Ronel Brown, candidate for Kentucky House, district 29 (photo by Berry Craig)
Ronel Brown, candidate for Kentucky House, district 29 (photo by Berry Craig)

Ronel Brown never battled a blaze with Buddy Wheatley.

But the former firefighters might end up fellow lawmakers in Frankfort.

An educator, Ronel Brown is the Democratic hopeful in Louisville’s 29th District. Also a Democrat, Wheatley, a Covington labor lawyer, wants to occupy the 65th District seat.

Brown retired as a Louisville Fire Department captain-public information officer. Wheatley climbed the Covington Fire Department ladder to chief.

Brown is seeking to oust Rep. Kevin Bratcher, an 11-term Republican and the House majority whip.

“My opponent has turned his back on working people, not only in my district, but across the commonwealth,” Ronel Brown said.

Click To Tweet has turned his back on working people, not only in my district, but across the commonwealth. – Ronel Brown, candidate for Kentucky House, district 29″ quote=”My opponent [Kevin Bratcher] has turned his back on working people, not only in my district, but across the commonwealth. – Ronel Brown, candidate for Kentucky House, district 29″]

Neither Brown nor Bratcher had primary opposition. Bratcher ran unopposed in 2016.

Brown is unfazed that district voters have dispatched Bratcher to Frankfort every two years since 1996.

Brown says Bratcher doesn’t represent working class voters. “I’ll be their advocate, so they’ll have a fighting chance in Frankfort,” the Democrat promised.

Brown had never run for office. But he’s a veteran of one campaign, his wife’s. (Ronel and Denise Brown have three grown children and one grandchild.)

In 2014, he helped his spouse, a University of Louisville law school grad, win a seat on the local bench. She’s a Jefferson County Family Court judge.

“Helping her run gave me some knowledge of the process,” Brown said, adding that the toughest part of his campaign is raising money.

“Most of the people I know are regular working folks who live from paycheck-to-paycheck, so asking them to donate is tough.”

He’s opted for an easy-on-the wallet fund drive he calls “29 for 29.”

Brown explained, “I’m asking people to give $29 for the 29th District. I don’t think that’s too much.”

Since classes resumed for the fall semester, Brown has been campaigning after school and on weekends. He’s on the faculty at duPont Manual High.

He’s especially proud of an article about his candidacy that ran in The RedEye, the student newspaper.

“Not many students and staff may know of Brown, instructional assistant who has been working with autistic students at Manual for just over four years,” Savanna Vest wrote, “but the changes he’s been guiding in both the minds of students and his local community have been increasingly profound.”

The firefighter-teacher-turned politician hopes to change voter habits profoundly district-wide. The 29th rolls across Fern Creek, J-Town, and part of Okolona.

Brown said he’s kept up with local, state and national politics since he voted for the first time at age 19.

Vest quoted the candidate: “The one thing that’s gotten me more engaged [in politics] was that prior to President Obama’s election…I saw that the climate was definitely changing in America with the Tea Party [movement] and some of the ultra-conservatives trying to push their conservatism on a lot of people and taking away a lot of freedoms we already have.”

Ronel Brown with Congressman John Yarmuth (campaign photo)
Ronel Brown with Congressman John Yarmuth (campaign photo)

Ronel Brown on the issues

On the issues, Ronel Brown

  • Opposes right to work and prevailing wage repeal
  • Opposes cuts to the state workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance programs
  • Opposes charter schools and school vouchers
  • Opposes cuts in public education funding from kindergarten through higher education
  • Supports fully-funded defined benefits pensions for teachers and other public employees
  • Supports Kentucky’s Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act
  • Supports LGBTQ rights
  • Supports raising the minimum wage
  • Supports a progressive income tax system where people who make the most money pay the most in taxes.

Brown’s pro-worker stance has earned him the Kentucky State AFL-CIO’s endorsement.

The campaign

Because he’s running his campaign on a shoestring, Brown can’t afford big ad buys. Hence, he’s focusing on social media and on wearing out shoe leather.

“My strategy is knocking on doors and attending as many public and community events as I can, all the way up to Nov. 6,” he said.

Brown is targeting reliably Democratic precincts. “But that’s not to say that I am dismissing independents.

“In my campaign, I’m doing what the fire department has been doing for 160 years. When the alarm sounds, it doesn’t matter your race, ethnicity, gender or anything else, we’re there.”

Ronel Brown on Kevin Bratcher

Bratcher hasn’t been there for teachers and other public employees, according to Brown. The Republican helped corral votes for the GOP’s controversial public pension bill.

Crafted behind doors barred to Democrats and passed with no Democratic support at the end of the last legislative session, the measure would force teachers, and most other new public employee hires, into a “hybrid” plan that blends features of the old defined benefits plan with a new defined contributions plan that naturally would fluctuate with the stock market.

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

“Anybody who works for a company or for the government deserves a guaranteed benefits pension,” Brown said. “I think this issue crosses party lines, and hopefully the independents and Republicans will agree with me and vote for me.”

The Democrat is also quick to remind voters that his opponent is an ally of Gov. Matt Bevin. Brown copied to his Facebook page a Bratcher tweet showing a photo of him with the governor. “I’ve served with 4 Ky Govs, @MattBevin is the best by far. @GovMattBevin,” says the caption.

“The best.. liar, cheat, con, sociopath, egotistical… ok, I’ll stop before it leaves PG and becomes more adult rated,” a Brown booster responded.

He added, “Joking aside, any elected person who defends the actions of this Governor has to go. Governor Backtrack Bevin has insulted the working people of Kentucky, insulted teachers & state workers, demonized the poor, and prematurely signed the death certificates of coal miners and low wage earners. Please vote on November 6 to take back our Commonwealth!”

Ronel Brown on reaching out

He said that as soon as he gets to Frankfort, he will reach out to Republican lawmakers “and offer them an invitation to come to Jefferson County and see the issues that are impacting us here.

“I would also ask if I could come and walk their streets or go to a public event and talk about their issues.”

Brown says he doesn’t understand why Bevin goes out of his way to spurn Democrats and snarl at his critics, notably teachers who flocked to Frankfort to protest GOP pension “reform.”

“It doesn’t cost anything to be nice to people,” he said. “We at least need to be listening to each other and opening up a dialogue of communications.”

'It doesn't cost anything to be nice to people. We at least need to be listening to each other and opening up a dialogue of communications.' – Ronel Brown, candidate for Kentucky House, district 29Click To Tweet

The candidate is proud that he carried a union card for most of his working career.

He joined International Association of Firefighters Local 345 when he hired in with the LFD. Before he became a firefighter, he belonged to Teamsters Local 89 at Jeffboat and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen at the old Louisville & Nashville Railroad, now CSX.

He said 29th District voters should send him to Frankfort instead of Bratcher “if you want a candidate that will keep you informed and have an open-door policy.

“My cell phone number is on all of my literature. A lot of politicians say, ‘trust me.’ Well, if I lose your trust, don’t vote for me next time.”

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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.