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Changing to Independent - local judges flee Democrats
Democratic Lt. Gov. Abramson in talk with now independent Judge Van Newberry

During 2013 three Jackson Purchase County Judges left the Democratic Party. They join a growing group of Americans fleeing political party affiliation.

Fulton County Judge David Gallagher announced early last year that he was leaving the Democratic Party. The former football coach, disapproved of the direction of Democrats at the national level. Gallagher is not running for another term.  At this writing, the only potential candidates for the job are Democrats.

Calloway County Judge Larry Elkins announced in May that he was leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent. He told the Murray Ledger and Times that he felt there was no room in the Party for a blue dog Democrat. Elkins has filed to run for a fifth term.

The end of the year surprise was McCracken County Judge Van Newberry’s party switch. Newberry changed his registration to independent in late December according to a report in the Paducah Sun.

Newberry’s defection means that 37.5% of Jackson Purchase county judges are now registered independents.

The trend is not particularly surprising in a region that is rapidly shifting from true Democratic blue to right leaning red.  The first politician to move his membership from one party to the other - and then on to independent was Sen. Bob Leeper. He was first elected in 1990.

At the time of his defection from Democrat to Republican, Leeper’s change of party was seen as personal pique. His additional  move to Independent reinforced opinions that the move was unique to Leeper.

GOP Senate President David Williams did not punish Leeper for his change of identification. He kept Leeper on as Senate Budget chair. After the party change, Leeper continued to caucus with the Republican majority.  Then Williams left the Senate for a job as a circuit court judge.

Western Kentuckian Leeper vied with Eastern Kentuckian Robert Stivers to replace Williams as Senate President. Leeper lost. It appears that while Williams may have been forgiving of the party switch. Leeper’s GOP colleagues were not .  Whether that defeat has anything to do with the McCracken Countian’s decision not to run again remains to be seen. Leeper said he wanted to spend more time with his family. 

While Leeper has had spirited challenges from both political parties in his previous election bids, no strong candidate was waiting in the wings to take Leeper out of the Senate in 2014. Leeper’s early announcement in October has left time for both parties to scramble for a replacement.

The case of local officials moving away from the Democratic Party is more problematic for the Democrats than one maverick senator changing his registration.

Local officials look to Frankfort and Washington for good things to float downstream to their jurisdictions. With a majority of West Kentucky’s legislators having an “R” behind their names, county judges of Calloway, McCracken and Fulton will have someone to talk to when they visit the Capital City.  Their chances of catching the ears of their Congressional delegation also improve without the scarlet “D” next to their names.

But will those in higher office have anything to offer Western Kentucky local officials - no matter what letter follows their name?

We do not think they will. What we do know is that according to a recent Gallup poll, these gentlemen belong to a growing number of Americans who identify as independents. According to a story on Louisville‘s WFPL‘s website, 42% now identify themselves neither as Democrats or Republicans. (See story below)

Kentucky’s senior senator cannot offer goodies without facing a charge of (yawn) waste, fraud and abuse from his primary challenger. Even were he so inclined, he would have to get his constituent request past Harry Reid’s Senate majority. Then McConnell would have to persuade a parsimonious House to grant something to an area few have heard of and fewer care about.

Sen. Rand Paul has made his attitude on government spending eminently clear: He’s agin it!

Congressman Ed Whitfield may have kind words for his constituents but he offers little else. There are few (if any) libraries, schools, or roads in West Kentucky bearing the name “Whitfield.“ 

The Purchase’s delegation in Frankfort is undistinguished and undistinguishable from their colleagues. Leeper, the leading far western Kentuckian in the General Assembly gave Paducah hope that the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant would survive. That hope has since been dashed and thousands of workers with good paying union jobs won’t be working at USEC through the new year - absent a miracle.

Executive branches at the state and federal levels will also prove unresponsive.

Governor Steve Beshear’s eyes and heart are fixed firmly on the central and eastern portions of the Commonwealth.  Although he assisted Fulton County in getting two small factories and Ballard a carp processing plant, the Governor has concentrated on friendlier territory for development.

Finally, local officials may want to cross the White House off their itinerary when they next they visit Washington. The overwhelming anti-Obama sentiment of West Kentucky gives the incumbent little reason to look favorably on the pleas for jobs for the western end of Kentucky.  The urban born Obama has little sympathy to spare for the plight of rural America - especially for a section that goes out of its way to express its disdain for him.

While the change to independent signals the disgust many Americans feel with the two political parties, it remains to be seen if it was the wisest course for their elected officials to take.

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