The Race for the 37th: A Closer Look

Feb 7, 2006 at 10:46 pm

Deborah Peden: What’s a nice girl like her doing in a race like this?

EDITOR’S NOTE: LEO made repeated attempts to interview Deborah Brock Peden, the Republican candidate in next week’s special election for Kentucky’s 37th District State Senate seat. Peden initially made an appointment with a LEO reporter but ultimately canceled. Despite several phone calls imploring the candidate to make time for an interview, and advising her that refusing an interview would result in a less-detailed story about her, she never sat down with LEO. What follows is an analytical piece about the race.


Before the 40-member executive committee of the Jefferson County Republican Party met on Jan. 7 to pick its candidate for the 37th District state senate race, odds-on favorite Doug Hawkins said, “If they don’t pick me, they’ll have some explaining to do … to the Republican voters in this district, to justify their reasoning.”

At the time, Hawkins was feeling his oats. Only days earlier, he had announced his candidacy for the vacant seat in a press conference on the steps of the state capitol in Frankfort. Standing next to him was David Williams, the powerful senate President from Burkesville.

Well, the executive committee didn’t pick Hawkins, a Metro Councilman.

Instead, it picked — unanimously, no less — Deborah Brock Peden, a political novice who’s married to James Peden, a volunteer firefighter who serves with Hawkins on the Metro Council.

Debbie Peden
Debbie Peden

And now, as Peden’s race against veteran Democrat Perry Clark  —who resigned his seat in the House to run — nears its completion in a Valentine Day’s election, the executive committee still hasn’t given a plausible explanation for why the media and the voters should view Peden as anything more than a sacrificial lamb.

Here’s the official party line, as expressed by Jack Richardson, chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party:

“She is very well-acquainted with politics, especially Republican politics; she’s very well-acquainted with her district; and she is extremely articulate and a very pleasant, vivacious, energetic candidate.”

No argument there. But also no reason to believe she’s better qualified than Hawkins. The best Richard Aud, a resident of the 37th District for 30 years, could say about her to WHAS-TV was to talk about her husband.

“If his wife is similar to him,” Aud said, “they (the Republicans) may have a slight edge right there.”

The truth is, the executive committee wanted to punish Hawkins, who sued the party in 2004 over the scheduling of Republican caucuses and who also accused the executive committee of misspending funds.

In addition, the Jefferson County Republican party also wanted to declare its independence from Williams, who needlessly alienated many voters — including some in his own party — with his arrogant behavior in the Dana Seum Stephenson case.

To recap briefly, Democrat Virginia Woodward filed a lawsuit on the eve of the 2004 general election, claiming that her opponent, Republican Stephenson, did not meet the residency requirements to be on the ballot.

Stephenson won the election, but Woodward won in court. Williams made a bad situation worse by thundering, imperiously, that the Senate could do what it pleased, regardless of the law. Nevertheless, Stephenson couldn’t take the seat during the 2005 legislative session because of a court injunction, meaning the 37th hasn’t been represented in Frankfort for more than a year.

“There has been so much finger-pointing going on that people are tired of even talking about pointing fingers,” Peden told the Associated Press. “They are ready to meet the candidates.”

So is the media. Unfortunately, Peden has been tap-dancing around requests for interviews. She agreed to meet with a reporter from LEO, but postponed and then canceled. This is unfortunate for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that her campaign is running radio ads that link Clark to Lyndon LaRouche, the controversial perennial Presidential candidate, and accusing her opponent of being “extremist” and “dangerous” and “bizarre beyond belief.”

That’s strong stuff, especially coming from a political novice. Shouldn’t Peden be doing all she can to explain herself and let people know how she’s different from her opponent? Her reluctance to do interviews only makes her look more like a rank amateur.

Perhaps, like many Republicans, she distrusts the so-called “liberal media.” Perhaps, like many in the South End, she doesn’t believe the rest of Jefferson County really cares about her district.

In one of her rare revealing comments, she said, “Now is the time that we can really elect a Senator who is going to Frankfort and be the voice of the forgotten South.”

