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Teacher power leads to upset win in Kentucky race

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer
R. Travis Brenda, Jonathan Shell (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Wade Payne/AP [2], Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

A surprise victory in a Kentucky state legislative race — a primary upset of the House floor majority leader — is the latest sign of the power of public school teachers at the ballot box.

In Tuesday’s Republican primary, math teacher and first-time candidate R. Travis Brenda knocked off House Floor Majority Leader Jonathan Shell by 123 votes. Shell, 30, was considered a rising star in the party, had out-raised Brenda by over $100,000 and had the backing of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Brenda credited anger over a pension bill passed earlier this year for his narrow win. Shell was co-author of the legislation that altered pensions, educator benefits and school funding, sparking a massive April protest by thousands of teachers.

Brenda is not a member of the Kentucky Education Association, the teachers’ union — he said he did not agree with some of the National Education Association’s endorsements — but he benefited from outrage over the legislative maneuvers and statements by Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican. The bill, which altered teachers’ pension plans and limited retirement benefits, was not made available to the public to read before it was voted on, and was attached to Senate Bill 151, which originally dealt with sewage systems. Kentucky is also one of 15 states where teachers don’t have access to Social Security benefits, making the changes even more costly for retirees.

Kentucky teachers rally at the state Capitol on April 13. (Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Bevin drew criticism for comments he made about teachers during their walkout, saying that some children would be molested or try drugs because of schools being closed. The Republican-led House voted to condemn Bevin’s words, causing the governor to say he was sorry that people misunderstood what he was trying to say.

Shell declined to criticize the governor during the campaign and was attacked by Brenda for “looking out more for the interest of the state chamber and his political future than he is for teachers and other working people.” The Rockcastle County High School teacher will face Democratic nominee Mary Renfro, who ran unopposed, to decide the 71st District’s representative.

In addition to Brenda’s victory, six other educators won contested primaries in the state Tuesday night, including two social studies teachers and a history professor. Kentucky is one of six states where teachers have walked out or gone on strike this year, along with West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina. The electoral consequences of the teachers’ collective action have also affected races there.

“I can’t say that it will have zero effect,” said West Virginia state Sen. Robert Karnes, a Republican, in late March of the teacher strike, “but I don’t think it’ll have any significant effect because, more often than not, they probably weren’t voting on the Republican side of the aisle anyways.”

Karnes lost his primary by 26 points to state Rep. Bill Hamilton, who was sympathetic to the teachers’ cause and was one of the few GOP legislators to oppose right-to-work legislation that would have made it more difficult for employees to unionize.

“I really want to thank teachers and school service personnel, and my union buddies,” said Hamilton after his victory. ”They all got behind me, and they’re staying behind me in the fall.”

Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado have their primaries later this year.

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