March 14, 2006

Bluegrass Politics: The Burkesville Bully

It’s fitting that Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, is the person standing in the way of efforts by an unusual alliance — the conservative Family Foundation and the progressive Fairness Alliance — to enact anti-bullying legislation. After all, Williams himself is often regarded as “The Bully from Burkesville,” and he’s more than lived up to that moniker over the past few weeks.Williams became president of the state senate in 1999 after two Democrats switched parties, promising “we’ll work together for the best, for the benefit of this commonwealth.” Soon enough, he reigned over a chamber that paid little heed to minority rights. One of his first acts was to refashion the powerful Senate Rules Committee, which controls the flow of legislation from committees to the floor, by giving Democrats just three of eight seats despite the narrow 20-18 Republican majority. That was a glimpse of the power-grabbing style he would hone.But with his recent antics, President Williams has shown less concern for his promised efforts to benefit this commonwealth than for the retention of his own power. During last year’s legal battle over whether the Senate could sit Indiana resident Dana Seum Stephenson, Williams famously remarked that the Senate could vote to admit a 23-year-old, even though the Kentucky Constitution requires senators to be 30. “If 20 people in this body voted that someone was 30 years old, no court in the land could overturn that,” he said.Well, the Kentucky Supreme Court did that very thing, keeping Louisville’s 37th Senate District vacant for more than a year until Democrat Perry Clark won last month’s special election. That made Williams apoplectic and hell-bent for revenge. Following Clark’s special election victory, Williams barred state Supreme Court Justice Martin Johnstone from swearing in Clark on the Senate floor. Not coincidentally, Johnstone wrote the majority opinion in Stephenson case. Soon thereafter, Williams offered two remarkable pieces of legislation — not for their public policy value but to retaliate against the judiciary, one of those three co-equal branches of government.First up was a constitutional amendment mandating that the judiciary could not overrule many acts of the legislature, or use the constitution to allow local governments to grant civil-rights entitlements, as Louisville did by enacting a “fairness ordinance” barring discrimination based on sexual orientation. Williams’ amendment would also forbid the courts from declaring a law unconstitutional based on the amount of funding for a particular program, as it did in 1989 when the state Supreme Court declared the state’s school system unconstitutional because it funded districts inadequately and unequally, leading to the landmark KERA reforms.Williams’ amendment failed to reach the threshold for passing a constitutional amendment, with all 16 Democrats uncharacteristically voting in a block against the bill. Undeterred, Williams continues to refashion the language in hopes of bringing it back for a vote.But Williams, a practicing attorney, wasn’t done with his tantrum against the courts, filing legislation that would remove Franklin County Circuit Court as the proper jurisdiction to hear cases involving state government matters and move the cases to “any court of competent jurisdiction.” In other words, wherever he thinks he could get a favorable ruling. You won’t be shocked to learn the Stephenson election matter began in Franklin Circuit Court.However, Williams’ lust for revenge has now morphed into an ugly personal (and public) battle with Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Lambert, a fellow Republican. During his remarks at a recent Republican political dinner — with Lambert in the audience — Williams praised the two members of the Supreme Court who sided with him in the Stephenson case for “supporting the separation of powers and the authority of the Kentucky State Senate to seat its own members.” Uncharacteristically, Lambert took to the microphone as well, and took a veiled shot at Williams, citing Abraham Lincoln’s famous line “with malice towards none; with charity for all.”But Williams’ Napoleonic efforts to shift the balance of power toward the legislative branch — particularly to his chamber — continues without apparent shame.In the meantime, while the aforementioned anti-bullying legislation sailed through the House on a 96-0 vote, word is Williams plans to kill it in the Senate by withholding a vote or hearing. How fitting that The Bully from Burkesville would prevent a measure that would stop bullies from terrorizing our school kids. Maybe he hopes to find a protégé or two among them. Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org