Kentucky Democrat seated as election challenge looms

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A Democrat elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives by a one-vote margin took his seat Tuesday as the Republican-dominated legislature appointed a committee of his peers to hear a challenge by his GOP opponent.

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Republican leaders had refused to say whether they would let Jim Glenn take his seat on the first day of the 2019 legislative session while the challenge was still pending. Glenn arrived at the House chamber with his lawyer shortly before noon and took his front row seat as supporters chanted "Let Glenn in!" He raised his hand and took the oath of office with other lawmakers when the House convened. But how long he stays in that seat will be up to his colleagues, a majority of whom belong to the opposing political party.

"I won the election. I'm here to serve the people of Daviess County. Whether you win by one vote or 1,000 votes, you're still the winner," Glenn said.

The mood was much calmer in the state Senate, where Republicans also hold an overwhelming majority. Dozens of bills were introduced, and the GOP majority took the first step toward accelerating work on several bills, including one that would ban abortion in Kentucky once a fetal heartbeat is detected.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said a few bills, including the fetal heartbeat bill, could potentially be voted on by the Senate later this week.

But it was the drama surrounding Glenn's election that is likely to dominate the legislature's first week, a time lawmakers have traditionally used for organizing before they come back in February to consider legislation.

Glenn got 6,319 votes on election day and Johnson got 6,318 votes. The Kentucky State Board of Elections certified Glenn as the winner. But Johnson has asked the House of Representatives for a recount, alleging local elected officials incorrectly rejected 17 absentee ballots that should have been counted. He also says six ballots that were counted should be disqualified because the voters did not sign the precinct voting roster as required by law.

Republican House Speaker David Osborne said the House of Representative is the only entity allowed to oversee that recount. Glenn's lawyer disagrees, saying the matter should be handled by the courts.

On Tuesday, the House clerk put the names of 99 House members onto slips of paper and stuffed them inside film canisters. She then randomly selected nine members to serve on a board to oversee the challenge. Six Republicans and three Democrats were selected. The board met Tuesday afternoon and selected Republican Jason Petrie as its chairman and scheduled another meeting the following day. But any decision the board makes would have to be approved by the full House of Representatives.

Democrats argued the election challenge should not be heard at all, with Democratic state Rep. Derrick Graham calling it "a mockery of the free election process."

"If we do this ... then no election is safe in this commonwealth or in this country. We should all be flabbergasted by this," Graham said.

Republican Rep. Chad McCoy said it was lawmakers' duty to hear the challenge, pointing out the 17 absentee ballots that had not been counted.

"What about those 17 people? What about their rights?" he said.

While House lawmakers spent the day figuring out what to do with Glenn, the Senate's top leader took aim at executive-branch lobbying. Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said people paid to influence the governor's office and other state agencies don't follow the same rules as legislative lobbyists.

"We need to make sure that there is total transparency," Stivers said in touting a bill he described as a "starting point" on the issue.

Senate Republicans also indicated priorities for the 2019 session would include school safety, a follow-up to last year's tax overhaul and changes to the state's struggling public pension systems. The Republican-dominated legislature made changes to the state pension system last year only to have the state Supreme Court strike the law down on procedural grounds.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called the legislature back in session last month to pass the law again, but lawmakers adjourned without passing anything. Thayer said lawmakers could pass the same bill again or come up with a new bill.

"I think starting over again is a possibility," Thayer said. "I think doing nothing is a possibility. I don't prefer the latter."