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    Photos by Mickie Winters

    Since 1990, Rep. Jim Wayne has served Kentucky House District 35, which stretches from parts of the Highlands and Germantown down to Okolona. In November, the Democrat announced he will not seek re-election in 2018. Mary Chellis Austin sat down with Wayne for a wide-ranging discussion about what he's learned after nearly 30 years in office, why Democrats have been losing so many elections and what it's like working alongside Gov. Matt Bevin.

    Through a maze inside the 1950s Medical Arts Building on Eastern Parkway near Goss Avenue, Jim Wayne greets me wearing a suit and solid orange tie, his hair neatly combed and a grin crinkling the corners of his eyes. His minimalist, sterile office, with soft lighting and not a paper on the desk, is where he meets with his clients at the Wayne Corp., the practice he founded in 1985 that provides employee assistance to 80-plus corporations and unions. (If an employee or union member is having performance problems due to personal issues, the employer can refer them to places like the Wayne Corp. instead of a supervisor or HR person.) Although Wayne describes his therapy work as his “haven,” his part-time political career has shaped much of his 69 years.

    Born in Louisville and raised in southern Indiana in a family of pro-union Catholic Democrats, Wayne remembers making posters for the progressive Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson and being “glued” to the TV during Kennedy’s debates against Nixon. Wayne’s political activism became a prominent part of his life in college when he, in opposition to the Vietnam War, campaigned for Eugene McCarthy in the Democratic presidential primary and later worked for an Indiana congressman. After attending college outside Chicago and getting a master of social work degree from Smith College in Massachusetts, Wayne’s Louisville roots drew him back. In 1989 he decided to run against 21-year incumbent Rep. Carl Nett because, as Wayne puts it, Nett hadn’t had a challenger in a while and Wayne could see himself doing a good job. He has since been a phone call away from his roughly 45,000 constituents.

    One of Wayne’s colleagues once called him the “conscience of the General Assembly” — but don’t mention that to Wayne. One thing he is not good at is giving himself credit for fighting for poor and working-class people all his life. During his time in office he has helped set up the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which has helped build more than 10,000 homes in the state for low-income residents. He has pushed hard for progressive tax reform and has perhaps most meaningfully been a voice for his district, particularly when some neighborhoods were negatively affected by the airport expansion in the early ’90s. 

    So far, two candidates have filed to run for Wayne’s seat in this May’s Democratic primary: JCPS board member Lisa Willner and labor organizer Richard Becker, both of whom Wayne says are strong candidates, though he says he’s staying neutral. All 100 Kentucky House seats are up for grabs this November, two years after Republicans took control of the House for the first time since 1921. Wayne says many of the issues the state faces today — like the opioid epidemic, equal rights for LGBTQ people and the state’s underfunded pension system — weren’t even on the radar when he first entered office. “There are still some things that have never fully been addressed in Kentucky,” he says, “because we’re a backward, undereducated, unhealthy, poor state.”

    Why are we a backward, undereducated, unhealthy, poor state?

    “Well, I think in large part it’s because we lack really capable leaders in Frankfort and we continue to elect people who are part of the ‘good old boy’ syndrome. They have increasingly become corporate- and special-interest puppets, so the common good is just kind of discarded. We go after, ‘What’s gonna get me re-elected and sustain me in power?’”

    What factors went into your decision not to seek re-election?

    “There are several. My wife and I have talked about it for a while. We’ve been married for 31 years. The fact that I’ll be 70 at the end of this term and the fact that, even though I had a bout with cancer, I’m in good health and there are things that I know she wants to do together with me, travel and other activities. When I’m in the legislature, it takes a lot of time and a lot of energy and you’re kind of wedded to the schedule too. So we looked at everything in our lives and together we thought this was a good time to do this. It’ll be nearly three decades — and it wasn’t the political scene, by the way. It wasn’t because the Republicans are in charge — because I’ve always been a minority even though I’m a Democrat, so that didn’t affect me one way or the other. We just thought it was a good time. And we have some good young candidates now that are emerging. This district, I think, will pick a good one, so I’m not worried about that.”

    There are still technically more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state. How come more Democrats aren’t winning elections?

    “This used to be a more Democratic state. Historically, Kentucky was a very racist state, especially during Reconstruction and shortly thereafter. We basically treated the African-Americans so harshly that many of them left the state. We used to have a much larger percentage of our population that were African-American. What we were left with is a system of an agrarian culture that also had strong mining interests and timber interests, and it’s been a state that has traditionally exploited the laborers and the working-class people by the corporations. That goes back to Daniel Boone when he was a corporate hire to come over here and exploit the land and drive the Indians out. What happened after the Civil War, is a lot of the state became Democratic because that was aligned against the Republicans who were in favor of emancipation. I’m not sure some of the rural Democrats have shifted their values much. Rural Democrats often vote as if they were Republicans. We call them DINOs — Democrats in name only. The rural conservative values are very strong in this state, so the more advanced thinking about civil rights and about economic justice and racial justice, public health issues like gun safety, are really not part of the agenda for a lot of those rural Democrats and the Republicans.

