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Jefferson County teachers’ union financing ads in GOP primaries for Kentucky House

Former GOP Rep. C. Ed Massey of Hebron presents a bill  in the House on March 22, 2022.
LRC Public Information
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LRC Public Information
Former GOP Rep. C. Ed Massey of Hebron presents a bill in the House on March 22, 2022.

A PAC funded by the Jefferson County Teachers Association is picking sides in seven Republican primary races for the Kentucky House, choosing candidates who support public education in an effort to shape a less-hostile GOP supermajority caucus.

One of the largest financial contributors for political advertisements in the upcoming Republican primaries for the Kentucky House comes from what many would consider an unlikely source — the PAC of the Jefferson County teachers’ union.

Better Schools Kentucky — the political arm of the Jefferson County Teachers Association — has contributed at least $300,000 towards PAC advertisements in seven competitive GOP primary races in the past two months.

That is the same amount Better Schools Kentucky contributed to a PAC working to reelect Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear last year. The teachers union typically supports Democrats and opposes Republicans in the state due to their policy stances, as Democrats support larger salaries for teachers and oppose efforts to direct public funding to private or charter schools.

Likewise, Republican officials in Frankfort have long used Jefferson County Public Schools and their teachers union as a punching bag in both rhetoric and policy, long considering plans for a state takeover or breaking up of the district, along with audits and laws to restrict union dues.

However, Republicans currently hold 80% of the seats in each chamber of the Kentucky General Assembly and the GOP caucuses have a firm grasp on whatever legislation makes its way into law.

Cassie Lyles, a teacher at Fairdale High School and the president of Better Schools Kentucky, says it’s unlikely Democrats will come close to taking back that majority any time soon, “so we've got to find a way to build relationships in our current reality.”

“All of the Republicans (supported) in these primaries are ones that we think will be or have been supportive of public schools in the past,” Lyles said.

The two Republican candidates receiving the most financial support from Better Schools Kentucky include current state Rep. Killian Timoney of Lexington ($75,000) and former state Rep. Ed Massey of Hebron ($90,000), both of whom strayed from the rest of their caucus in 2022 by voting against a bill to fund charter schools and in 2021 by voting against a bill to create tax credits for private school tuition.

Those bills have been blocked from implementation by court rulings stating they would violate the state constitutional prohibition against public funding going outside the “system of common schools.” That is why Republicans pushed for House Bill 2 in the 2024 session, which would amend the state constitution to allow funding outside of common schools, if approved by voters this fall.

Timoney voted against HB 2, but three GOP House members who voted for the bill are ones that are being targeted for defeat by Better Schools Kentucky, who is supporting their GOP challengers. These targeted incumbents include Reps. Steven Doan of Erlanger, Marianne Proctor of Union and Candy Massaroni of Bardstown.

Better Schools Kentucky has also spent $25,000 so far to support GOP Rep. Michael Meredith of Oakland, who voted against HB 2 this year and private school tax credits bill in 2021, though he did vote for the charter school funding bill in 2022. Meredith voted for a resolution this year to create a task force to consider “breaking up” Jefferson County Public Schools — a measure opposed by the JCTA — though Timoney was one of just four Republicans to vote against it.

Beyond just education policy, the candidates Better Schools Kentucky chooses to support and oppose in these races also tend to fall along the same fault lines of division in the GOP caucus that emerged in the 2022 primary election, and have been simmering since.

Whereas the candidates supported by the teachers union this primary are generally regarded as mainstream Republicans, the candidates it opposes are from what’s known as the “liberty” wing of the party, a faction that often challenges GOP leadership in pursuit of less spending and smaller government.

Challengers from this liberty wing of the party were able to knock off three northern Kentucky Republican incumbents who chaired House committees in the 2022 primary. These included Doan (who defeated incumbent Rep. Adam Koenig), Proctor (who defeated incumbent Rep. Sal Santoro) and current Rep. Steve Rawlings (who defeated Massey).

Rawlings is running for state Senate instead of reelection this year, with Massey facing Republican T.J. Roberts for the open seat. Roberts is strongly aligned with the liberty wing of the party — led by GOP Congressman Thomas Massie and state Rep. Savannah Maddox of Dry Ridge — and was involved with a now-defunct group that paid for mailers in the 2022 GOP primary to defeat Koenig.

GOP fault lines reemerge with PACs and primaries

In its February and March filings to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance reporting independent expenditures in the GOP primary races, Better School Kentucky indicated the advertisements it funded would be done through two different federal super PACs: Common Sense Kentucky and the Commonwealth Conservative Coalition.

Common Sense Kentucky was created during the 2022 primary season by Republican strategist Tres Watson, who said its goal was to support "main street Republicans in favor of common sense, conservative solutions." That support consisted of $54,000 of ads to support Massey and Koenig against their liberty wing primary challengers, to no avail. The PAC’s largest funder was Better Schools Kentucky, who earmarked $40,000 to support Massey — its only involvement in GOP primaries that year.

Political committees lined up on both sides of this GOP divide in the 2022 primary to spend well north of half a million dollars. Common Sense Kentucky joined with Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the PAC of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to spend more than $327,000 in support of incumbents like Massey, Koenig and Santoro.

They were opposed by PACs supporting the liberty challengers that spent more than $200,000, including Make Liberty Win (a federal PAC affiliated with Ron Paul offshoot Young Americans for Liberty) and Commonwealth Educational Opportunities PAC, a group focused on advancing “school choice” legislation to fund charters and private school scholarships.

Asked about Better Schools Kentucky’s $100,000 contribution to Common Sense Conservatives this year, Watson said the PACs aren’t working together to advance any specific issue or policy, rather that “it just so happens that some of the incumbents and some of the challengers that we like and dislike happen to align.”

