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December 28, 2011

Williams’ momentous moment

The State Capitol stage is set for a historic, breathtaking, improvisational suspense: When the curtain rises on the 2012 regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly on Jan. 3, can state Senate President David Williams rise like a phoenix from the ashes from his loss to Gov. Steve Beshear?

There was high drama on election night as Williams sought to buttress his base of support. Beneath the crush of a landslide, he struck a strategically conciliatory tone: “We’re gonna find common ground to work together on, and I think all of you expect that — all Kentuckians — and I look forward to talking to him,” he said of Beshear during a concession speech.

“I take him at his word,” state Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-14, told cn|2’s Ryan Alessi in late November, adding that Senate Republicans have no plans to replace him as president “at this time.” At an annual retreat two weeks later, Senate Republicans reconfirmed their leadership with no plans to vote again during the upcoming legislative session.

Twenty-two GOP senators and one sympathetic independent outnumber the Senate’s 15 Democrats.

Speculation of a mutiny attempt against Williams has been swirling since the shellacking prompted conservative commentator John David Dyche to portray him as a party pariah and urge his ouster.

“Someone would have to challenge him,” said Ronnie Ellis of CNHI News Service on KET’s “Comment on Kentucky” on Nov. 11. “Right now, I don’t detect anyone … But it’s the nature of politics, when you take a beating like this, you’re going to be diminished in stature and power. There’s a bit of blood in the water — and sooner or later, there’s going to be a few sharks circling.”

Alessi, a fellow panelist on the show, anticipated a fascinating transformation in the Senate GOP: “Even just by taking that loss … it’s going to affect how that caucus works,” he said. “If they sense that he’s weakened, that dynamic will shift.”

Shifting dynamics pose risks and benefits for Williams as he seeks to remain a strong leader while rehabilitating his reputation. Regardless, for him to fortify (or even maintain) power within and beyond his caucus may be a spectacular balancing act. To humanize his image after a demonizing, demoralizing campaign, he must apply the utmost self-discipline — discipline he lacked throughout it. Heavy-handed tactics would play, unfavorably, into a prescribed narrative of bullying.

Though a looser grip could invite a hard fall, it might prove advantageous.

A more autonomous caucus would lend credence to Williams’ persistent denial that it’s his sock puppet. Likewise, a more independent majority would yield a more credible defense to claims of single-fisted obstructionism. Come what may, the stakes couldn’t be higher for Williams, whose legacy hangs in the balance.

If his presidency is aborted, a campaign in which “everything went wrong for him from the very beginning,” as Alessi noted, would define his decline. Presumably, he’ll exhaust every effort to avoid irresistible ironies and nettlesome narratives as Press Row focuses on the most famous feud in Frankfort.

Whether Williams will be cast as a bitter or “better man for this experience,” as he affirmed on election night, is his defining dilemma. He’s “new and improved,” “slimmed down,” and “tanned, rested and ready … to work with all the folks that will work with us to make a better Kentucky,” Williams said.

I’ll take him at his word that he wants to coalesce with Beshear on mutual interests.

“It’s time for both men to work together to put Kentucky’s fortunes ahead of their own,” said WDRB general manager Bill Lamb in a Dec. 20 editorial.

But for now, their legacies and our fortunes are closely linked. In record numbers, Kentuckians are suffering. Many expect our leaders to bury the hatchet as a matter of mercy.

Others have given up. “The last thing any Kentuckian should hope for is the Stupid Party working with the Evil Party,” wrote Bruce Layne to cn|2, adding that bad leaders “do a better job at doing the wrong job. As usual, that means more for them and less for us.”

As citizen anger, frustration and cynicism with government escalates, the time is over-ripe for our divided legislative leaders to declare a truce and unite for the common good.

“Follow, lead or get out of the way” is a catchy, time-honored slogan. But it dishonors the virtue of cooperation.