    “What happened in the last 20, maybe 25 years is you have a shift in the media and how the media has been released, so to speak, from federal regulations. (The late) Milton Metz had a show on WHAS during the weeknights. Milton was always very balanced in his talk shows, because it was a rule of thumb that you had to have equal time for both sides, Democrats and Republicans (in accordance with the now-defunct Fairness Doctrine). And when those regulations were taken off, then you had just this overwhelming number of people on the right wing that took over the (radio) media, Rush Limbaugh being the main one. So when you have a poor, ignorant, backwards state like Kentucky, where people cannot do critical thinking very well, they are not well-read, they don’t have policy discussions beyond what’s good for me and protecting my guns, then you end up with a large population that gets swayed pretty easily by right-wing propaganda. With that, the Democrats just were inept at trying to counter some of that. And you’ve seen what’s happened since then: The corporate money just flowed in to take over the government.”

    As recently as 2010 the Kentucky House was about 65 percent Democrats and 35 percent Republicans, and that has since flipped.

    “It’s remarkable how quickly it’s flipped, yes. But you also have to credit people like Mitch McConnell. He is a master politician. He really is. He’s very strategic and he plays the long game very well, and I have to credit him for that. He’s a worthy opponent that way. But he has also helped organize the state Republican Party in large degree and has set up a system here that works in winning elections.”

    How has he changed over the last 30 or so years?

    “He was a pretty progressive, enlightened county judge here, when we had the (pre-merger) county judge system of government, and he did some really good things. One of them is the Jefferson Memorial Forest (that he worked to expand and protect). That was something that I think he was visionary about and environmentally wanted to be protective of that for a growing population. I think he won a lot of Democrats over when he ran because he was running against kind of an old-school Democratic machine. He was victorious and then he went on to run for the Senate against (Walter) Dee Huddleston. That really was the turning point because he barely won that race, but Dee Huddleston was a U.S. senator from Elizabethtown — he’s still living — and Mitch McConnell came in and had a wonderful commercial of bloodhound dogs chasing Dee Huddleston up a tree because they couldn’t find him to find out why he took positions on some things. That was a remarkable TV ad. It’s on YouTube I’m sure somewhere. 

    “Mitch, I think he intended to be a John Sherman Cooper Republican. John Sherman Cooper was a contemporary of (John) Kennedy in the Senate. He was from Somerset and was a remarkable statesman. He was so balanced and the man had such integrity and I think that’s been someone that Mitch has looked to as a mentor, but Mitch changed. Mitch is a political survivor. His dream is to be where he is right now (as the U.S. Senate majority leader) and he was able to work the system in such a way that he could get where he wanted. The means don’t seem to be important as compared to the end, so his policy changed. He became more aloof. He became just a puppet of the corporations and the elite. And the people of Kentucky continue to elect him because he has so much money flowing into his elections. (Kentucky Secretary of State) Alison (Lundergan Grimes) ran a pretty good race (in 2014), but he had so much money flowing into the election that his message was just louder and stronger and she was defeated handily.”

    You helped introduce some legislation in the early ’90s on capping funding on state campaigns.

    “We had set up a publicly financed gubernatorial race, so that the candidates were allowed to raise — I think it was a quarter of a million dollars at the time by traditional fundraising. After that, they would receive matching state money, and that would cap the amount of money they would spend on their election, which was wonderful because then you knew we were controlling the money going into these elections and the corporations and the special interests weren’t going to basically buy a governor. Gov. Paul Patton was the first to go through that, and he did a good job. We had, I think, two clean elections that way. Subsequently what happened was, the Republicans dismantled that when they took control of the Senate. They called it ‘welfare for politicians.’ That was their catchphrase, which was a great phrase, and then the Democrats in the House went along with it, much to my chagrin and my counter vote. I introduced the same concept for legislators because what was happening, as I saw it, was that the legislative race was becoming more and more expensive and then the legislators were basically going to become puppets of special interests. You have to dance with the ones that brung ya.

    “It is a time in our nation’s history, our state’s history, when we should be very concerned about the power of the wealthy and the power of corporations essentially dictating public policy for everyone else. It’s a frightening time for democracy in America.”

    State voter turnout in 1990 was 52 percent. In 1992 in the state general election, a presidential year, it was 73 percent. In 2015, the year Gov. Bevin was elected, it was 30 percent and in 2016, another presidential year, it was 59. Why the plummet, and what can be done to change that?

    “Two things: One is that people are seeing that their government is filled with people that have a lot of flaws. I think the other thing is all the negative campaigning. In fact, the studies show this: All the negative campaigning that is actually put out by both sides drives down turnout because people just get disgusted and say, ‘To heck with it. I’m not gonna participate.’ Even our last presidential election was so heavy on both sides with negative. Our last gubernatorial election was horrible in terms of negative — the Democrat was probably worse than the Republican there. (Democratic candidate Jack) Conway ran an almost entirely negative campaign, and I really scratched my head and said, ‘What did Jack Conway stand for?’ Of course, they’re listening to consultants and the consultant says that’s the way you’re gonna win, but I don’t think that’s good for Kentucky. I don’t think it’s good for the people or really for democracy. When you base a campaign on fear and you base a campaign on tearing down your opponent, that disgusts people. If you come across with positive solutions — you’re describing the crisis we’re in or the problems we have and you say: This is how we’re gonna address this and this is how my solutions will help you personally in your area with better schools, better roads, an internet service — whatever it is. It’s important that people try to run positive campaigns.”