That’s a message that resonates in the South End, which lies uneasily between the affluent East End, where all the white power brokers live, and the predominantly African-American West End, where the leaders know how to get attention and government money.

Traditionally, the South End has been the blue-collar section of town, which is why Peden has joined her opponent in distancing herself from Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s campaign to repeal right-to-work and prevailing wage laws.

In recent years, the South End has been leavened by a large influx of immigrants from Mexico, Vietnam, Haiti and other countries. Yet they are mainly laborers, and the language of the labor movement is universal.

Otherwise, Peden, 33, is trying to show that she is a South Ender through and through, even more so than her opponent. In her radio commercials, she emphasizes her pride in being a housewife and mother, her career as a social-studies teacher and her active church membership.

“Debbie Peden is articulate and resounds with a message that represents young women who are in the workforce,” wrote one of her fans in a post on, the political blog run by former Democratic consultant (and also current LEO columnist) Mark Nickolas. “She will be the one that will bring together those voters that feel disenfranchised by the lack of representation in the legislature.”

In an interview, Richardson, the Republican party chair, told LEO that Peden’s lack of prior office-holding shouldn’t be a big issue. He noted that James Peden hadn’t been elected before winning his Metro Council seat, “and he’s done a fantastic job.”

Richardson wouldn’t get into specifics about the 37th District race, but he did say, “She’s very attuned to (constituents’) needs. She’ll be a leader.”

None of that answers the question of why Peden is leaving her comfort zone to plunge into the murky world of politics. In other words, what’s a nice girl like her doing in a place like this?

The election is only days away, and both Peden and the Jefferson County Republican executive committee still have some explaining to do.

Mat Herron also contributed to this story. Contact the writer at [email protected].

Perry Clark: Accidental legislator defined by South End roots


The phones are ringing incessantly in the Clark household. Here at Clark for Senate headquarters, there are two landlines, Perry Clark’s personal cell phone, his wife Sheila’s, and the one belonging to Jack Walker, his campaign manager and director of the Senate Democratic caucus. The e-mail pops off at a dogged pace. Here, it’s accepted that they’re not going to leave you alone: journalists, advisers, constituents, potential volunteers, friends, endorsers; they’ll all call at once, and all of them — every one — need your undivided attention.

Hoard all that into the long month that started on Jan. 7 and ends in a Valentine’s Day special election, and you’ve got campaign concentrate, a furious run-up that’s usually allowed at least five times the span to gestate.

Clark — a lifelong South Ender and 12-year state House veteran who relinquished his seat when he entered this race five weeks ago — is seeking a state Senate seat, 37th district. That’s the one marred by a year of controversy, the one Dana Seum Stephenson tried to nab (with the help of Constitution-indifferent Republicans statewide) but was denied because she didn’t meet the residency requirement. It’s the one for which state Democrats opted not to re-nominate Virginia Woodward, who challenged Stephenson in court for the seat she didn’t actually win.

The dogfight for 37 has been savage, and will likely continue to menace both parties. When the executive committee of the Democratic Party picked Clark in a 5-2 vote, for instance, the backlash was immediate. Democratic women felt disenfranchised. Woodward supporters said they got a raw deal after their candidate waged such a lengthy and costly court battle.

In the breach is the 48-year-old Clark, a workingman’s politico with silver hair and a well-trimmed goatee, a seeming embodiment of the increasingly rare public servant who creates his own North Star to follow. Clark is a pro-life Christian who smokes Marlboro Reds and proudly displayed the Ten Commandments in his former Frankfort office. He supports stem cell research and becomes visibly excited when discussing U of L’s recent advances in that area of medical technology.

He’s been a stalwart supporter of unions, and not only because they represent a considerable chunk of his South End constituency. Unions are intrinsic to Clark: his father was a United Auto Workers member, as were many of the men in his childhood neighborhood. After finishing DeSales High School and a four-year Navy stint, Clark took a union manufacturing job, which he kept until his run for House 12 years ago.

