'I beg you, underestimate us'

By BERRY CRAIG

AFT Local 1360

Nema Brewer has a message for anybody who thinks the November election means teachers are political paper tigers heading into next year's governor's race.

“Keep on underestimating us,” challenged the Lexington activist and co-founder of #Kentucky 120 Strong, a grassroots group that supports teachers and other public employees.

Please keep thinking we’re just a bunch of paid activists. I beg you, underestimate us.”

Kentucky 120 was born out of historic Capitol rallies against Gov. Matt Bevin-Republican public pension "reform" when the legislature met last winter and spring.

The protests didn't trigger an anticipated Democratic blue wave in Kentucky. Hence, the Republicans crowed that all the marching, chanting and speechmaking were much ado about nothing.

"The media bought into the Republican rhetoric," said Brewer, a multimedia specialist with the Fayette County school system.

“Teachers get failing grade on Election Day” declared a Louisville Courier-Journal headline. “We'll remember in November’ rang hollow on Election Day,” read the story’s first sentence.

Several teachers ran; most lost. The loyal opposition managed to trim the Republicans' House majority by only 2, to 61-39. The GOP boosted its Senate edge by one, to 28-10.

Brewer said it was unrealistic for anybody to believe "we were going to go in and sweep these deep red counties. It's a slower process." 

Don't blame teachers for the Democrats' disappointing showing, said Marshall Ward of Murray, president of the Calloway County Retired Teachers Association. 

"Teachers can't do it by ourselves," he said. "When you have a million people out there voting and only have a couple of hundred thousand retired teachers--I don't know how many we have currently working--that's not going to do it." (Kentucky has 42,146 public school teachers on the job.)

"Our alliances were not what we thought they were. Mom and Pop out there on the street aren't taking a look at teacher issues or educational issues as closely as we'd like, and they're not voting the way they should in terms of what's best for their families and their own communities."

Ward is a Kentucky Education Association retiree. He said groups like KEA, Ky 120 and the Jefferson County Teachers Association couldn't have cleaned house in Frankfort by themselves either. 

Brewer thinks KY 120 did a good job maximizing its minimal resources. The all-volunteer, unpaid group lacked experience, infrastructure and deep-pocket donors, she said.   

"Between March, when were founded, and November, we had a lot of work to do, building and networking from the ground up."

She expects better results in the governor's race next November "now that the foundation has been built." 

She also cited Bevin's sagging poll numbers. An October survey showed 45 governors are more popular than he is. In a brand-new poll, Bevin is trailing the two announced Democratic candidates, Attorney Gen. Andy Beshear and House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins.

Everybody agrees that the state's public pension systems are woefully underfunded. But when the legislature met in January, Bevin seemed bent on privatizing pensions.

Teachers, other public employees and their supporters, including union members, swarmed Frankfort, causing the Republicans to delay a vote on a pension bill until the end of the session.

They crafted legislation behind doors barred to Democrats, converted an unrelated sewer bill into a pension bill, SB 151, and rushed it to passage.

The measure cut some benefits for current and retired employees. But its main feature was a provision forcing new hires into a "cash hybrid" 401(k) style plan instead of a traditional defined benefits plan.

Beshear sued to stop the bill. On Dec. 13, the state Supreme Court unanimously overturned SB 151 on procedural grounds.

On Monday afternoon, Bevin called a snap special session to convene Monday night. He evidently expected quick passage for a new Republican bill similar to SB 151, but lawmakers failed to agree on legislation and adjourned on Tuesday.

Despite the short notice, several teachers and supporters, including members of KY 120, KEA and JCTA, managed to get to Frankfort to protest. Some of them sang Christmas carols reworded to criticize Bevin.

Brent McKim, JCTA president, disagreed that teachers flunked on election day.  

"In Jefferson County, a number of educators were elected, and [teacher] Travis Brenda took out the second most powerful Republican in the House [Majority Leader Jonathan Shell, R-Lancaster] in the May GOP primary," he said.

KY 120, the KEA, JCTA and the Kentucky State AFL-CIO backed Brenda, a moderate. 

Brewer pointed out that the four groups also supported Tina Bojanawoski of Louisville, another centrist Democrat. She edged conservative Republican Phi Moffett of Louisville last month.

Added McKim: "I think it’s important to keep in mind that the Republicans in the General Assembly responded to the engagement by teachers by making dramatic changes to their proposed pension bill so that the final product was far, far less problematic than what the governor was proposing," McKim said.

Graves countian Matt Powell, a member of the KEA and National Education Association boards, also said the paper tiger charge is a bum rap. 

Custodial supervisor at an elementary school near Mayfield, he said the pension issue "if anything has woken the sleeping giant-- educators.

"However, educators are not the only ones voting.  We need to get the school community and parents involved. I’ve had several tell me that they voted for Bevin, but never again. This goes along with his approval rating recently dropping, too."