    How can Democratic candidates navigate those issues like coal, like common-sense gun legislation, like pro-choice? What stance should they take on those things to be able to win in a state like Kentucky?

    “Well, some would argue, and I tend to agree with them, that if Democrats would actually stand with working families, they could get elected, and by that I mean to point out that coal is on its way out. It’s a dying industry in Kentucky, as it is internationally, so rather than saying we’re gonna fix coal and reverse that, it’s much better for us to go in the coal regions and build the infrastructure that is necessary for those regions to thrive economically. And by infrastructure I mean in terms of basic internet services, transportation services, public health and education. Those would be the main things that need to be built up in those areas. By doing that, you lay the foundation for entrepreneurs. You lay the foundation for industry from outside the area to consider it as a place to locate and you create jobs by investing in those areas rather than constantly trying to defend coal, which is very shortsighted.”

    Is there any way for a candidate to win if they’re saying that the state needs to move beyond coal?

    “It’s important to say: For the coal that is here, we have to tend to that, because there’s gonna be some need for coal even though it’s reduced considerably. That’s a reality that those areas have to accept and any candidate in the Democratic Party has to accept. But I think a very enlightened approach is to say, you know, we also have to broaden our economic base here, we have to have a variety of different kinds of jobs here so we can sustain ourselves over time. That argument is not being made — at least I’ve not heard it made — by any Republican in those areas, and if Democrats offer an alternative vision of where those regions can go, they can get elected.

    “I base that on my own experience in a working-class, conservative area of my district where I go in and talk to those people about the current tax structure we have and how inadequate and unjust and outdated it is and they get it. Then they start realizing, hey, we’ve been duped. And we need to rally here for our own interests. So I think if Democrats can come into those areas and say, look, we need affordable healthcare for everybody. We need economic diversity. We need really, really good schools. We need good roads, internet service. That’s an agenda I think would resonate with those people.”

    What are some economic solutions that you think could work to replace and phase out coal?

    “I think what’s being done with SOAR (Saving Our Appalachian Region, an economic-development agency that addresses areas such as health, industry, agriculture and tourism) — I think that is really visionary. That was designed in a bipartisan fashion. Unfortunately, I think it’s being underfunded and we need to throw a lot more state and federal resources into SOAR, but that’s exactly what I’m talking about. That’s the kind of vision and agenda that is necessary. Now we have to find ways to fund the agenda.”

    What should the state be doing about the opioid crisis?

    “Part of this is the pharmaceutical industry and the whole pill industry and how that’s tied into the medical profession. That’s all being re-thought on the national level and it’s being re-thought at the state level. Number one, we need to recognize this is a disease and we need to treat it as a public health crisis. That means having care for these people, in terms of being financed and also professional care facilities and professional staff to address the disease. We know that in this state we underfund our community mental-health centers. We haven’t given them operational increases since 1999 and they are just in a state of fiscal crisis — and they’re the front line for these types of battles, so it’s hard for them to do their job if the state is saying we’re not gonna invest in you or actually give you any operational increases. That’s, what, 18 years? Can you imagine any company going 18 years without any operational increases even for inflation?”

    Do you see anyone cropping up that could run against Gov. Bevin in 2019?

    “Not yet, but I think it’s in the making. You could look no further than Jason Bailey. He’s (executive director) with the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy in Berea. I’ve worked with him for over 20 years, even though he still looks like he’s just made his First Communion, but he is now statewide recognized as the expert on many of the policies we deal with in Frankfort. He’s very progressive. The argument they use, which I think is really good, is that we’re investing in our people in Kentucky and when you invest in the people of Kentucky, we all thrive. That means better schools, better social services, better prisons, better environmental protections and so on and so forth, and it’s an argument that really has to do with the bread-and-butter, kitchen-table issues that all families wrestle with. Jason has a way of articulating it and getting that message out. I’ve learned a lot from him. 

    “Now, he’s not gonna run for office, but he’s inspiring people to run for office. In my district, the two candidates who have filed so far are both very progressive. I think you’ll see more and more of that. We now have someone in charge of the Kentucky Democratic Party (West Sixth Brewing co-founder Ben Self, who is the party’s chair) who is a Bernie person. You’re seeing that wing strengthen because the old guard — (former Gov. Steve) Beshear, (former House Speaker Greg) Stumbo, traditional people — they basically have run their course and there’s no air left, no oxygen left in that group. Now, you see (Kentucky attorney general) Andy Beshear is taking a different tack (as an oppositional voice to Gov. Bevin). We’ll see how he does. And in some ways, I don’t think Alison should be cast aside either. I think she has potential. She’s still growing. Remember, she was only like 35 when she ran against Mitch. I mean, that was really amazing for her to do that. So she has some growing to do. You look at someone like Steve Beshear, who ran for Senate and governor several times before he finally in his — what, early 60s? — ran and won. He was on hiatus for like 20 years before he came back and ran. There are people out there and I think they’ll be coming out.”

    What sparked your interest in politics?

