FRANKFORT, Kentucky — House Republicans re-elected their longtime leader on Tuesday despite growing frustration in the party that Kentucky remains the only Southern state with a Democratic-controlled legislature.
Rep. Jeff Hoover won by a 2-to-1 margin over Rep. Adam Koenig in an election behind closed doors on the first day of the 2015 legislative session. The election marked the first time Hoover faced meaningful opposition in his 14 years as the Republican leader. It came after a poor showing in the November elections where Republicans made major gains in state legislatures across the country but failed to cut into the Democrats' eight-seat majority in Kentucky.
"As a caucus and as a group we are united," Hoover said after the vote. "We had good discussions. Everybody is ready to move forward."
Democrats re-elected House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who faced no opposition. Stumbo has said for months he was waiting until the election for speaker to decide if he would challenge Attorney General Jack Conway for the Democratic nomination for governor this year. But Stumbo told reporters before the vote he had no plans to run for governor.
Instead, Stumbo took to the House floor to urge his colleagues to work together and show the federal politicians in Washington, D.C., what government can accomplish.
"We can agree upon a number of things in this session," Stumbo told lawmakers during a speech honoring Rep. Larry Clark of Louisville, who stepped down as Speaker Pro Tem after holding the office for 21 years.
State lawmakers signaled a willingness to work together on a number of issues, including allowing local governments to temporarily raise taxes to help pay for major construction projects and a bill to combat the rising number of deaths linked to heroin overdoses. But in an election year with an open governor's seat — Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear cannot seek a third term — political cooperation could be at a premium. The Republican-controlled Senate could take action this week on a heroin bill that was written by Sen. Chris McDaniel, the running mate of Republican gubernatorial candidate James Comer.
Hoover said he has spoken with Stumbo several times, including the night before the November elections, and said he was encouraged the two sides could work together.
"He and I (need) to set the example of working together in a bipartisan way on important issues," Hoover said.
Joining Hoover in the Republican leadership ranks was Rep. Stan Lee of Lexington as the Republican Caucus chairman and Rep. Jim DeCesare of Bowling Green as the new Republican whip. Democrats chose Jody Richards of Bowling Green as the new Speaker Pro Tem, returning the former House Speaker and two-time candidate for governor to the leadership ranks.
State Rep. Johnny Bell of Glasgow is the new majority whip, surviving a controversy that emerged late last week over whether he would continue to employ some female staffers who had accused a former Democratic lawmaker of sexual harassment. Bell told reporters after the vote he had not decided whom he would hire for his staff.
Conway's lieutenant governor running mate Sannie Overly was re-elected as majority caucus chairwoman while Rep. Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook was re-elected as the majority floor leader. Adkins is also considering a run for governor but has not made a decision.
Lawmakers are scheduled to meet through Friday before taking a two-week break. Beshear is scheduled to deliver his final State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday.