A sexual harassment scandal just took down a leading Republican politician in Kentucky
On Sunday, Kentucky’s House Speaker Jeff Hoover (R) resigned his leadership post under pressure — following revelations that he and several other legislators had settled a sexual harassment complaint with a woman. I reached out to Joe Gerth, a longtime political reporter and columnist for the Louisville Courier Journal, for some perspective on how the story is playing out in the state and where it might go from here. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Walk me through the arc of these Jeff Hoover allegations and his resignation. How long — beginning to end? And did he fight it?
Gerth: This was a flash scandal. I think Hoover had some indication that something might be coming for some time and there were a few subtle signs that something was going on with respect to Republican leadership staff, but he received a letter alerting him to the allegations that were being made against him on Oct. 17, and within days he, along with three other Republican House members and his top staffer, were entering into mediation with attorneys for the woman.
On Oct. 25, he and the others settled the claim with the woman and on the night of Nov. 1, the Courier Journal ran a story citing sources saying that Hoover had entered a secret settlement to make allegations of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment go away.
On Nov. 3, Hoover met with the GOP House caucus and basically told them nothing — said he was bound by a confidentiality agreement and little more. House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell held a press conference saying that that the GOP House Caucus fully supported Hoover — a statement that was patently untrue, which angered some members who had some real problems with what Hoover was alleged to have done and the fact that he still hasn’t answered key questions like where did the money to pay the settlement come from.
There was a flurry of activity following that meeting and press conference and the following day, Gov. Matt Bevin took the unprecedented step of calling a press conference on a Saturday, during the University of Kentucky football game against Ole Miss, to call for Hoover to step down. Hoover took the offensive and attacked Bevin and said he would not step down. More members of the House came out against Hoover, however, and by noon on Sunday, he obviously realized that he would not be able to hang on to power.
It doesn’t look like he fought the sexual harassment charges very much, considering the speed that he entered into negotiations and the speed at which the confidential agreement — of which we still don’t know the details — was reached. On the political front, he was defiant until the end when he finally resigned. I think he fought it as best he could but the pressure on him to step down was immense.
Cillizza: Hoover resigned as leader. But he is staying on as a state representative. How much pressure will he be under to leave there too?
Gerth: I don’t have a really good feel for this yet but my gut tells me that he’s been around for 20 years and is well liked by the Republican caucus and if nothing else, he has bought himself a little bit of time — at least until the internal review and any sort of law enforcement investigation is finished. What is clear is that his career as a big player in the Kentucky General Assembly is over and it’s hard to imagine him — at least in the short term — rehabilitating his image.
If any of the investigation turns up more than what we know now, you may well see an effort to push him out of the General Assembly but I would suspect that he would have to make the decision to leave. I don’t believe that the Kentucky General Assembly has impeached and removed any office holder since “Honest” Dick Tate, Kentucky’s state treasurer who absconded with the state’s treasury in 1888. The legislature was prepared to remove an agriculture secretary a few decades ago but he resigned before it could.
And pressure will intensify on him if Republicans start to believe that his continued presence in the legislature will imperil the party’s chances to hold onto the state House — which it won in 2016 for the first time in nearly 100 years — in the 2018 mid-term elections.
Cillizza: Several other state representatives were involved in this sexual harassment settlement. What’s their status?
Gerth: The governor has called for everyone who has signed such a settlement to resign from office but obviously that hasn’t happened yet. Two of the members that were named in the settlement are Reps. Michael Meredith and Jim DeCesare. They were committee chairmen but have been ousted. The other member is Rep. Brian Linder.
I think they can, like Hoover, at least hang on for the short term while these investigations are going on. Whether or not they can make it to the end of their terms will likely be determined by what is uncovered in those investigations. It’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t see primary challenges in 2018.
Cillizza: What does this mean for the Republican party in Kentucky? Gov. Bevin called for mass resignations of anyone involved. Hoover pushed back on Bevin. Where does this go?
Gerth: It looks like the party could be in civil war following the governor’s call and Hoover’s defiant response. This is going to make it very difficult for the party to pass anything truly controversial in the short term. Kentucky is trying to deal with a massive state pension crisis and push through some sort of tax reform. It’s hard to imagine this happening without Hoover’s leadership.
Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne has taken control of the GOP caucus. He’s well-liked but he’s never been in such a high-profile position. And while he has led on some issues, he’s still a bit of an unknown quantity. It’s going to be difficult for him to bring together a divided caucus to support Bevin’s agenda, especially since there are many House members still loyal to Hoover and could work against Bevin either behind the scenes or publicly.
US Rep. James Comer, who lost to Bevin in the 2015 primary by just 83 votes after a former girlfriend said that he struck her while they dated in college, is a close ally of Hoover as well. He has been considering a primary challenge to Bevin. The question now becomes whether this harms the Comer wing of the GOP — of which Hoover was a key player — or if Bevin’s call for resignations energizes the Comer base.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The Hoover revelations tell us _______ about the climate in the state legislature and GOP within Kentucky.” Now, explain.
Gerth: I’m not sure what word goes there, but what this and how it plays out tells me is that the GOP is settling into being the party of power in Kentucky because they are acting like the old Democratic Party did here while they were in power for so many years — sexual harassment in the state legislature and intramural infighting in the GOP.