Andrew Bailey had toyed with the idea of running for public office in Kentucky for years.
A teacher at Fairdale High School in Louisville, Bailey figured he’d start small: maybe a seat on the Board of Education for Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, or perhaps a spot on Louisville’s Metro Council.
But Bailey never took the next step.
Then, last Thursday, the Kentucky Legislature passed a controversial bill making sweeping changes to the public pension system that guarantees teachers’ retirement plans. After months of teacher opposition, Republicans tucked the changes ― which included the conversion of pensions into 401(k)-style plans for new hires ― into a bill that had previously dealt with wastewater issues and passed the legislation mere hours later.
The move sparked outrage among educators, who staged a quasi-strike that forced school closures in at least 25 districts across Kentucky last Friday. Thousands marched on the state Capitol in Frankfort on Monday morning.
And Andrew Bailey finally launched that political career he’d long considered.
On Monday, Bailey filed paperwork with Kentucky’s Secretary of State to run for the state Senate seat held by Sen. Dan Seum, a Republican who had voted for the pension overhaul on Thursday night.
The pension legislation “was the catalyst that made me take that jump,” Bailey told HuffPost. “I’d never thought about running at the state Senate level. But you gotta go big or go home. It’s a chance to let them know there are political consequences.”
Bailey wasn’t alone: Across the state, teachers are seeking public office in numbers unprecedented in modern Kentucky history, political observers say. By the end of January, as the battle over their pensions intensified, more than 25 teachers had filed to run for office, with most of them running as Democrats.
Controversy over how the pension changes were pushed through has only exacerbated that phenomenon. In the days after the Thursday vote, three other Kentucky teachers joined Bailey in declaring their intent to run for state House and Senate seats held by Republicans who supported the pension changes.
“You can only sit and fuss about it for so long before you have to do something. No one else is going to stand up for it. We have to do it for ourselves.”
On Monday, Mona Hampton-Eldridge, a teacher at Northern Middle School in Somerset, announced her intention to run against Republican Rep. Tommy Turner.
Nicole Britton, a teacher in Washington County, filed to run for the seat held by Republican Sen. Max Wise.
And Lydia Coffey, of Liberty, said she would take on Republican Rep. Daniel Elliott. Coffey is a retired teacher who protested the pension changes at the Capitol.
The four candidates who filed to run for office on Monday missed the filing deadline for Kentucky’s May primaries, meaning they will have to run as write-in candidates. That could make it nearly impossible to knock off the established incumbents they’re facing. Three of the four incumbents were unopposed until this week.
But that the teachers jumped into electoral races at all is a sign that the educators who rallied at the Capitol on Monday weren’t making empty threats when they screamed “Enough is enough!” and promised to do everything they could to defeat the lawmakers who’d voted for the pension changes.
Like Bailey, Hampton-Eldridge saw the pension vote as the “breaking point” that convinced her to run for office.
“I had to do something,” said Hampton-Eldridge, who has worked for the Pulaski County school district since 2001 and taught middle school since 2008. “You can only sit and fuss about it for so long before you have to do something. No one else is going to stand up for it. We have to do it for ourselves.”
Britton, too, decided amid the pension loss to take the plunge into politics, although she said she felt guilty that it took such upheaval for her to finally get involved.
“I’m a little bit sad it took that to get me to take on some civic duty,” said Britton, who has been a teacher for 12 years in Washington County. “But we’re here now and we are united, and one thing about teachers is, we work together very well.”
At least 10 candidates with backgrounds as teachers, professors or education professionals are running for state Senate seats as Democrats, according to Brad Bowman, communications director for the Kentucky Democratic Party. At least 33 such candidates are pursuing state House seats, he told HuffPost. (All four of the candidates who declared on Monday are Democrats, they told HuffPost.)
That total includes some incumbents, Bowman said, but the majority are teachers or education professionals seeking to unseat Republicans in a state where the GOP regained the governor’s mansion in 2015 and took control of both houses of the state legislature the following year for the first time in more than a century.
Though the pension fight has dominated headlines, teachers in Kentucky have also opposed attempts by Gov. Matt Bevin (R) and the Republican legislature to bring charter schools to the state, as well as various proposals to cut school funding in ways that teachers and administrators alike have said could further undermine school programs and public education in an already-struggling state.
“Our legislators, it feels like they just keep trying to cut us off at the kneecaps,” said Matt Kaufmann, a teacher at Moore High School in Louisville who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run against Republican Sen. Ernie Harris.
Kaufmann, who entered the race in January, said he was recruited by Save Our Schools, a movement that opposes the introduction of charter schools in Kentucky.
“We’re fighting for education as an institution. We’re fighting for our students and teachers who deserve good schools,” he said. “That’s why I’m running, and I think that’s why a lot of educators are running. We don’t have a choice.”
Bailey chose to go into teaching after studying architecture because teaching gave him the chance to “make a difference every single day.” But, he said, he hasn’t received new textbooks since 2008, forcing him to conduct his business classes largely without them. Most of his students, meanwhile, are on free or reduced lunch programs.
That’s made it hard to watch the governor propose drastic cuts to many education- and school-related programs, and even harder to listen to Bevin refer to teachers who opposed his agenda as “selfish” and “ignorant” people acting with a “thug mentality.”
Coffey, who taught middle school in Casey County for 27 years, said she initially considered a run for office in January before deciding against it. Bevin’s attacks on teachers, though, inspired her to change her mind.
“To sit back and say that we haven’t been demoralized, to treat us like we are not intelligent individuals ... I don’t think there’s an understanding of what it’s like to work in our classrooms, to work with students with all kinds of needs,” she told HuffPost. “We’ve never been attacked by the governor of our state. Whether it was a Republican or a Democrat, no one has ever attacked the teaching profession.”
Although some Republican legislators bucked Bevin on school funding ― the compromise tax and budget package passed this week did not include many of the governor’s proposed education cuts ― that rhetoric has also left teachers like Bailey and Coffey wondering if lawmakers in Frankfort really care about public education.
“I don’t feel they have our backs right now,” said Bailey, who has served as treasurer of the Jefferson County Teachers Association ― the union that represents teachers in Louisville ― and said he has assisted school board and other local election campaigns.
While the pension controversy pushed many of the new candidates into their races, they all said education issues wouldn’t be their only focus. Kaufmann and Hampton-Eldridge see the teachers’ fight as emblematic of broader problems facing working Kentuckians, especially after Bevin and Republicans implemented a so-called “right to work” law and repealed the state’s prevailing-wage laws in 2017.
“I’m standing up for the working people of Pulaski County,” said Hampton-Eldridge, whose husband works in construction and was affected by the prevailing-wage repeal. “I’m for the working common person.”
Britton, meanwhile, sees herself as part of a national movement of women who are newly running for office. She describes the recent attacks on teachers as part of a broader attack on women, who make up nearly 80 percent of the nation’s teaching force.
“You have to wonder: If we were a predominantly male profession, would we be fighting this uphill battle?” she said.
None of the four new candidates’ Republican opponents immediately responded to requests for comment.
Hampton-Eldridge and the other write-in candidates know it won’t be easy to actually unseat those lawmakers, but they also said their decisions to run carry symbolic significance.
“Even if we don’t win, it sets a precedent that we’re not just going to sit down and take it anymore,” Hampton-Eldridge said. “We’re going to start fighting for what’s ours.”
This story has been updated with comments from Lydia Coffey.