It’s Jan. 26, 2012, and on the floor of the Kentucky Senate, Sen. Kathy Stein is upset.
Nothing new for Stein. She’s earned a reputation as a crusader for progressive causes, including women’s rights and LGBT equality.
But on this day, after four years in the Senate, Stein’s outspokenness has, in a way, come back to haunt her: A new district map devised by Republican Senate leadership has effectively moved Stein out of the 13th, a liberal stronghold comprised of downtown Lexington and the University of Kentucky.
On the floor, Stein turned to then-Senate President David Williams, holding a copy of the Kentucky Constitution in her hand.
“I open it up from time to time just to be inspired, and here it is, Section 2 of the Kentucky Constitution,” Stein said.
“It is headed ‘absolute and arbitrary power is denied.’ ‘Absolute and arbitrary’”—she’s interrupted by applause from the gallery, followed by a banging of Williams’ gavel—”‘absolute and arbitrary power.’”
“Please refrain, please refrain,” Williams said, banging the gavel again.
Less than a month later, the Kentucky Supreme Court would throw out the General Assembly’s redistricting plan in part because it disenfranchised voters, including those in Stein’s district.
Now, voters in the 13th Senate District get to choose a new senator.
A special election in the 13th district, which covers parts of Lexington, will be held Tuesday.
Since 2008, the seat has been held by Stein, an attorney by trade.
Arguably the state senate’s most outspoken liberal member, Stein was appointed to a Fayette County Family Court judgeship earlier this year. The resulting vacancy has spurred a three-way race for her seat between Democratic candidate Reggie Thomas, Republican Michael Johnson, and Independent Richard Moloney.
But the candidate whom voters choose to replace her will face a larger challenge once the election is over: To live up to a legacy.
‘One of the Loudest, Most Ardent Opponents’
Williams’ efforts to remove Stein reflected how she had become a thorn in his side, and in the sides of Senate Republicans, and, some would argue, in the sides of Democratic leaders, too.
“It was an opportunity to get rid of one the loudest, most ardent opponents of his on the senate floor, Josh Mers said.
Days before Stein chided Williams on the Senate floor, Mers, an executive member of the Kentucky Young Democrats, organized a rally in Lexington to support her.
Stein quickly earned his respect years earlier. Mers interned for then-House Speaker Jody Richards, and Stein served in the state House. Mers recalled that Stein wasn’t afraid to buck against her party when its values conflicted with her own.
“This lady’s got an idea here, you know,” Mers said. “She realizes that she’s outnumbered on this floor, but she’s not gonna let the weight of a predominantly white male body trump her voice.”
Both Independent candidate Moloney and Democratic nominee Thomas would be outspoken like Stein, Mers said. But Mers supports Thomas because, unlike Moloney, he won’t caucus with—and therefore capitulate to—Senate Republicans.
But not all progressives think that’s the case.
David Schankula, an editor with the Lexington-based political blog Barefoot & Progressive, said he sent out a questionnaire to the candidates on a variety of issues to gauge their relative Stein-ness.
It’s difficult to get a read on candidates in such a short election, he said, but he believes that neither Thomas nor Maloney are likely to carry on Stein’s legacy.
“Whoever wins, they’re going to be a good senator, they’re gonna have, for the most part, the right beliefs, and they’re gonna do mostly the right thing, and they’re gonna go with the flow,” he said.
“One of those beautiful things about Kathy Stein was that she didn’t just go with the flow, she redirected the flow. She was always looking for an opportunity to move the party, and the state and the people that she represented, and the people that she didn’t represent, to a better place.”
Some, however, would argue that point.
“Kathy Stein has done a good job in some respects, representing and being a voice for those who are marginalized in society,” Richard Nelson, executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group.
“She’s done a good job in some areas, but as I see it, she has been inconsistent by not being a voice for those who have no voice and those who have been really marginalized in Kentucky, and that’s the unborn.”
Nelson said he can’t think of a single right-to-life measure that Stein hasn’t voted against in her entire career.
It’s a consistency that attracts its fair share of ire, which Stein’s Senate colleague Perry Clark admires.
“She’ll be sorely missed,” said Clark, a Louisville Democrat. “What a great social conscience, what a great advocate, what a great, and you know, one of the few outspoken liberals. I’ve been beat up so often in my life, I scarcely say anything.”
Polls open at 6 a.m. across the 13th District.