By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — It didn’t take long for Gov. Steve Beshear to name Republican Senate President David Williams to a vacant 40th Circuit Judgeship in southern Kentucky.
Beshear made the announcement Friday, one day after a nominating commission included Williams among the required three nominations. The others were Angela Capps, a public defender, and Steven Douglas Hurt, a retired district judge. The circuit covers Clinton, Cumberland and Monroe counties.
Williams said called the position “a dream job,” one his father had wished for his son before the elder Williams’ death, and said he looks forward to “going home” to live in his native Cumberland County.
Williams said he would not use the higher judicial salary to “enhance my legislative pension,” and plans to run for re-election in two years when the unexpired term of the recently deceased Judge Eddie Lovelace, a longtime friend of Williams, ends.
Beshear and Williams have clashed almost from day one after Beshear was elected in 2007, primarily over gambling but really over a multitude of policy issues and politics. During Beshear’s successful re-election campaign in 2011, when he was opposed by Williams, the two barely disguised their mutual disdain.
Beshear had little to say in his Friday statement other than he’d chosen Williams — as nearly everyone in Frankfort expected.
“I am appointing Sen. David Williams to this judgeship effective Nov. 2,” Beshear said. “Sen. Williams is an experienced lawyer and is familiar with the district, having represented the area in the legislature for more than 20 years.”
Williams said he will resign his Senate seat on Nov. 2 after being sworn in as circuit judge and would play no part in the selection of his successor as Senate President, saying he did not think that is appropriate. In fact, Williams said he would have nothing to say on politics while serving as a judge.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell issued a statement saying Williams’ “twenty-five years in the state Senate stand as one of the most accomplished tenures in the history of the commonwealth.”
In a press conference Friday after Beshear’s announcement, Williams declined to criticize the man who’d just appointed him to a job he said he already had planned to seek in two years when he expected Lovelace to retire anyway.
“I am not going to impugn (Beshear); he has not impugned me,” Williams said. “I really leave with no hard feelings toward anybody in the House or the Senate or toward the governor.”
Williams said it was the nature of his position to draw fire from political opponents and the press but he considered it a “great honor these last 12 years to be president of the Senate.”
He said others will have to decide his legacy as the first Republican President of the Senate, often criticized by opponents for riding herd over his caucus and playing obstructionist to the Democratic House and two Democratic governors.
But Williams said much was accomplished during those 12 years: infrastructure improvements, education reform, improvements in higher education and his time in charge of the Senate included no scandal.
He also disputed the common perception that he drove his caucus on every position, saying at times he took the heat for positions chosen by the caucus even though he didn’t always agree.
Williams’ departure opens up leadership opportunities for other Republicans in the Senate, but he said those will be decided without his input in December after the Nov. 6 elections. In the meantime, he said, one of his colleagues will be chosen as an interim co-chair of the Legislative Research Commission which is co-chaired by the speaker of the house and Senate President.
Two 16th state Senate District Republicans said Friday they are interested in succeeding Williams and will seek their party’s nomination for the special election to fulfill Williams’ unexpired term.
Rep. Sara Beth Gregory, R-Monticello, a Wayne County attorney, said she is “interested in seeking the nomination.” Clinton County attorney David Cross also said he is “pursuing the nomination.”
Each characterized the other as a friend and praised the qualifications of the other. Neither sounded likely to be deterred by the other’s interest, however.
“Politics is sometimes a matter of timing and opportunity and people have to decide what is good for them,” Cross said. Gregory said she is “excited about the opportunity to continue to serve the people of this area.”
The heavily Republican district covers Clinton, Cumberland, McCreary, Monroe, Wayne and Whitley counties. But with the powerful Williams gone it may also be a target of redistricting by other Senate Republicans who wish to strengthen their own incumbency with more Republican voters.
Gregory said re-districting is always a concern, “but I am confident the districts will be re-drawn in ways that would be favorable to (Republican) incumbents.”
Cross said he isn’t concerned about re-districting. He said he’s more concerned about serving “two years and not with re-districting for my own benefit.” He added that may make his candidacy for the nomination more attractive.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.