Clark entered politics backwards: When it came time for his father, Paul, to resign his House seat a dozen years ago, the party couldn’t find a suitable upholder of the legacy. Paul sought his son, and despite his good job and young family, Perry relented and entered the race.

An atavistic man who eschews black-and-white distinctions, Clark’s boorish appearance and gruff, throaty voice sometimes betray the depth of his thought.

“Life’s complicated, it’s complex,” he says. “It’s difficult. It’s tragedy, it’s pain, it’s suffering. Once you understand all this, you can be a lot happier and you can work with other people better, too.”

He’s a Constitution junkie and a self-proclaimed “economic populist” who considers his short list of American heroes to include Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay and Henry Wallace, FDR’s vice president and a principal New Deal architect whose intensely liberal bent ultimately screwed his chances to break more political ground.

“My problem is, I do say what I think, and that’s how you get in trouble,” Clark says. “I’m not going to be 100 percent like anybody else. That’s part of the problem in society right now - diversity would mean we’re all different, not that we’re all the same.”

Clark has voted in the House for public funding of gubernatorial elections, and calls politics a “dirty sport.”

“It should not be office for sale, and it should not be office for distortion,” he says.

South Louisville politics are a different animal than any other city politics. Some say it’s “real” Democratic politics, populated by unions and the working class. There’s considerably less focus on social issues. When Grandma can’t pay her bills, as Clark likes to say, something’s terribly wrong.

His staunch opposition to Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s so-called Right to Work initiative — at its core a stab at union busting — is signature both for him and the district he would represent. Clark’s endorsements include a litany of unions.

Clark has also managed to piss off a lot of Democrats in his day, and for varied reasons. Many were outraged when Clark aligned with Republican Sen. Dan Seum — the unctuous “VET-killer” whose lust for attracting businesses to Louisville has overridden any concern he may have about the city’s air quality (just under three years ago declared the dirtiest in the southeast by EPA) — by way of HB 166, which Clark sponsored this year before leaving the House. The bill, withdrawn upon Clark’s departure from the House, would’ve prohibited local agencies from imposing air pollution standards on businesses that were more stringent than state or federal standards. Seum is currently sponsoring an identical Senate bill that enters committee tomorrow.

Clark has supported gun and property rights tirelessly, earning an endorsement from the conservative group Take Back Kentucky, as well as the National Rifle Association.

He’s operating this campaign in part on a chunky donation ($50,000) from the Kentucky Equine Education Project, the horse industry lobby fronted by former Gov. Brereton Jones. The criticism Clark drew for taking the money has been rather extreme; it’s been suggested that KEEP is buying Clark’s support on casino and racetrack gambling. Clark says he supports legalized gambling, if only so the state can take financial advantage instead of continuing to pour money into Caesars and other riverboats along Indiana’s Ohio River shoreline.

Meanwhile, his vision for education reform is radically refreshing. Clark and his wife Sheila home-schooled their two children until high school. He says the freedom that gave them — study math when they want, and so forth — helped them develop keener mental instincts.

“We don’t want to get up at six o’clock every morning, and we don’t want to go to bed at eight or nine o’clock every night,” he says. “We want to stay up later, we want to get up later. Why wouldn’t you shift your day to accommodate that?

“Get them to school at 10. You don’t have this sleep deprivation problem, number one. Make sure they get some good nourishment in there, get some physical activity out of the way, and then you have got keen, fast minds ready to go. I really believe that.”

Stephen Fein, a legislative chair for the Jefferson County Democratic Party and one of the two who voted for Woodward last month, says such individuality and diversity of opinion raises the level of discourse within the party.

“We’ve got to stop being the southbound end of a northbound jackass,” Fein says. “(Clark is) a hard worker in the House. I know he’s got a lot of contacts in the House.”

Tim Longmeyer, chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party, says Clark’s “extraordinarily strong” voting record on labor issues is his trump card in this election, despite criticisms that Clark is more libertarian than Democrat, a belief system with many tenets that counter traditional Democratic politics.

“As far as his core beliefs, he does strongly believe that government should not be intrusive in the lives of its constituents,” he says.

Contact the writer at [email protected]