FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Terrie White was happy as a retired teacher in western Kentucky who did not follow the news. But that was before a bill popped up in the state legislature that would have reduced the cost-of-living raises for her pension.
Now, as Kentucky politicians prepare to launch their fall campaigns at the annual Fancy Farm picnic, White is preparing a launch of her own. She has ordered T-shirts, organized logistics and recruited others for what could be the largest teacher protest since spring, when thousands marched on the state Capitol.
“I’ve sat back and didn’t do anything,” she said. “I’ve vowed to not let that happen again.”
As Republicans in Congress prepare for a possible backlash this fall against President Donald Trump, their counterparts in the Kentucky legislature are grappling with a similar threat from the state’s teachers and public workers. The Republican-controlled legislature put billions of more dollars in the state retirement systems, but made some changes late in the session that prompted protests.
The spring teacher protest shuttered more than 30 school districts across Kentucky and pressured lawmakers to remove some of the most hated proposals from a pension bill that would have removed cost-of-living raises. In May, a high school math teacher who had never run for office defeated the state House majority leader in a Republican primary.
Now with at least 34 current and former educators on the ballot in November, teachers are preparing to launch their fall offensive Saturday at the annual Fancy Farm picnic. It’s the traditional start of Kentucky’s general election campaigns, where candidates for both parties share the stage before hundreds of hecklers in matching T-shirts, all being broadcast live on statewide television.
“We want them to see us. We want them to know our faces and to know that we still are angry,” said Nema Brewer, who works for the Fayette County school system and is a co-founder of #120strong. The group, whose name refers to Kentucky’s 120 counties, says it could have up to 200 people at the picnic along with a red “moving truck” offering to help state lawmakers clean out their offices.
Republican leaders dismiss the protests as noise from a small, but loud, minority of voters. They point to the GOP’s impressive gains in voter registration, with Democrats now accounting for less than 50 percent of all registered voters.
“I just don’t see what having a bunch of screaming, angry people, how that classifies as momentum,” state Senate Republican Leader Damon Thayer said.
Blake Brickman, chief of staff for Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, said teachers should be angry at past Democratic leaders for not fully funding the pension system.
“Gov. Bevin is the only governor in recent history to fully fund the pension system,” he said.
Although Fancy Farm could be the teachers’ biggest show of force since their protests at the Capitol in March and April, the group hasn’t been quiet since then. They have used social media to organize more protests at fundraisers for Republican candidates.
In June, about 20 teachers demonstrated outside an Italian restaurant in Ashland that was hosting a fundraiser for Republican state Senate candidate Scott Sharp. And last week, Republican state Senate candidate Robby Mills decided to move his fundraiser from a restaurant in Henderson after the owners were worried about how planned protests could affect their business.
The protests have unnerved Republicans, who have condemned them for hurting local businesses. In a news release earlier this week, the Republican Party of Kentucky lumped the protests in with other reported acts of vandalism, including a broken window at the Fayette County Republican Party headquarters and smashed mailbox at the home of Republican state Senate candidate Matt Castlen.
“Something has come unglued on the left-hand side of the aisle and they need to get their people in order,” GOP spokesman Tres Watson said.
Brewer said her group did not vandalize property and never would.
“They are trying to dismiss us as some radical group, which really isn’t true,” Brewer said. “If they won’t look us in the eye at the Capitol during business hours, we’ll come to them in fundraisers and ask them, ‘Hey, why did you do this?'”
Candidates are approaching the protests carefully. Sharp delivered pizza to the protesters at his fundraiser. Mills criticized the protests on social media, but said in an interview the teacher opposition is not to be taken lightly.
“My political sense tells me that they could have a little bit of an effect,” he said. “I think in all races they could have an effect.”
White said teachers can’t go to the state Capitol every day, but “we were there when it mattered.”
“And we’ll be there again,” she said.