Politics

In appointing Democratic Rep. John Tilley as secretary of the Justice and Public Protection Cabinet, Gov. Matt Bevin simultaneously gained a knowledgeable mind in his cabinet and delivered a surgical strike at Democrats.

Tilley was of one of the Democrats’ most influential policymakers in the state House.

The move on Thursday also reduces Democrats’ House majority for the upcoming legislative session to 52 of 97 seats. A total of three seats will soon be empty.

Republicans have made a goal of flipping the House, which is the last Democratic-controlled legislative chamber in the South.

The top Democrat in the Kentucky state legislature reacted angrily to the departure of Tilley and the party-switch by another House Democrat.

At least six House Democrats have told Speaker Greg Stumbo they’ve been approached by Republicans urging them to switch their party affiliation, he said.

“They want to know what we want, what’s our price?” Stumbo said, adding that promises of appointments, campaign contributions and jobs for family members have been put on the table.

“There will be takers, we’ve seen that,” he said. “That’s true all throughout our society. There are those who don’t have the character. We see them every day, I see them in the court of justice. We call them criminals.”

A Bevin spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.

Rumors of Democrats switching parties or being lured away by lucrative jobs have swirled around Frankfort since the Republican Bevin was elected last month. The only official defection so far is Louisville Rep. Denny Butler, who became a Republican in the wake of Bevin’s victory over Attorney General Jack Conway in the November election.

Butler said he’ll run again in 2016 — as a Republican.

With Republican control of the governor’s mansion and Senate, the Democratic majority in the House is all that stands in the way of Republicans having total control of the state Capitol.

Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, said Bevin’s appointment of Tilley sets a “terrible precedent” for his incoming administration.

“I think it gives people the impression that their government is for sale, it’s for sale to the highest bidder,” said Stumbo, who also questioned Tilley’s character explicitly: “I thought John Tilley had more character than that.”

On Thursday, Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, lashed back at Stumbo on Twitter.

“Can’t believe the Speaker’s comments about [Tilley]. Complete disregard for John’s hard work, integrity and respected reputation,” Westerfield wrote.

Westerfield worked closely with Tilley on legislation to confront the state’s heroin problem during the last legislative session.

Democrats will have to defend Tilley’s seat in a special election on a date to be set by the governor.

Tilley represents a district that includes most of Hopkinsville, as well as parts of rural Christian and Trigg counties. He ran unopposed in the 2014 Democratic primary and in the general election that year.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, Democrats make up a great majority of registered voters in Christian County: 27,069 to 16,209 Republicans. Democrats have a slight advantage in predominantly rural Trigg County: 6,425 to 4,160 Republicans.

Two seats vacated by Republicans who won statewide races will also have to be filled during special elections. Those districts are represented by state Auditor-elect Mike Harmon of Danville and Agriculture Commissioner-elect Ryan Quarles of Georgetown. Stumbo said electing Democrats in those two districts will be a “tough sell” because of strong Republican registration numbers.

On Thursday, Republicans stayed quiet on the political ramifications of Tilley’s appointment, but praised his knowledge and willingness to work with members of both parties. Republican Minority Leader Jeff Hoover said “Gov. Bevin could not have made a better choice.”

“His bipartisan spirit in passing tough legislation has won him respect and admiration on both sides of the aisle; I can’t think of a better choice for secretary of the Justice Cabinet,” Hoover said.

Tilley was instrumental in passage of a comprehensive bill to address the state’s heroin problem during the General Assembly earlier this year. The law includes stiffer penalties for heroin traffickers, a “good Samaritan” clause that gives legal immunity to people who report overdoses, and a provision that allows local governments to set up needle exchanges.

In past legislative sessions, Tilley also spearheaded sentencing reform legislation.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives.