Susan Westrom – Calling them as she sees them in Frankfort

Susan Westrom (photo by Berry Craig)
Rep. Susan Westrom (photo by Berry Craig)

State Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, is famous in Frankfort for “calling ‘em as she sees ‘em.”

  • On Gov. Matt Bevin’s bid for a second term: “I think that he requires a spotlight for his own well-being.”
On Gov. Matt Bevin's bid for a second term: “I think that he requires a spotlight for his own well-being.” – Rep. Susan WestromClick To Tweet
  • On holier-than-thou House Republicans: “They act like God put them there and that meant they were better than you, and could judge you. But they don’t bother to talk to the sinners anyway.”
On holier-than-thou House Republicans: 'They act like God put them there and that meant they were better than you, and could judge you. But they don't bother to talk to the sinners anyway.' – Rep. Susan WestromClick To Tweet
  • On male lawmakers of either party who push anti-abortion bills: “Why don’t you let the government determine whether or not you can have a vasectomy?”
On male lawmakers of either party who push anti-abortion bills: “Why don’t you let the government determine whether or not you can have a vasectomy?' – Rep. Susan WestromClick To Tweet

She supposes the “maverick” handle fits her.

Westrom seems to delight in raising eyebrows, and sometimes hackles, even among Democrats. She’s not shy about tangling with her party’s leadership.

“I can’t let them upset me,” she said, chuckling.

But independent-mindedness—some might call it cantankerousness—has worked well for Westrom. She won the 79th district seat in 1998 and has kept it since.

She reached Frankfort on her first try for any office. “I had never even worked on a campaign. I was a single mother.”

Westrom upset Rep. Larry Brandstetter. A rising star in the GOP firmament, he was being groomed for leadership, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Nobody was more surprised at Westrom’s win than Minority Leader Danny Ford, R-Mount Vernon. “I’m not sure what the problem there is,” the C-J quoted the puzzled Ford.

Westrom remembered Brandstetter as “a very handsome, wealthy guy.”

She vows that local Democratic bigwigs couldn’t find a well-heeled, good-looking gent to challenge the incumbent. “So, they decided they’d better ask a girl. They hadn’t even done a background check on me.”

Westrom barely beat Brandstetter in that race. This election, though, she’s favored to win yet again. Her opponent is largely-unknown Joshua Irvin.

The Republican wants voters to know he’s a Bevin ally. The candidate’s webpage features a video where he stands admiringly next to the governor who obligingly touts him in a minute-long monologue.

Irvin is a longshot. But so are the Democrats’ chances of retaking the House; the GOP enjoys a hefty 63-37 edge.

“It would certainly be much, much more comfortable if we had enough Democratic voices so that we could provide a safety net for our public,” Westrom said.

Her party had ruled the House roost from 1921 until 2016 when the Trump tidal wave swept away 17 Democrats, including Speaker Greg Stumbo.

“Oh, it was so painful,” Westrom said. “I was so angry to think that people thought we could fix everything in Frankfort, and they didn’t have to take the time or the commitment to vote – that voting didn’t matter. Man, oh man, did we learn a lesson. It was brutal, so brutal.”

Westrom less than fondly recalled her first trip back to the House chamber two Januaries ago. “We no longer had any power, no prestige, nothing.”

The new Republican leadership had evicted the Democrats from choice aisle seats. “They moved them into the rows so whenever they had to get out they had to rub their bellies against the back of the heads of people sitting in front of them.”

Westrom was surprised to see her seat hadn’t been shifted inboard. “I was the only Democrat that was left sitting where I’d been. Why? Because I had worked across the aisle and they saw how my leadership sometimes treated me.”

But bipartisanship wasn’t on the GOP legislative agenda. Union-busting was.

For years, the Democratic House had been organized labor’s levee against a flood of anti-union legislation. (The Senate had been Republican for going on two decades.)

House Republicans bulldozed the Democrats, losing no time in teaming with the GOP Senate to pass “right to work” and repeal the prevailing wage.

“Those two pieces of legislation, they were so painful for me,” she said. “My father was a union bricklayer; my stepfather worked at John Deere as a union man. Unions built the middle class.”

The Democrats’ stand, however futile, did not go unnoticed in union ranks. Their names went up on the United Steelworkers District 8 “Wall of Fame” banner, along with the names of a handful of anti-RTW and pro-PW Republicans. (The other side of the banner is a “Wall of Shame” that lists GOP lawmakers who backed the bills.)

After Westrom spoke to the 2017 state AFL-CIO convention in Lexington, she paused for photographs while she proudly pointed to her name on the “Wall of Fame.”

Rep. Susan Westrom points to her name on the AFL-CIO "Wall of Fame," listing those who stood with unions in the General Assembly. (photo by Berry Craig)
Rep. Susan Westrom points to her name on the AFL-CIO “Wall of Fame,” listing those who stood with unions in the General Assembly. (photo by Berry Craig)

Likewise, Westrom’s party was unable to derail a GOP bill opening the door to charter schools.

Bevin happily signed the anti-union and anti-public education bills. The 2017 session was “like being slapped in the face every single day,” Westrom said. “It was just a toxic environment.”

The Republican dozer was back at work in the 2018 session of the legislature. GOP lawmakers passed a pair of controversial bills that raised taxes on 95 percent of wage earners and curbed pension benefits for most newly-hired teachers and other public employees.

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

The Republicans crafted the legislation behind closed doors with no Democratic input, grafted it onto an unrelated sewer bill, and approved it on a near straight-party vote at the end of the session.

How the Republicans muscled the bill added to teacher ire. “But I don’t think they’ve learned their lesson,” Westrom.

She warns teachers and everybody else that unless the Democrats make big gains on election day, they’ll again be powerless to stop a new pension bill, or any other anti-education, anti-union, or anti-worker bill the GOP proposes.

“We’re just a flea to them,” Westrom said.

GOP pension “reform” drew thousands of teachers, public employees, and their supporters—many of them union members—to the Capitol for some of the largest protests ever in Kentucky.

Demonstrators went home vowing to “remember in November.” Said Westrom, “I think not only was the legislation insulting and targeting, but then came the nasty barbs and insulting comments to people who have loved our children before they ever laid eyes on them.”

Most of the vitriol was Bevin-brewed.

Westrom believes the anti-Bevin and anti-GOP ardor will still be strong on Nov. 6. “I absolutely think we will reduce the majority. But I learned a long time ago not to predict anything in the Capitol, or in Kentucky.”

Some optimistic Democrats are forecasting a 10 to 12 seat pickup in the House. “I don’t think that’s overly optimistic at all….[but] if we pick up just 10 or 12 we’re still not going to be any better off than we were last year.

“So, the voters better get prepared and get out and vote.”

Meanwhile, she laments dwindling collegiality and increasing polarization in the legislature.

“Why? That is such an unanswerable question,” she said, suggesting it’s linked to “desire for power, belief in your own self-importance, and forgetting the fact that all people are created equal and that you’re not the only shining star there is.”

She’s also sorry that, not coincidentally, campaigning has grown more negative. “I have never practiced lying in a campaign to denigrate another individual that I know nothing about, but that has become pretty much the norm for people that are running against me. I think the public deserves so much better.”

She suspects most Kentuckians aren’t as polarized as their lawmakers. “People are people are people. Yes, some are Democrats, and some are Republicans, but 60 percent are pretty centrist, and they don’t care what you are as long as you know who they are and care.”

Westrom is glad to see women running in historic numbers this year. Most of them are Democrats.

She predicted that when they show up in Frankfort, male lawmakers “won’t know what hit them, even the Democrat leadership.”

She thinks some Democratic women elected in 2016 are ready for leadership posts now. “They are really bright women who are articulate and know how to play the game. They’ve got personal experience from being in office back home, which is really an incredible leadership foundation for them.”

Many of the first-term Democratic lawmakers—and new candidates this year—came through Emerge Kentucky, the organization that recruits and trains women to run for office.

Westrom is an Emerge fan. “I love ‘em. They’re fabulous. Absolutely fabulous. They have really taken the fear of running for office away from women.”

Westrom is among a dwindling group of long-termers in the House. Several veterans retired after the last session.

Westrom called her tenure “a wonderful opportunity, but I don’t need to be in the limelight. I don’t need to have a camera on me. I don’t need a building named after me.”


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Berry Craig of Arlington, Ky., is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of seven books and co-author of two more, all on Kentucky history. His latest book is Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy, published last fall by South Limestone Books, an imprint of the University Press of Kentucky.