Watson added they are supporting Republicans who are “willing to work well with others,” citing Doan as an example of a Republican incumbent who does not.

“He voted against the Republican budget, he voted against the Republican crime package,” Watson said. “He's been out against rules being put forth by leadership.”

Doan was one of a handful of Republicans to vote against the final versions of the major GOP budget bills (House Bills 1 and 6), as well as House Bill 5, the sweeping anti-crime bill Republicans dubbed the “Safer Kentucky Act,” which he criticized as unconstitutional government overreach.

Whereas Maddox and Rep. Felicia Rabourn of Pendleton have in past sessions been the only two Republicans voting consistently against a number of spending bills, Doan joined them in voting against all three bills, while Massaroni and Proctor also voted against HB 6, the main two-year state budget bill.

While liberty wing Republicans such as Maddox, Massaroni and Rabourn criticized and voted against the resolution adopting House rules for the session that were pushed by GOP leadership, Doan actually voted for it. Several members of the GOP caucus later said a Republican subcommittee chairman threatened to pass legislation to toll the Brent Spence Bridge in northern Kentucky if members challenged leadership on the rules vote.

Addressing the Republicans supporting Common Sense Kentucky, Doan said that whoever is behind it refuses to accept the results of his victory over Koenig in 2022 and wants to “relitigate old hurt wounds instead of moving forward and trying to find a way to actually represent conservative values in Kentucky.”

Commonwealth Conservative Coalition — the federal PAC receiving $200,000 from Better Schools Kentucky in March for ads — was created last summer by Don Parkinson, a longtime GOP official who was recently chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party. The group will report its 2024 fundraising to the FEC in two weeks, but reported raising $25,000 from Bill Butler, the CEO of northern Kentucky real estate company Corporex, $20,000 from Colorado-based dialysis firm Davits and $15,000 from Airbnb.

Parkinson did not respond to a request for comment on the PAC and its association with Better Schools Kentucky.

A battle over ‘school choice’

Doan dismissed the notion that he is against public education, saying much of his family were public school teachers or administrators, while his opponent Diane Brown “is a homeschool mom who has completely rejected public education.”

According to Doan, the teachers union support and opposition to specific candidates is a clear battle over who will support “school choice” legislation.

“The individuals that are being targeted by this union are 100% pro-school choice,” Doan said. “We want universal school choice in this state.”

Doan’s use of “universal” is key, as he notes that many Republican members wanted a straightforward constitutional amendment that would have freed up funding to go to private and charter schools in any county. However, Republican leadership instead pushed a bill that he says may lead to such options only existing in certain counties.

House Bill 2 originally included a new section of the constitution granting the legislature authority to spend public funds outside the system of common schools “in particular places as it deems proper.” This was later amended to take out that latter phrase, but add that it is not subject to two sections of the constitution prohibiting local or special legislation that exempts certain areas of the state from a law.

If the constitutional amendment is approved by voters this fall, it would be up to the General Assembly in 2025 to pass enabling legislation to determine the specifics of how public funds could go to charter or private schools, and where.

Doan says this means the legislature may “target individual counties” for changes to school funding, thus avoiding political fights within the caucus from rural members whose public school districts strongly oppose the change.

“They could limit it just to Jefferson County if they wanted to, or they could limit it just to Kenton County, or avoid rural Kentucky where it's always difficult to get votes for school choice,” Doan said.

Asked about Better Schools Kentucky’s support for his candidacy, Massey said he has no control over what unaffiliated PACs spend money on, but assumed the union was “looking to past history, what my voting record is, what I've done, and they're making contributions based along those lines.”

“I'm grateful that people have enough confidence in my abilities that they're willing to support me,” Massey said.

He pointed to his sponsorship of House Bill 258 in 2021, which created a less-generous "hybrid" pension plan for new teacher hires. While JCTA didn’t support that particular change, they supported the bill as a much better alternative to the controversial plan pushed by some Republicans to completely overhaul the pensions of all teachers.

As for Better Schools Kentucky’s opposition to candidates and incumbents from the liberty wing of the GOP, Massey said “I think probably their radicalization and desire to privatize education is probably why they're not getting that kind of support.”

Massey attributed his surprising loss to Rawlings in the 2022 primary to not being able to campaign until the legislative session ended a month before the primary and the involvement of liberty-aligned PACs that spent heavily against him. While he also had the backing PACs that year, Massie says he has had much more time to campaign this time and build up support — including a January fundraiser for him hosted by Kelly Craft, a prolific Republican fundraiser and candidate for governor last year.

House Republicans aligned with Doan’s wing of the party have taken aim at candidates who are receiving support from Better Schools Kentucky on social media.

Proctor posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that the “Democrat wing of the teacher’s union” was “doling out tons of money” to support her GOP challenger Christopher Pavese, who she called “my liberal opponent.”

“It comes as no surprise because I've stood squarely against Leftist indoctrination in our schools from day one,” Proctor wrote.

Replying to Proctor, Maddox wrote: “The battle lines are drawn. Fake republicans have no qualms about joining forces with leftist indoctrinators to defeat conservatives.”

Roberts also tweeted that “the radical left” union is supporting his opponent Massey because he “opposes school choice and believes Boone County should be more like Louisville.”

Brent McKim, the longtime president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association who is stepping down in July, said their choice to jump into the GOP primaries is simply a logical reaction to the reality that the legislature is dominated by Republicans and likely to stay that way for years.

"We're about advocating for kids' public education, so it just makes sense to be involved where you can make a difference,” McKim.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.
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