    “My family, we talked politics at the dinner table. My parents were strong Democrats and the first presidential election I remember was 1956 when Adlai Stevenson tried to run again against (President Dwight D.) Eisenhower. I remember making posters for Adlai Stevenson, drawing posters and putting them around the house. Then in 1960, Kennedy was running and we were Catholic Democrats. We grew up with the stories of (Depression-era presidential candidate) Al Smith — my mother was born in 1920, so she was about eight years old when Al Smith ran for the first time. He was the first Catholic to run for president and he got defeated pretty strongly because of the anti-Catholic bias in large part. So we were really cheering on Jack Kennedy. I really got glued to the television and watched the debates (against Nixon). We hadn’t had debates on television before that. And I wore a big Kennedy button to school. It was just part of how we grew up.

    “I’m a Roman Catholic, and we have a long, strong tradition dating back to 1891 when the pope during the Industrial Revolution said, ‘We stand for the workers. We stand for solid unions. We support the organizing of workers and collective bargaining.’ That’s something I was instilled with from an early age. My dad was a union man. He worked at Seagram’s Distillery, which has since closed but it was over on Seventh Street Road in a beautiful big brick building just south of Algonquin Parkway. He ran the powerhouse there, he was a member of the fireman and boilers union and he was a union steward. Unions — that’s what put bread on our table. That’s what’s given my mother a pension to this day.”

    You went to school outside Chicago and then to Smith in Massachusetts and had been involved in national politics. How come you came back to Louisville after grad school?

    “Well, the family was back here. All of my roots were back here. The Waynes have been in Kentucky since 1809, and so we have a long, rich tradition of being Kentuckians. My mother’s a Hoosier and we were actually raised most of my childhood in southern Indiana, but we were all born here in the St. Joseph neighborhood. At the corner of Preston Street and Eastern Parkway there was a hospital there called St. Joseph Infirmary, which was eventually bought and moved to become Audubon hospital. My wife and I were born in the same hospital room there about eight weeks apart. That’s where I proposed to her, by the way, on a park bench in a park setting over there. We didn’t meet until we were 35.”

    Your first race was against 21-year incumbent Carl Nett. What was he doing or not doing that you thought you could do better?

    “I didn’t know. I just knew that he’d never had an opponent since I’d lived in this district because I’d go to the ballot and I’d say, ‘He doesn’t have an opponent. What is this?’ I just thought I could do a good job at this and I’ll run and see if I win. ’Cause I knew how to run races. When I started talking to people, I found out, ooh, this guy has some barnacles that have grown through the years. The teachers were angry at him because I think he called — this was rumored — he was chairman of the budget subcommittee on education, which handled all the money for public schools, and he called the (Jefferson County Teachers Association) a communist organization or something, so that really riled all them. As I campaigned I realized he had a number of enemies and he hadn’t had a race for a while, so those two things were to my advantage.”

    What was your strategy?

    “At that time, no one knew who I was besides a small circle of professional or family social circles and the church. I knew that the only way you (gain support) is to target precincts. You have to start early and go door to door and win votes. What I did was print a little handout. I had researched and got the list of what the priority precincts were, where the Democrats were, and I started walking in January of 1989. People thought I was nuts. I said, ‘I’m running for the primary in 1990,’ and they said, ‘This is January of 1989. What are you doing out here?’ It was cold and snowy, but I knew that’s how you did it. Every time I would go to a door I would tell them, ‘I’m Jim Wayne, but I am no relation to John Wayne.’ That corny thing stuck with people and still to this day I’ll see people and they’ll say, ‘Hi, Jim Wayne — you’re not John Wayne.’ When I went home at night I took my list and I wrote personal postcards to every one of them. I said, ‘Thank you for meeting me. I hope to get your support in the May primary of 1990.’ I did that from January of ’89 all the way to the primary night. Some precincts I went back to twice because the district’s pretty big and you can’t hit them all without really planning ahead. I didn’t have a team of people; I just went out and did it. I only won by three votes per precinct; I only won by 91 votes against my incumbent. He didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. The other thing is that I have a very good campaign manager, and he said that one of the ways to always be visible to your constituents, at least those who could threaten you in a primary, would be to keep your name on the refrigerator at all times. So for the last 28 years, I’ve sent out magnet calendars, so people always have my phone number and picture.

    “You can still have a state representative race at a personal level because you have 44,000 or 45,000 people in your district, but the number of people that are active in the Democratic primary are probably about 3,500. So you target all that, you boil it all down and strategically address it. You still have to do that, but I think much more these days Facebook, Twitter, these mail pieces — pounding away with mail pieces — those are all changed, so that takes a lot more money, at least the mail pieces do. Yard signs are very important, they’ve always been important. Some things are basic and have not changed in 28 years. The social media thing and the money that goes into mass mailings has changed.”

    What kinds of requests do you get from constituents?

    “You’re always a state legislator, even when you’re not in session, so people are calling me. They’re emailing me with requests. I’m working with a lady right now who is on a fixed income about two blocks away on Eastern Parkway and she is so concerned about her driveway. You say, ‘Well, it’s not a real important issue for a state representative.’ Well, it is because her driveway is on Eastern Parkway. She and her husband, they’re in their 70s. They have to get in and out off Eastern Parkway and because it has been paved so many times through the years, and because the gutter is so worn out and has been clogged up and been cracked and so forth, they don’t know what they’re gonna do to get out of their driveway, so it’s very frustrating for her. I have to see what I can do to get the state to put in a new driveway apron or to get the city to do it or to get the parks department to do it because it’s a parkway. What I’m realizing is, she has one problem but it’s symptomatic of a bigger problem and that is: Eastern Parkway needs to be fixed. The gutters all need to be fixed. The drainage is not done properly. It’s dangerous for people getting in and out of their driveways. That’s one little thing, but it’s also a big systemic thing.”

