‘On the tip of the spear,’ Thayer will stay active in GOP politics, see what universe ‘brings me’

By: - December 15, 2023 5:56 am

Damon Thayer ( LRC Public Information)

FRANKFORT — Heading into his final legislative session, Senate Republican Floor Leader Damon Thayer said Thursday he’s not planning to sponsor any legislation right now, but a constitutional amendment for “school choice” would be a priority for him. 

He also is interested in an anti-crime package, called the Safer Kentucky Act, being backed by Louisville Republican lawmakers. Other areas of interest to Thayer for the session, which begins Jan. 2, include energy and the energy supply grid. 

The Republican from Georgetown announced his decision to not seek reelection on Wednesday. Thayer was first elected to the Senate in 2003 and has been a member of leadership for more than a decade. He is going to finish the remainder of his term, which ends in December 2024. 

In addition to serving as majority floor leader, Thayer said in a Thursday interview with the Kentucky Lantern that representing the citizens of the 17th District, which includes Grant and Scott Counties, southern Kenton County and northwestern Fayette County, “has been the highest honor of my life next to being a father to my two children” and serving as majority floor leader was “beyond my wildest dreams.” 

“When opportunities arise with open seats, if my party thinks I would be a good candidate, it's something I would consider.”

– Sen. Damon Thayer

“To be able to ride this escalator up to this job, it’s been an incredible ride and an honor and a privilege to serve, and whether people agree or disagree with me, I hope they know that I put my heart and soul into this job.”

Thayer said he began thinking about not seeking reelection after the 2023 regular session, which he said was “an extraordinary session of great accomplishment.” Thayer said he’s in good health and doesn’t have a job lined up after he leaves office. 

As for his private business interests, Thayer said he has some things happening there that will need his attention in 2024, and he was not sure if he could make another five-year commitment to stay in the legislature. 

“I’m 56 years old and I’ve got, I hope, a lot of good years left and I just want to see if there’s anything else out there opportunity-wise that I could do. So, I just want to kind of put that out into the universe and see what it brings me.”

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, left, confers with Sen. Jason Howell, R-Murray, on the Senate floor, March 10, 2023. (Photo by LRC Public Information)

Thayer did not rule out running for office in the future. He said he will be “very involved in Republican campaigns and helping my friends in their elections.” 

“When opportunities arise with open seats, if my party thinks I would be a good candidate, it’s something I would consider.”

Thayer has become one of the most powerful Republicans in the General Assembly and often carried or backed legislation that supported horse racing and the bourbon industry. He said a piece of legislation he was most proud of was 2013’s Senate Bill 2, which changed the state employee pension system. 

“It put the KRS (Kentucky Retirement Systems) on a path to solvency and it affected a lot of people. it affected a lot of state employees and retirees. and it also affected the taxpayers because it took them off the hook for the pension liability with the reforms we made and it’s proven to be the right step because the trajectory is we have it on a path to solvency.”

Thayer also praised the Republican supermajorities in the Senate and House for passing “pro-business, pro-taxpayer steps,” such as tax cuts and right to work laws which allow workers to be represented by a labor union without pay union dues.

After Wednesday’s news broke, many Republicans commended Thayer. The Republican Party of Kentucky’s new chairman, Robert Benvenuti, called Thayer “a relentless champion for conservative legislation and causes.”

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said Thayer “shepherded sound policy through the process, creating a business-friendly environment that’s materialized in the job growth we are seeing today.” 

“The commonwealth is better because of Damon Thayer and the Senate will miss him greatly,” Stivers said. 

Thayer encouraging Sen. Julie Raque Adams to seek his leadership post

Julie Raque Adams (Photo by LRC Public Information)

Thayer declined to speculate who would run for his seat in the Senate as to not get ahead of potential candidates. However, he did say he has encouraged Louisville Republican and Majority Caucus Chair Julie Raque Adams to consider replacing him in leadership. 

“I think she has the skill set for it. She understands how leadership works because she’s been in leadership now for several years,” Thayer said of Adams. “Also, she’s very intuitive to the personalities of our members, more so than I am because she’s an empath, and I’m not.” 

Adams is also a “great multitasker” and could manage the process, bills and expectations of members, Thayer added. 

Thayer, who has often been a vocal critic of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, said he doubts the governor’s relationship with the legislature will change once he leaves the legislature. 

“I know I’m thought of as this biting critic of Andy Beshear, but the truth is, I pretty much reflect the opinion of most Republican legislators. I’m just more likely to say it louder and more often than they do,” Thayer said. “And that’s part of my job. Honestly, part of my job is to say what everybody else is thinking but maybe doesn’t want to say, and I think that’s one of the reasons my caucus has selected me to be floor leader so many times because they know I’ll go out on the tip of the spear and represent them.

In his weekly press conference Thursday afternoon, Beshear thanked Thayer for his more than two decades of service in the legislature. The governor added that he hoped to get more legislation accomplished during Thayer’s last session and the first session of Beshear’s second term.

“W​​hether or not we always agree or don’t, that’s a lot of time away from your family,” Beshear said of Thayer’s public service. “That’s a lot of effort and energy that takes away from the private job. Last session, we got some really important things through that are having such a huge benefit.” 

Thayer said that being a state lawmaker is a full-time job.

“You’re really never off the clock,” Thayer said. “The pay is moderate. And we also all have other careers or jobs or business pursuits that you have to balance and I’ve done that now for 21 years, it’ll be 22 at the end. … These are real challenging jobs, and especially in today’s society, things have gotten more challenging because of the rise of social media and sort of instant news.”

Thayer said the Republican Party of Kentucky “has never been stronger.” At the state level, Republicans hold all constitutional offices except the governorship and have gained Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate. Registered Republican voters outnumbered Democratic voters for the first time in 2022. All but one of the eight Kentuckians in the U.S. House and Senate are Republicans; U.S. Rep. Morgan McGarvey is the lone Democrat.

“I just hope we can continue to get more Republicans up here who want to help put the fire out that’s burning in America instead of throwing more gasoline on the flames. And I’m going to try to help elect more of those people. We’re here to solve problems. And I’ll be looking to support people who want to solve those problems.”

Thayer called Thursday’s state Supreme Court decision upholding the legislature’s redrawing of congressional and state House districts a “big victory” for the General Assembly.

“The Senate map wasn’t in question. But I’m glad that the state House map was upheld and we had input, obviously, into the congressional map, so I’m glad that that was upheld. I know the happiest guy right now is Congressman Morgan McGarvey  because if that map had been tossed out, we have a new one ready to go that he probably wouldn’t have liked as much.”

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, left, congratulates House Appropriations and Revenue Chair Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, after the passage of House Bill 1, which reduced Kentucky’s income tax for the second time in two years, Jan. 5, 2023. (Photo by LRC Public Information)

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McKenna Horsley
McKenna Horsley

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.