“I really think we’ve got a good chance to take back the House on Nov. 6,” said James DeWeese of Bardstown, the 50th District Democratic standard bearer. “It can happen, and there’s plenty of time to make it happen.”

Doubtless, Kentucky Republicans would scoff that the opposition candidate is just whistling past the graveyard.

But if DeWeese bests Rep. Chad McCoy (R-Bardstown), and the Democrats fail to flip the House, he vows he’ll be prepared.

“In my line of work, I’m in David-Goliath situations all the time,” said DeWeese, a Louisville-based Teamsters Local 89 officer who represents United Parcel Service ground workers.

“I stare down a billion-dollar company every day. I will take that same fight to Frankfort.”

The race

The 50th District contest is a rematch from 2016. Boosted by the Trump tsunami, McCoy managed nearly 64 percent of the vote against DeWeese.

James DeWeese, candidate for Kentucky House, district 50 (campaign photo)
James DeWeese, candidate for Kentucky House, district 50 (campaign photo)

Even so, DeWeese says he senses that two years of GOP anti-worker and anti-teacher legislation has turned the tide in his party’s favor. “But everybody is going to have to get out and vote, that’s the important thing,” he warned.

The district includes Nelson County, of which Bardstown is the seat.

McCoy, who is seeking a second term, had no primary opposition. DeWeese easily outdistanced Kory Miller in the Democratic primary.

McCoy has been on board with virtually all of GOP Gov. Matt Bevin’s hard-right agenda. In 2017, he voted for the “right to work” law and for the measure that repealed the prevailing wage on state-funded construction projects.

In the last session, McCoy backed controversial Republican pension and tax bills, and he favored GOP legislation that curbed the state unemployment insurance program.

“Bevin supports my opponent, and my opponent is nothing but a rubber stamp for Bevin,” DeWeese said. “I have fought for workers’ rights in my job, and I will do the same in Frankfort.”

'My opponent is nothing but a rubber stamp for Bevin. I have fought for workers' rights in my job, and I will do the same in Frankfort.' – James DeWeese, candidate for KY HouseClick To Tweet

DeWeese: Need to be easier for working people to serve

DeWeese said it’s difficult for working people like him to leave their jobs and serve in the legislature, which meets every year. McCoy is a self-employed attorney.

“We need to be having a conversation about taking down some of the barriers against people from working families who want to run for office at all levels from city council to Congress,” DeWeese said. “Employers should have to hold their jobs and pay their benefits while they are in service to their communities.

“I support anything that will make it easier for working people to run for office.”

Right-to-work-for-less coming true in Kentucky

He said “right to work” really is what unions dub it: “the right to work for less.”

DeWeese said he’s not merely sloganeering. “Here we are coming up on two years of ‘right-to-work’ and Kentucky has the third-lowest wage growth in the country. That’s what we in labor have been saying all along would happen, and it’s going to get worse.

“Stagnating wages run parallel with paycheck-cutting laws like ‘right to work’ and the repeal of prevailing wage.”

Added the candidate: “The Republicans keep talking about the stock market, but the stock market is not the economy. The economy is on Main Street and in the neighborhoods where people are struggling.

“But we need to do a better job of bringing this information out to the public.”

James DeWeese (right) at Fancy Farm 2014 (photo by Berry Craig)
James DeWeese (right) at Fancy Farm 2014 (photo by Berry Craig)

James DeWeese: “This is not how a functioning government works.”

DeWeese also faulted the Republican majority’s lack of openness in Frankfort.

“They promised us transparency, and none of that took place whatsoever. We were locked out of committee rooms. We were locked out of the Capitol, and they tried to silence our voices everywhere.

“This is not how a functioning democratic government should work. People, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, see this and are very, very angry.”

DeWeese denounced the GOP tax bill, which raised taxes on 95 percent of Kentucky wage earners while lavishing hefty tax breaks on wealthier citizens. The measure also imposed new sales taxes on a wide range of services.

“That’s not what people expected,” said DeWeese. “I’ve talked to people in both parties. In fact, I just talked to someone who is a very influential Republican in my area who is now going to vote for me. I think a lot of Republicans—not just Democrats—are very upset at the shift in taxation to working families.”

DeWeese also criticized the Republican public pension plan, which GOP lawmakers crafted in secret with no Democratic input, grafted onto an unrelated sewer bill, and rushed to passage in the waning hours of the session.

The measure’s central feature would force new teachers and most other new public employees into a “hybrid” system that combines features of the old defined benefits pensions with a risky 401(k)-defined contributions plan whose value fluctuates with the stock market.

Attorney Gen. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, said the pension bill was unconstitutional, sued in court and won. The Bevin administration is appealing the ruling.

“For me, when it comes to paychecks and pensions, I don’t believe that there’s a compromise,” DeWeese said. “The defined benefit is the only true retirement plan out there. I’m a 100-percent supporter of a defined benefit plan.”

Thousands of teachers and others flocked to Frankfort to protest the GOP’s idea of pension “reform.”  Bevin belittled the demonstrators.

“But if you are a teacher or a public employee and the pension issue is important to you, you need to be out there knocking on doors, making phone calls, making contributions to our campaigns and helping out any way you can.

“This is where the fight is. You’ve got to do more than vote. You’ve got to get your families, your friends and your neighbors out to vote.”

'This is where the fight is. You've got to do more than vote. You've got to get your families, your friends and your neighbors out to vote.' – James DeWeese, candidate for KY HouseClick To Tweet

DeWeese has been endorsed by the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Jefferson County Teachers Association.

He and his wife Christy have two children, Sydnie, 7, and Mason, 3.

“We also have a spoiled dog named Spots,” DeWeese said with a grin.

But he’s serious about his candidacy. “My message is clear. I’m going to Frankfort because I care about working families.

“My family is a working family. We live paycheck-to-paycheck, too. I have a proven track record of fighting and beating bullies, and I’m going to fight for working families against the Republicans’ paycheck-cutting agenda.”

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Berry Craig
Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of five books on the Civil War in Kentucky. The last one, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is Kentucky’s Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media in the Civil War. His critically-acclaimed Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, also from the University Press, has been reprinted in paperback.