    What are you most proud of achieving in all these years?

    “That’s an odd question because anything I’ve accomplished has always been done with a team and supporters and passionate people about issues. Early on, the big issue was the airport relocation — this included the airport and the neighborhoods that were all taken by the airport (expansion). That was one of the dark times. That was kind of like our Trail of Tears in Louisville because of the way it was handled. There was such a focus on appeasing UPS and getting those new runways open. That was all conceived behind closed doors in 1988 by the power elite in Louisville. They basically just sprung it. I will give my predecessor credit because he fought them on it. Even the Courier Journal was making sure it was editorialized favorably when it happened and they knew ahead of time it was gonna happen without having their reporters objectively critique it.

    “There were a number of neighborhoods (the airport and city) did not include in their relocation efforts, and these neighborhoods were going to be dramatically affected by the planes going over and the new runways. I mean, these were big planes going over these quiet neighborhoods. They couldn’t move because no one’s gonna buy their house knowing how devalued it’s been. So what I did — and this is my Smith social-work experience; they taught us how to do community organizing as well as therapy — I said, ‘We’ll organize.’ We got them incorporated. We got a pro bono attorney from a big law firm downtown and we went to battle with the airport and the Fairgrounds to get these neighborhoods bought out. The airport would not let the neighborhood representatives in their meetings — they had closed meetings. We said, ‘We’ll fix that. We’ll pass legislation to have the governor appoint someone from the neighborhood alliance to the airport. That way we have total access to all the information.’ We got that legislation passed. Minor Lane Heights, a small city south of the airport, they weren’t gonna buy them out but the residents wanted to move as a city because they had all the infrastructure for services, so I said, ‘OK, we’ll pass legislation to move you as a city.’ (At first,) Frankfort didn’t allocate any money for relocation, the airport didn’t have any money, they weren’t getting money from congress to buy these people out. Meanwhile, the new runways were opening up. It was a mess and it was a confrontation. We had a huge rally out at Minor Lane Elementary School one night and it was wall-to-wall people just furious at local government because of how they were treated, how they treated these working-class people. We had some remarkable community leaders come out of the woodwork. People that are just Judge Judy watchers every night, but they came out of their living rooms and they went to neighborhood meetings and community meetings and they got up at the podium and they went to press conferences and they went to Frankfort and testified. I mean, it was remarkable to see these people rise up to protect their own lives and their neighborhoods.”

    What’s something you always hoped to pass or achieve but just never happened?

    “Well it’s not over yet. I still have another year. This state, we’re in a real crisis right now. A real crisis, and I don’t think people understand how bad it is fiscally. This was all predicted 15, 20 years ago. We saw the projections ahead on where the revenue was gonna come from and how the economy was gonna change and what the revenue needs were gonna be, but to date we have not done proper tax reform in the state. We have a system that was developed in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s and has really not changed structurally at all since then. What’s happened is the economy has changed since then. It’s more of a service economy right now. There’s less industrialization in this state. Also, the tiers for our income tax brackets were all developed in the 1950s or before when they were actually a progressive tax system, so that as you made more money you moved up in the percentage that you were required to pay in state income taxes. Well, they mean nothing anymore. Basically you end up with a flat tax system and with all the benefits and loopholes that the wealthy have we know all the studies show, the think tanks all show, the top 5 percent of income earners in Kentucky pay about 5 percent of their income in state and local taxes, but if you’re in the middle income you’re gonna pay about 11 percent in state and local taxes. And the poor pay about 9 percent, something like that. So what you have is a really skewed system that favors the wealthy in this state. If you just tweaked it a little bit — you wouldn’t even have to make it completely progressive — if you just tweaked it a little bit you would have a sufficient amount of money to cover the needs in Frankfort. But when you have people like Grover Norquist — he’s a right-wing anti-tax guru in Washington and he sends out every year these no-new-tax pledges to every state legislator and says, ‘Sign this: You’ll never ever, ever raise a tax in your state.’ A lot of the legislators in Frankfort, the Republicans, have signed those pledges. So how can you have tax reform if you’re never gonna raise a tax? Because you’re gonna have to tweak the system to make it more just, which means you’re gonna have to raise the taxes over here and lower the taxes here and have an adequate, just and flexible tax system.”

    Ideas and bills have been introduced as possible sources of revenue — things like legalizing medical marijuana and gambling — for the state to fix the pension crisis and fix some of our other issues. What do you think about those ideas?

    “Well, I think medical marijuana may have a better shot than recreational marijuana in this state. I think the conservative, rural legislators — who control the legislature, by the way — would not permit that. They may permit medical because with something like that a legislator can be moved by the personal stories of their constituents. In terms of gambling, we have a governor — I don’t think he’d be too favorable to that and I don’t think we have legislators in the Republican Party who are going to be favorable to that. A lot of that (gambling) revenue is already gone to nearby states, and I don’t think it’s gonna be the grand amount of money that (advocates) are anticipating.”

    What has it been like since Gov. Bevin has come into office?

