sums of data, deadlines, vast audiences  and high stakes. The adrenaline is addictive. Politics is no different.

McGarvey worked on Ben Chandler’s campaign to secure former Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s abdicated congressional seat. And his work didn’t stop with Chandler’s victory.

“I drove up with two other guys, literally in the middle of the night so we could open up the congressional office the next day in D.C.,” he said. “We drove straight through the night.”

After his work in Washington, he secured a University of Kentucky law degree and landed at a prestigious law firm: Frost Brown Todd.

McGarvey thought he could take a breather from the campaign trail.

“I thought I was kind of finished with politics,” he said.

Conway changed that, once again.  When the attorney general called on him, McGarvey headed back to Frankfort.

He became special assistant to the attorney general and began tackling policy issues, helping to create a cyber crimes division for Kentucky and going after identity thieves.

“Sharpening my legal skills in ways you don’t get to as a young lawyer in many firms,” McGarvey said.

McGarvey’s choice set the wheels in motion.

Becoming the Candidate

Senate turnover this year was near 20 percent. Seven new faces in a crowd of 38. There are 19 new faces in the General Assembly overall, seven of which are under 40, 15 are Republicans, and all but one are male. Six to the Senate, 13 to the House.

McGarvey’s not alone as a fresh face around the Rotunda. 

McGarvey’s help has come from the Jefferson County delegation of 8 state senators who meet every month.

And also from State Sen. Paul Hornback from Shelbyville.

“He’s a Republican,” said McGarvey, “But he’s just a good person whose willing to help.”

Hornback  said he has high hopes for McGarvey.

“I like Morgan, and I this he’s doing a great job,” Hornback said. “He’s really impressed me: he’s really knowledgeable. He’s going to make us a very good legislator.”

McGarvey has taken his new job in stride. He already put one bill through the system, although it wasn’t controversial.

And he’s yet to rise for the same fiery floor speech his predecessor was known for. But McGarvey has risen on occasion, to reflect on personal experiences. To carefully urge for or against a bill.

“You have to take your job seriously, but you can’t take yourself seriously,” he said. “You have to be prepared. You have to know the legislation. You have to know what’s coming out on the floor and you have to work.”

Because McGarvey is taking his job seriously, he’s well thought of by his fellow Democrats. Having worked for a few of them has helped.

In fact, many think McGarvey has quite a political future in front of him. He could run for Congress in Louisville’s Third District when the current representative, John Yarmuth, steps aside someday.

He’s worked a Congressional campaign before— and he does know how to get to D.C. in a night’s drive. But those are future plans, discussed more so by lobbyists and campaign operatives.

McGarvey said he’s just focused on his current job.

Except sometimes, he gets a little distracted. McGarvey takes a few slow, measured swings at an imaginary ball, using that red bat, from that amateur team, in his office.

McGarvey’s eyes focus and he stops being a new state senator, if only for a moment.

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