The race for Kentucky’s 57th District House of Representatives seat features two candidates with markedly different backgrounds.
The incumbent, Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, has served in the House for 15 years and as a Frankfort city commissioner before that. The former educator is taking on one of his former students, Realtor Calen Studler. After dropping out of Frankfort High School, Studler would go back to obtain his GED, work as a manager at McDonald’s for 10 years and spend another decade working in Georgetown at the Toyota factory before pursuing his real estate career in 2009.
For Graham, an important task is working to keep politics out of education, something he sees as a problem today. He also has stressed the need to fund education more adequately.
“I would hope that we would change course and try to make sure we get the best people possible to serve on the Kentucky Board of Education as well as serving as commissioner to implement the policies and the procedures that the General Assembly sets,” Graham said.
Studler, who has supported funding education while calling Kentucky’s mechanism for doing so wrong, emphasized the need to reduce the number of tax-exempt properties so that Frankfort Independent Schools could better capitalize on property taxes.
“We have the leverage; we’ve just got to use it,” Studler said. “You’ve got to have somebody that’s willing to raise the banner.”
While Studler is making his first run for elected office, Graham has been involved in local or state politics for more than two decades.
Graham has far exceeded Studler in campaign contributions, with the incumbent totaling nearly $30,000 in receipts during the general election cycle, according to the most recent reports from the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance. During that same span, which includes data through Oct. 7, Studler collected just more than $5,500 in donations.
Studler, however, outspent Graham in that period, expending nearly all but about $500 of his donations. Graham, on the other hand, had spent just more than $2,600. The next round of financial data is due to KREF by Monday.
One notable donor in the race is Joe Graviss, the Democratic candidate in the 56th District House race who owned nine McDonald’s franchises until last year. Studler’s time with McDonald’s did not earn him points with Graviss, who was Graham’s top donor with a $2,000 contribution.
Other than a $1,000 contribution from himself, Studler’s top contributor is Frankfort resident Eunice Montfort, who gave $500 in the general election cycle. Montfort also contributed $1,000 to Frankfort City Commission candidate John Sower and $300 to Republican Property Valuation Administrator candidate Bobby Hall.
Pensions looming large
Both Graham and Studler were quick to identify the state’s pension crisis as the topic causing the most concern for constituents. Both candidates said they oppose SB 151, the pension overhaul bill that was passed earlier this year only for Attorney General Andy Beshear to file a legal challenge that now awaits action by the Kentucky Supreme Court. The new law would put the state at less risk by means such as moving new teachers to a hybrid plan, but in turn, teachers and other state workers’ benefits could be left vulnerable, opponents of the bill have argued.
“I don’t believe you can or should take anything from an existing employee,” Studler said.
Studler said he has experienced the feeling of having a raise offset by losing benefits during his time at Toyota, and he does not see the bill as an appropriate way to go about funding the state’s pension system. To handle rising pension costs for local governments, Studler said the area should attack stagnancy by improving living conditions downtown and bolstering the tax base.
For Graham, one of the ways to go about resolving the pension issue is having the business community “lead the charge” and work to help fund education that will produce quality workers.
“I think that we need a comprehensive tax modernization to help generate new revenue that deals with the new economy,” Graham said. “But we need to work together in a bipartisan way with business and labor and education, just as we did in the 1990s when we reformed education in Kentucky.”
How do candidates intend to elevate themselves above the other?
Studler reflected on his years of working his way up as an experience that has left him with a solid business acumen.
“I know what it takes to work hard to get results,” he said. “I’ve had blue-collar experience. I understand what it’s like to make minimum wage. I understand what it’s like to work two jobs.
“But I also understand what it’s like to bring myself out of those areas to succeed to where I’m at today.”
Referring to Graham’s years in the public sector, Studler said being a teacher was a great career but also that Graham has “always been on a taxpayer’s dime somehow.”
“I don’t think he has any business savvy,” Studler said. “I really don’t, and I think that’s an advantage for me.”
When asked what separates him from his opponent, Graham said he emphasizes being open and transparent. The representative gave an example: Legislators who work in Frankfort but live outside of the city are exempt from paying occupational taxes in Frankfort, but he has made a point to pay that occupational tax.
“I thought that was a responsibility that I ought to share with the working men and women that work for state government. They were paying it, so I needed to pay it,” Graham said. “I’ve tried to live by the same standards that I hold my constituents to or that the laws hold my constituents (to).”