    “It’s a dark time in Kentucky right now. I think we have a governor who, first of all, just does not have the gifts to be governor. He doesn’t have the capacity to work with people and build coalitions, and that’s the role of the governor: to set an agenda that’s really gonna carry the commonwealth forward and then having the skills to implement that — only a governor can do that. I’ve seen the governor in the chamber and at press conferences and so forth, but when I actually had a brief conversation with him it was in the hallway surrounded by some very, very angry union members who were shut out of a committee meeting that was voting on the right-to-work-for-less (anti-union) bill. What happened, the right-to-work-for-less advocates went to a committee room and reserved all of the seats so there was no room for the workers. The workers were all in the hallway furious — you could hardly move through the hallway. Gov. Bevin told the committee members how it will boost the economy and create jobs and all this stuff. Then he very boldly — and some would say maybe not wisely — went into the hallway and walked through the gauntlet of workers. I was leaving a meeting and we passed in the middle of the gauntlet. The workers were cheering me on because they know how I stand on it and they were booing him. He was very gracious to me and greeted me by name and asked how the day was going. That’s the only personal encounter I’ve had with him.

    “We submitted our tax bill in July and never got any response whatsoever. He really doesn’t interact much with the legislators. I don’t know that he has done much to mingle with us or to socialize with us. I recall Democratic Gov. Paul Patton would host small groups in the executive mansion and have us over for dinner. On at least one occasion I remember him taking us to a UK basketball game at Rupp Arena. In other words, he knew how to create relationships within the legislative body, with both Democrats and Republicans, and that’s a gift I don’t think this governor has. This governor just seems to be someone who has some personality issues that have caused him to be abrasive and to work against people. You know, when you demonize people and call them names — he goes on Terry Meiners’ (radio) show and calls me a yahoo? I mean, how’s that respectful of someone you’re trying to work with? And it’s not just me, (it’s) anybody. When you disagree with this governor, he pushes against you. 

    “When you have the fiscal crisis that we have right now and he’s now saying, on top of the 9 percent cuts that every agency had to take in the last legislative session, now he wants 17 percent more cuts? And this is on top of 10 years of cuts that we’ve made to some of these agencies? They can’t carry out their legal duties that the law says they have to carry out. The schools are really gonna suffer even though he says he’s gonna exempt them with the SEEK formula (Support Educational Excellence in Kentucky, which allocates state funding to local school districts). The wraparound services are already suffering — services for special-needs children, children who come from dysfunctional families, the tutoring services, the catch-up services, so to speak, all that is just being destroyed and those were essential elements of the Kentucky Education Reform Act.”

    In what context did he call you a yahoo?

    “I don’t even remember. He lumped me in with several other legislators and called us all yahoos ’cause we disagreed with him on some issue or something.”

    What do you think this audit on JCPS is going to mean for the district?

    “Well, I don’t know. I’ll wait and see. I’m never against audits because I think that they can reveal areas or blind spots that people in the management position or the elected office may have missed. I worked hard to get the audit done on the Yum! arena, despite all the pushback from the power elite here in Louisville, but we got it done and it was a good audit and it showed areas of weakness that need to be improved and some of those areas have been addressed.

    “There’s already talk of having the state take over Jefferson County Public Schools and I think that would be horrible. If we have problems, they need to be corrected. Marty Pollio as the acting superintendent seems to be someone who is able to work pretty well. The early indications are that he’s a really strong leader. We’ll wait and see. We also have some very dedicated school board members who are very passionate about public education and want to do it right, but if you have an outside hand from Frankfort come in and control our schools without living in Louisville, without knowing how diverse our school population is, without knowing the urban needs, without knowing how many kids we have in poverty and that live in dysfunctional families and go to bed at night hungry — my goodness, somebody in Frankfort’s gonna be wise enough to fix our schools? I don’t think so. That scares me to death. I’m really hoping that it does show some areas that need to be improved, yes, but let’s fix them here. We need state support, not state control.”

    The “war on Louisville” has come up in the news, especially since Bevin took office. 

    “He abolished the U of L board. He was supportive of the neighborhood schools bill (that could have reduced diversity in Louisville public schools) — the Republicans in the Senate and the House from Jefferson County led that effort, so I’m assuming that that was something Bevin was behind as well. The other thing is what we always call pre-emption, where they pass state laws — and this predates Bevin — to make sure that no city ordinance can be more stringent than the state law. So what that does is tie the hands of Jefferson County and our local government — on gun control for instance, on fairness ordinances and so forth. There is at times a war on Louisville, and we need strong legislators from Jefferson County to push back.”

    You have a strong Catholic faith. What was your reaction to Gov. Bevin’s solution to gun violence in Louisville being prayer walks?

    “Well, I’m not gonna say it’s not good to pray or it’s not good for the people to have prayer walks, but I think we’re talking about something that is much, much more complicated than just offering that solution. That is part of a larger solution in my opinion. The larger solution needs to address a lot of major systemic issues, among them basic issues that Gov. Bevin has been opposed to, like increasing the minimum wage, like strengthening our unions so they can negotiate for benefits and salaries and safe workplaces, housing policy that addresses the crisis that we have in urban and rural neighborhoods where people live in substandard houses that are very, very unsafe and inadequate. When you have a 25 percent rate of poverty among our children, and the violence, in some of these urban neighborhoods especially, has escalated so much, to offer a one-point solution to that is, in a way, a cop out. Unless prayer leads to action, unless prayer leads to standing against the systemic injustices that are producing a society with violence and drugs, that’s not the kind of prayer that I feel is gonna be effective.”

