Kentucky Math Teacher Upsets State House Majority Leader in Primary
Posted May 23, 2018 2:40 p.m. EDT
For the past six years, Travis Brenda voted like nearly everyone else in his part of rural central Kentucky. In 2012, 2014 and 2016, he helped send Jonathan Shell to the state House of Representatives, re-electing him again and again as he eventually rose to House majority leader.
He watched as Shell and other politicians failed to add meaningful dollars to public education, embraced charter schools and cut state services. Then over a few hours on March 29, Shell helped introduce and pass a surprise 291-page plan to significantly overhaul the state’s struggling pension system that the governor later signed into law.
Suddenly, years of bubbling anger among state employees and teachers in Kentucky erupted in protests and chants at the Capitol, fueling a sustained backlash that helped lift Brenda to an unlikely victory on Tuesday night. Brenda, a first-time candidate and a math teacher, knocked off Shell, who had both name recognition and fundraising prowess, by 123 votes in the Republican primary for House District 71.
“We trust those we elected to do the right thing,” Brenda, 43, who teaches at Rockcastle County High School in Mount Vernon, Kentucky, said in an interview on Wednesday morning. “What we are seeing is that they are not doing the right thing.”
In November, he will face Mary J. Renfro, a Democrat who serves on a local school board, in the general election in a part of Kentucky that President Donald Trump easily won in 2016.
His breakthrough victory was the latest example of political firsts this year, powered by an impatient electorate infuriated with politicians from Trump on down. In Kentucky, at least 39 current and former educators ran for seats in the Legislature, while the story elsewhere has been the rise of female candidates.
In Georgia, Stacey Abrams won the Democratic nomination for governor, becoming the first black woman to be a major party nominee for governor in the country. And in Texas, Lupe Valdez, a former Dallas County sheriff, won the Democratic nomination for governor, becoming the first Hispanic woman and first openly gay person to win a major party’s nomination for governor in the state.
For Brenda, his campaign started, unofficially at least, at a back-to-school prayer service last August. He had thought about running for office, but he worried about losing his privacy and the potential toll on his family.
But at the prayer service, he said he had a moment of clarity about his future.
“I felt like it was a word from God,” he said. “It really pointed the direction.”
He spoke to his wife, Judy, and their two children, Ashley and Benjamin, who all expressed support for his political ambitions. On January 17, he filed as a Republican in District 71, which includes parts of Madison County and all of Garrard and Rockcastle counties. He announced his candidacy on Facebook, and received little attention beyond his campaign page.
The odds were stacked against him. Leading up to Tuesday’s primary, Shell had a huge financial advantage. His campaign had raised $131,200, while Brenda had $16,100, according to state records.
At 30, Shell, a farmer, was among the youngest members of the Kentucky General Assembly and had strong support among his peers, who named him the House majority leader in 2017. Last year, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader in the U.S. Senate, called him “one of the most important Republicans in Kentucky.”
Then, as Brenda puts it, there was an awakening.
Kentucky teachers had watched as their peers in other states, upset about years of budget cuts, stormed out of classrooms and into the rotundas and grounds of state Capitols.
On March 29, Shell gave Kentucky teachers reason to pay attention. He helped write legislation to rework the state’s struggling pension system, which would affect educators and other public employees. It was introduced and approved in the state House on the same day — leaving no time for a public reading or to receive public input.
For current teachers, the pension bill placed a limit on the number of sick days that could be saved and used to increase retirement benefits. The most significant changes affect future teachers, whose pensions would be part of a new retirement plan and require them to work longer before receiving payments. Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, signed it into law on April 10.
Shell did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. In an interview two weeks ago, he played down the outrage over the pension law.
“We’re talking about a small fraction of people who are acting the way we are seeing,” Shell told The Associated Press. “The majority of people, whether it be teachers or the general public, people understand that we had a problem that we had to fix.”
It was clear Shell had miscalculated, Brenda said on Wednesday. About one-fifth of workers in District 71 are public employees, according to census figures, and Brenda said many of them are educators.
“It’s hard to find someone in Garrard, Rockcastle and western Madison counties that do not have some connection to a state employee,” he said. “That made the difference.”