As Republicans in Congress prepare for a possible backlash this fall against President Donald Trump, their counterparts in the Kentucky legislature are grappling with a similar threat from the state’s teachers and public workers.
This spring, thousands marched on the state Capitol in a protest that shuttered more than 30 school districts across the state and pressured lawmakers to remove some of the most hated proposals from a pension bill that would have taken away cost-of-living raises. In May, a high school math teacher who had never run for office before defeated the state House majority leader in a Republican primary.
Now with at least 34 current and former educators on the ballot in November, teachers are preparing to launch their fall offensive this Saturday at the annual Fancy Farm picnic. It’s the traditional start of Kentucky’s general election campaigns, where candidates for both parties share the stage before hundreds of hecklers in matching T-shirts, all while being broadcast live on statewide television.
“We want them to see us. We want them to know our faces, and to know that we still are angry,” said Nema Brewer, who works for the Fayette County school system and is a co-founder of #120strong. The group, whose name refers to Kentucky’s 120 counties, says it could have up to 200 people at the picnic along with a red “moving truck” offering to help state lawmakers clean out their offices.
Fancy Farm is a chance for teachers to jumpstart their activism, especially for those in the far western corner of the state who could not often make the five-hour drive to protest at the Capitol earlier this year. They include people like Terrie White, a retired educator who has ordered T-shirts for the event, organized the logistics and recruited teachers to join them.
White said she was happy as a retired teacher who did not follow the news. But that changed when the legislature made changes to the retirement system, changes Republican leaders say were necessary to keep the system solvent.
“I’ve sat back and didn’t do anything,” she said. “I’ve vowed to not let that happen again.”
Republican leaders dismiss the protests as noise from a small, but loud, minority of voters. They point to the GOP’s impressive gains in voter registration, with Democrats now accounting for less than 50 percent of all registered voters.
“I just don’t see what having a bunch of screaming angry people, how that classifies as momentum,” state Senate Republican Leader Damon Thayer said.
While Fancy Farm could be the teachers’ biggest show of force since their protests at the Capitol in March and April, the group hasn’t been quiet since then. They have used social media to organize more protests at fundraisers for Republican candidates.
In June about 20 teachers demonstrated outside an Italian restaurant in Ashland that was hosting a fundraiser for Republican state Senate candidate Scott Sharp. And last week, Republican state Senate candidate Robby Mills had to move his fundraiser from a restaurant in Henderson after the owners were worried about how planned protests could hurt their business.
The protests have unnerved Republicans, who have condemned them for hurting local businesses. In a news release earlier this week, the Republican Party of Kentucky lumped the protests in with other reported acts of vandalism, including a broken window at the Fayette
County Republican Party headquarters and smashed mailbox at the home of Republican state Senate candidate Matt Castlen.
“This is a new phenomenon,” Republican Party of Kentucky spokesman Tres Watson said. “Something has come unglued on the left hand side of the aisle and they need to get their people in order.”
Brewer said her group did not vandalize property, and never would.
“They are trying to dismiss us as some radical group, which really isn’t true,” Brewer said. “If they won’t look us in the eye at the Capitol during business hours, we’ll come to them in fundraisers and ask them, ‘Hey, why did you do this?”
Candidates are approaching the protests carefully. Sharp, a retired military veteran, delivered pizza to the protesters at his fundraiser. Mills criticized the protests on social media, calling it “intimidation” and “bullying.” But he told the Associated Press in an interview the teacher opposition is not to be taken lightly.
“My political sense tells me that they could have a little bit of an effect,” he said. “I think in all races they could have an effect.”