    I read that back in 1991 you and Rep. Steve Riggs, also a Louisville Democrat, had an op-ed in the Courier Journal with this vision for a transit system. It was interesting to read that because it was about a fuel-efficient, fast, economical, clean transit and transportation system that people often propose but that’s never happened in this city. Why do you think that hasn’t happened?

    “I think Steve Riggs and I would probably concur that once we got in Frankfort, we started realizing where the money was and who was controlling which legislator. The transportation dollars were all wrapped up into transportation contractors, and it’s a culture unto itself. The contractors pay for the politicians to come to Frankfort, politicians make sure the contractors get the money to expand and keep their contracts with the state. If you’re envisioning something that is really much different, which is what Steve and I envisioned at that time — we’re talking about something that actually would be for the common good. It’s something the state government should endorse and support, and it would certainly be environmentally much better and much more efficient and safer, so all the virtues have to be weighed against where the power interests are and where the money is. The political reality is that you couldn’t get to first base with something like that in Frankfort the way it is now.”

    Do you have friends or people you get along with well in the Republican Party?

    “Well, I hope so. What often happens in Frankfort is you go into a committee room and all the Democrats are sitting on one side of the room and all the Republicans are sitting on the other side of the room, and so I deliberately go sit with the Republicans. I just think that is very important because we need to treat them as human beings and listen to them and see what their interests are and learn from where they come from. When they were (assigning) the offices — they’ve done this several times — I’m on the fourth floor, which is what we used to call the ‘Republican and reject floor.’ We joked about that because anybody who voted for Joe Clarke to remain a speaker back in the early ’90s when Joe Clarke lost, they were relegated to the fourth floor with the Republicans. This past year (former House speaker) Jeff Hoover wanted to move me down with all the Democrats and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to move with the Democrats, I want to stay up here with the Republicans.’ There are several other Democrats up here; we need to mix. When the Republican legislature had a luncheon for everybody in the chamber this past session — first time Republicans have been in charge (of the House) since, what, 1921? And the Democrats said, ‘I’m not going to that lunch. I wouldn’t be caught dead in there.’ I just kept my mouth shut and I went in. They treated me like royalty. They had me sit with the leadership table. I just think that’s important.”

    What do you gain from that?

    “The first and foremost thing is I hope that I take away and understand that these people are just like me, that they have families, they have communities they care about, they’re trying to do the right thing by and large — not everybody all the time, but by and large. So for me it’s reinforcing my trust in human beings. I think the other thing is that when I go before them with a bill that they listen to me and they respect me, maybe not everybody and some of them make fun of me and that’s OK.”

    You have been called the “conscience of the General Assembly.”

    “I have been called that, but that makes me uncomfortable.”

    Who has called you that?

    “I think that might have come years ago with Harry Moberly, the Democratic chairman of the appropriations and revenue committee from Richmond. He’s since retired. I guess because anytime we were in budget meetings I always said, ‘Well, how’s this gonna hurt the vulnerable people?’ That’s the first filter I always use on legislation: If you’re the most vulnerable person in Kentucky, is this gonna affect you in a positive way or a negative way? If I use that filter on everything, then I know I’m in a pretty good position. These are questions I’ve asked a lot over the years. If I see that legislation’s gonna hurt somebody, unwittingly oftentimes, then I’ll point that out and raise that issue and say, ‘This needs to be corrected. This is not right.’ That happens more often than not now with budgets because it’s hurting so many people with the budgets that are being passed.”

    What’s the best thing someone ever said about you?

    “Oh, now that’s embarrassing, Mary.”

    What about the worst?

    “Um, let’s see. I do have some emails that I printed out that are on my wall in Frankfort of some of the worst things that people called me. A lot of times because people know I’m Catholic, they’ll get on me for doing something that they think is not what a good Catholic should be doing. I’m not sure what that would be, but I get told that I’m gonna go to hell or I’m a tool of the devil. They could be angry about anything. A lot of times it’s been about fairness issues because I helped found the Catholics for Fairness, which has a pilgrimage every spring to ask the archbishop to endorse the fairness bill that I cosponsored in Frankfort, which would eliminate discrimination against LGBT on housing or public accommodations and employment, basically give them civil rights because they’re not guaranteed in Kentucky. That’s something that traditional Catholics or evangelical Protestants may disagree with, and I’ve been called nasty names from them. I had one constituent call me up — he saw me giving a speech standing next to (Fairness Campaign director) Chris Hartman — and he just sent me a nasty phone message about how, ‘You’re standing next to that f— and you’re probably one too,’ and all this stuff. But that happens in public life. I don’t pay much attention to it.”

    What will the next person who takes your seat need to do to be successful?

