High school math teacher R. Travis Brenda narrowly defeated Kentucky's Republican House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell on Tuesday night—a stunning upset indicative of the political strength of teachers in the state.
Brenda had never run for public office before his bid for the state’s 71st House District, but was animated by teacher angst against a pension bill signed into law back in April.
Shell, according to the Lexington Herald Leader, played an instrumental role in getting the controversial reform measure passed in the legislature. The bill sparked a massive teacher protest in the state, on the heels of other teacher movements in states like West Virginia.
Brenda said that he previously supported the state’s Republican Governor Matt Bevin, “but I won’t again. He has been way too strident against teachers and I can’t accept that.”
And so Brenda ran in the Republican primary against the state house’s GOP leader, ultimately beating Shell by a narrow margin.
The Kentucky Education Association had opposed the pension-cutting plan, which was passed by the legislature in late March without giving many people the opportunity to read it.
It stipulated that new teachers would be entered into a “hybrid” retirement plan that would combine elements of a traditional pension and 401(k) type savings plan. It also included a provision that would allow teachers to only use sick days towards their retirement that they accumulated through the end of 2018. Teachers were also incensed with the process of passing the legislation, which was tucked into a separate bill about sewage services.
Bevin’s comments about the teachers’ strikes only made matters worse.
“I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them,” the governor said at the time. “I guarantee you somewhere today, a child was physically harmed or ingested poison because they were left alone because a single parent didn’t have any money to take care of them.”
He later apologized for the remarks, but the damage was already done.
In a statement on his Facebook page after the win, Brenda said: “First and foremost, thanks go to God for His direction through this process. Thank you to all of those that have been a part of this campaign by helping knock on doors, putting up signs, sharing with friends and neighbors, and trusting me with your vote.”