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Bill Straub: What the Kentucky legislature lacked was a heart and soul and a ‘true champion of the people’

Paul Mason was one of the more conscientious members of the Kentucky General Assembly back in the 1980s and ‘90s. A Democratic representative from Whitesburg, he was lauded in a House resolution following his untimely death in 1998 as “a true champion of the people,” a man who served as “a powerful voice for the sick, poor, and needy.”

At one, sad juncture in his legislative career, Mason was overtaken by tragedy. A daughter, Belinda, contracted HIV-AIDS in 1987 after receiving a blood transfusion while giving birth. At the time, those suffering from the malady were treated like lepers. Folks steered clear, fearing they might also come down with what was then called the gay plague. The White House under President Ronald Reagan was apathetic about the crisis, dodging almost any mention of it in public.

Despite widespread fear and reticence, Paul Mason stood up and set about the task of transforming the manner in which the Commonwealth and its residents perceived, treated and cared for those living with the disease.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

And the Kentucky General Assembly stood with him and all those facing a dreadful fate which, at the time, almost always resulted in death.

In 1990, lawmakers passed legislation to foster a greater understanding of HIV and AIDS, prohibit discrimination of those suffering from the disease and ensure their basic human rights. The law established education programs, required AIDS training for healthcare professionals and protection from discrimination.

AIDS has to date claimed more than 700,000 American lives, including that of Belinda Mason, who passed away in 1991.

Paul Mason’s crusade shows what the Kentucky General Assembly can achieve when it rises to the occasion. It offers a stark contrast to what occurred during the 2023 legislative session when that same body, swathed in ignorance and mean-spiritedness, lacking the slightest drop of common decency, sought to ruin innocent lives, condemning some of the most vulnerable members of our society to a hopeless existence.

Lawmakers spent a lot of time this year tap-dancing around Senate Bill 150, a measure intended to relegate transgender individuals — those whose gender identity does not correspond with their sex at birth — to third-class status. They ultimately went so much further, turning an insult into an assault.

And it was done in the blink of a legislative eye despite the pleas of Sen. Karen Berg, D-Louisville, whose child, Henry Berg-Brousseau, a trans person, committed suicide less than a month before the beginning of the session.

It ultimately passed both chambers and, as of this writing, it sits on Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk awaiting a potential veto. Should he choose that course it will almost certainly become law anyway with the Republican-controlled House and Senate overriding the Democratic governor.

The bill started as a means to allow teachers to refer to trans students by the pronoun of their birth sex rather than the pronoun of their choice, a simple, stupid affront to kids wrestling with their identity. In the final legislative days, with Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, who is seeking the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor, assuming a leading role, the measure was drastically expanded. Should it become law, SB 150 would not only prohibit gender-affirming medical care for trans youths, it would require physicians to ween trans kids off puberty blockers or hormone therapy if the process had already begun. It prohibits school discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity and requires local school districts to establish restroom policies, with a requirement that trans kids use the loo designated for their birth sex.

It’s all a direct slap in the face. The question needs to be asked: What in the world did these trans kids, wrestling with their emotions and psyches, ever do to warrant this kind of bullying and abuse from the Kentucky General Assembly?

Lawmakers flapped their gums a lot this session about parents’ rights, but they managed to waltz past the rights of parents to have their trans kids treated with proper respect and understanding by teachers and others. It further denied them of their decision to aid and stand-by their children experiencing a gender transition.

Recent general assemblies, including this one, have doggedly persisted in ignoring the needs and concerns of Kentuckians who find themselves outside the Commonwealth’s traditional straight, white, male power structure. It won’t listen to African-Americans seeking discussions on Critical Race Theory or Breonna Taylor. It won’t address women’s understandable concerns about the state’s ban on abortion, going so far as to ignore adding exceptions in cases of rape or incest. . And, as the trans bill shows, it has no empathy for gay folks.

And there’s no love for those on the low rung of the economic ladder. The Washington Post earlier this month ran a story about a mile-long line in Hazel Green, a community in the eastern foothills of Wolfe County, consisting of folks seeking a few free staples at the Hazel Green Food Project. Their needs were exacerbated last year when the legislature prematurely rescinded a state of emergency implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a move that by default cut food stamp benefits. In the case of one recipient, according to the article, the benefit dropped from $200 a month to $30.

But don’t worry about folks going hungry in Wolfe County. The legislature is continuing the process of sending the state income tax into oblivion, a move that will put more money in the pockets of the well-heeled while others stand in a mile-long line for free food.

Now, let’s be honest, the Kentucky General Assembly, in current or past form, has never been what Pericles had in mind when he championed democracy. The legislature has always had its share of yahoos, bringing to mind the proposal from the late, great columnist Mike Royko that the city of Chicago should change its motto from Urbs in Horto — City in a Garden — to Ubi Est Mea – Where’s mine?

For most of its history, the GA was overtly racist – and some maintain, with reason, that stench remains – and sexist – ditto. It has been embroiled in scandal, FBI probes, operated for decades under the heel of the coal industry and was simply obtuse on any number of fronts.

But it also, on occasion, exhibited a soul and was rarely overtly mean, features that seem to be missing from the present iteration. When Churchill said, “The Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else,” he might just as well have been referring to Kentucky legislators.

In 1990, lawmakers finally buckled down and passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act, taking a stab at one of the nation’s most moribund systems. They passed an invitro fertilization law in defiance of Kentucky Right to Life, a powerful lobbying group, thanks in large measure to the efforts of House Speaker Bobby Richardson, D-Glasgow. They battled the courts over interpretations of the broad-form deeds that decimated Eastern Kentucky for years, finally pushing through a constitutional amendment in 1988.

But that was then, this is now. Back before the turn of the century – and that still seems like an odd phrase to employ -– legislative leaders like Richardson, Senate Majority Leader Joe Wright, D-Harned, and others – knew instinctively when to slam on the brakes before the GA went too far. That fail/safe system, it seems, is no longer operative.

You would think, after witnessing the horrible results of abusive treatment heaped upon African-Americans, women, the LGBTQ community, and the disabled over decades and even centuries, not just in Kentucky but nationwide, that lawmakers, and the general public at large, would finally realize that putting people under your thumb is self-defeating because you wind up there with them. In the long run, it’s going to cause insoluble problems, and any hope of advancement will be like skating through a foot of mud.

Kentucky has long been near the bottom of most economic and social ranks, and here it still stands. So let’s pick on trans kids.

It’s all expressed best in Jeremiah 5:21 – Hear now this, O foolish people, without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not.


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One Comment

  1. Ruth Bamberger says:

    Straub’s wrapup of the legislative session is the best I have seen. The majority of the legislators nit pick on issues that should be matters of privacy at the expense of the real needs of people. Eastern KY is still struggling to recover from the devastating floods of last summer. The need for affordable housing has reached crisis proportions. We have a serious shortage of teachers. So what happened? They cut the income tax again; they spent hours of time and energy on gender issues and book banning that many of them know little or nothing about. The disconnect between so many of these legislators and the needs of people in this state is appalling.

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