Three vie for Eastern KY senate seat

Published 11:57 am Wednesday, May 15, 2024

In one eastern Kentucky state senate district, two Republicans are launching an offensive against incumbent Sen. Johnnie Turner.

Shawn Gilley and Randy Thompson will appear on the ballot next to Turner in the May primary election. The winner will represent Senate District 29, which covers Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Knott and Letcher counties, in the state legislature for the following four years.

Turner has been a Kentucky senator since 2021, and also served in the state house from 1999 to 2002. He has practiced law for over 40 years, and is currently the vice chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

Gilley is a member of the Letcher County Public Schools Board of Education, representing district 5. He’s also been in the ambulance business for almost 18 years, including time as an ambulance service executive director.

Thompson is a former Knott County judge executive and radio personality.

He was removed from office after being convicted of conspiring to buy votes in the November 2006 general election.

Turner has raised the most of the trio, with about $61,000 in his campaign coffers. He’s earned the financial support of Kentucky General Assembly leaders, Senate President Robert Stivers and Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer. Turner is also buoyed by over a dozen political action committees, including the Kentucky Coal PAC, Alliance Coal PAC and Speak Up for Rural Electrification.

Thompson has raised $18,000, with over $12,000 self-funded, while Gilley has raised $900, nearly all self-funded.

Why are they running?

After dealing with the aftermath of losing his home in the 2022 floods, Gilley said he thinks there was an opportunity for the state to do more in Eastern Kentucky.

He wants to be a stronger voice in the legislature advocating for the region. Gilley said he would vote based on people, not politics.

“We may not have an employee base that pays a lot of state taxes, but we have people and that’s what it’s about,” Gilley said. “… I think people are tired of election years being the time that they’re promised everything and then the following three, four years, nothing happens.”

Upon speaking with local leaders who didn’t feel like they were getting enough attention or help from their current representative, Thompson decided to throw his hat in the ring.

As Knott County judge executive, Thompson said he got to know many of the players in office, and got the ball rolling on adventure tourism to diversify the region’s economy.

“I’ll be one vote of 138, and so you have to have the ability to speak and plead your case and build your case in order to get others to join you and help with the cause,” Thompson said. “And I want to have that opportunity for our people.”

Turner said he’s running for re-election because he’s a “people’s person.” He cited key accomplishments from his time in office, including addressing workers compensation, running water issues and removing a ban on four-wheelers crossing the road. He added that he helped get state flood recovery funds to the region.

“Sometimes it’s not just passing legislation, but amending or stopping legislation is just as important,” Turner said.

Key issues

According to Gilley, there’s one key to Eastern Kentucky’s success.

“This area is not going to change, this area’s not going to get better, unless we have a strong public education system,” he said.

The first 12 to 13 years of education are crucial to building the region’s workforce, Gilley said.

Additionally, the state of the region’s roads, bridges and drinking water is “absurd,” Gilley said. People remain in tents and campers after the 2022 flood, school buses can’t cross many bridges because it’s too dangerous and some parts of the region still don’t have clean drinking water.

As an EMS, Gilley said they see accidents in the same road areas over and over, but when they ask for help it goes unnoticed.

Without the state’s help in developing strong public education and infrastructure, Gilley said the region can’t prosper.

“Do you expect a company to invest millions of dollars in eastern Kentucky if they can’t get good water supply, if they can’t get access to reasonable electricity, if they can’t get access to good and reasonable broadband?” he asked.

Thompson is also primarily concerned about infrastructure, particularly the road conditions and lack of clean drinking water in some areas.

He also wants to revitalize the coal industry.

“Right now, America cannot do without coal and support the demand on the electric grid,” Thompson said. “It will not sustain without coal.”

Thompson isn’t opposed to solar or nuclear, but says Kentucky isn’t ready to rely on those sources yet.

He’s noticed that many Kentuckians are commuting across the Tennessee border to work for companies and factories there. Thompson wants to bring those jobs back to Kentucky.

One of Turner’s drafted bills would encourage judges to order people ticketed for not having insurance to get six months of prepaid insurance instead of paying a $500 fine to the courts.

He’s been talking to U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers about natural disaster recovery, he said, and is focused on applying for federal water and sewer infrastructure grants through the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Turner is also concerned about energy, and has been part of the team trying to stop the federal government from tearing down power plants still operating in Kentucky.

He’s used his law experience as well.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been taking on the position of writing statutes and helping people write them that benefit the public, make it more simple for people to get through the court system,” Turner said.


Gilley said he supports giving teachers raises, and added that Eastern Kentucky school systems don’t have the ability to give raises without the state’s help. He’s not convinced the SEEK increase was enough.

Gilley is also worried about the potential “devastating” effects school choice could have on public education.

Thompson said as of now, he would vote against the school choice amendment on the ballot this November. After talking to local school leaders, he’s become more concerned about putting public tax dollars into private schools.

Turner said the state has done a “tremendous job” of changing the format of the school system to give local people more control. He noted the legislature’s  move to ban transgender girls from girls athletics and ensuring classrooms are free from “indoctrination.”

He added that they’ve funded school resource officers, helped nursing and professional schools facing worker shortages and offered teacher raises while funding a historically neglected pension system.

“So we’re playing a balancing act, but we are funding the schools,” Turner said. “We’ve given them raises every year.”