    “To be elected they need to stay close to the people. I’ve tried to do that all the way from Okolona up to the German-Paristown Neighborhood Association. I’ve tried to stay in touch and be responsive to constituents. When those constituents call, they don’t know where else to turn, and it’s very important that I call them back within 24 hours and make sure that the constituent-services staff in Frankfort handles their case or I personally handle their case because I am their servant and they don’t have any other link to state government but me. That means going to community meetings when there’s a community concern, to raise issues. I think it’s really important, and I’ve learned this watching other people who don’t do this: I don’t judge anybody, but it’s so important to be honest. It’s just so important to be transparent with people. If I can’t help them, I’ll say, ‘I can’t help you. I promise to try to help you, but I can’t promise to succeed.’ I think people, even if they disagree with you, they’ll welcome the fact that you’re being honest and transparent.

    “I think one of the big problems we have in the political world right now is that (lack of) personal-centeredness, that sense of, ‘I’m confident in who I am. I’m not overly confident and prideful, but I’m confident and at peace with who I am and if I can do something I’ll do it and I’ll be honest in trying to assess the situation and not blow something out of proportion.’ People respect that. But sometimes you have to get fired up. Sometimes you have to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong and this should not be tolerated.’ We had a number of incidents like that in this last session with the right-to-work-for-less legislation, prevailing-wage legislation, the charter schools legislation, the neighborhood schools legislation, the Blue Lives Matter legislation. This is wrong. In every one of those situations you’re hurting somebody and the people you’re hurting are the most vulnerable, and that’s just wrong. When capitalism is unleashed and when government is complicit in that, then the most vulnerable get hurt. That’s why we need state government and local government to put control on the free-market system so that it will not do more damage than it’s doing.”

    How has your background in psychology and social work given you the skills to do your work in the state?

    “One of the things I’ve tried to do is take care of my own mental health. It’s important for me to be mentally healthy and be a centered person and rest assured in my own selfhood so that when things come at me, which happens in Frankfort — they come so fast, both positive and negative — that I’m not troubled by things. That’s grown through the years. I’ve gotten more centered and more confident and part of that is my faith and part of that is taking time every day to be alone in silence and be centered both in meditation but also in prayer — prayer’s very important, but it’s different than meditation. I take that a lot from the great spiritual masters — Gandhi, who is a great spiritual master but also a great social leader; Martin Luther King Jr.; people like Oscar Romero, who stood up to the military forces in El Salvador; Cesar Chavez, who worked with the migrant workers. These people are all very centered people. I don’t believe anyone who’s really working for social change can be without a deep spiritual center, however that’s defined for that person, because that is what sustains over time in all the battles. Also, I think it keeps perspective that a little progress here has ramifications or changes that I’ll never know about in my lifetime. It’s important for me to be faithful to what I believe in the here and now and to act accordingly and then not take any of the victories personally or any of the defeats personally but just to keep doing what I’m required to do by my beliefs. Now, that’s not to say I don’t get frustrated sometimes or come home at night and sit across the dinner table with my beautiful wife and say, ‘You wouldn’t believe what happened today.’ That happens. But I’m human also and I always come back to that centering every day.”

    What does your average day look like?

    “I generally get up about 7, 7:30. I spend a half an hour in total quiet and then my wife and I have breakfast together and then I get going. Typically answering emails, answering phone calls — most of them have to do with legislation, have to do with social policy, have to do with writing op-eds, have to do with constituents, have to do with the upcoming committee meeting. I was interviewed yesterday by ESPN on the Yum! Center, so I had to review all my material because I was on the oversight committee on the Yum! Center financing. I had three clinical appointments yesterday too in here. This is kind of like a haven. When I’m doing clinical work, it’s so much less tense and satisfying than some of the policy work — that’s a challenge compared to the therapy work. Then typically I’ll go over and see my mother several times a week. She’s 97 and lives in assisted living. And I go to the gym or try to do at least a half-hour walk on days I don’t go to the gym. Today I took about a 45-minute walk. The cemetery’s right in back of our house, so it’s a beautiful place to walk. Then I try to get in reading and then if I have a block of time I also schedule in for myself writing time.”

    How did you fit in going to school a few years ago to get an MFA in fiction at Spalding?

    “I learned in high school how to discipline myself on time management. I went to a wonderful high school (in Indiana). A writer — you’re a writer, you know: You have to discipline yourself. I schedule an appointment with me and I don’t break my appointments with me. It is very, very satisfying to write. I’m on my second adult novel now and waiting to get a middle-grade children’s novel placed. I’m surprised my novel (The Unfinished Man) got three national honors last year. I couldn’t believe it. First time out and you get three national honors? It was very satisfying.”

    What else will take up your time when you leave the legislature?

    “We started an institute for advanced psychotherapy at Bellarmine. (Former president) Jay McGowan called it the Wayne Institute. I didn’t want my name on it, but OK. We train therapists throughout the region to advance their skills in psychotherapy, so they might have some skills from graduate school, they might have gone on and got their license in practice — but it’s hard when you’re in practice to keep up with the current trends and research in neurobiology and theory, so we’ve got the best minds from we believe the world, really, because we have one professor from South Africa. So I’m working to get that launched. We’re on our second class now. That will take some of my time. Writing — I love writing, and so I can spend a lot more time doing that. And I’ll stay socially active because that’s where my conscience is. I’ll be at rallies and I’ll be at demonstrations and I’ll help out wherever I can. We’ll travel and we’ll enjoy the grandchildren. We have four grandchildren. I’ll be able to spend a lot more time with my wife, just appreciating her more. She’s been very patient for 28 years.”

    This originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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