Kentucky’s Unlikely Speaker
By: Scott Jennings
November 4, 2014, was a great night for some Republicans. But not for all.
Nationally, the GOP achieved its largest congressional majority since 1929. U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell realized his dream of becoming Majority Leader after thrashing Alison Grimes and guiding Senate Republicans to a net gain of nine seats.
But for David Osborne, that night remains a bad memory. The affable State Representative from Prospect, who wakes up on a horse farm in Oldham County most mornings, had spent the last year driving around Kentucky, recruiting and counseling candidates aiming to wrest control of the Kentucky House. Osborne had never worked as hard at politics as he did in 2014, even serving as Finance Chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky.
Despite his work, Republicans flopped. Democrats started and ended the cycle with a 54-seat majority.
“It was deflating. We had no idea why we didn’t win. We did everything right, raised money, and hired pros like never before. Yet we failed,” Osborne recalls.
Not satisfied with losing, Osborne ran for a leadership position among House Republicans following the election. Many thought that Osborne, because of his hard work, was a lock for Minority Caucus Chairman. The initial vote was a tie, and the next run through saw Osborne lose by one vote. Reeling from a second political gut punch, Osborne thought briefly about walking away.
“I did think about it, but not for long. I knew we had to keep going because Kentucky needs what the Republican Party has to offer in terms of responsible and conservative governing ideals. This state was on a course toward insolvency and I knew in my heart Republicans would eventually have to fix it,” Osborne said. He again worked overtime to elect a Republican majority in 2016, and this time the voters handed the GOP a monstrous win – 64 seats out of 100.
Osborne was not planning another run for leadership but reconsidered after Republicans won, deciding to seek the Speaker Pro Tempore slot. This time his colleagues rewarded his work.
“I felt like I could bring something to a young, inexperienced majority trying to build it all from scratch. I thought because I had a few trips around the track under my belt I could play the mature, behind-the-scenes counselor while [former speaker] Jeff Hoover and [Majority Leader] Jonathan Shell ran the show out front,” Osborne chuckled. “Every time I make a plan in politics something else happens, though.”
And that “something else” came in late 2017, when Hoover and three other House Republicans were revealed to have signed a private settlement with a former female legislative staffer. Hoover was sidelined and eventually resigned as Speaker. Osborne, second-in-command according to the Kentucky Constitution, calmly took control, ordering an independent investigation while holding his fractured caucus together amidst the scandal and shocking suicide of Representative Dan Johnson.
Lori Osborne, the new Speaker’s wife of 21 years come February 1, marveled at her husband’s handling of the bizarre circumstances.
“He’s very calm, thoughtful and deliberate. The adage of ‘measure twice, cut once’ is like his operating principle,” Lori Osborne said. “I believe that many of David’s best qualities have actually been intensified as the pressure increased. My dad once called him a ‘sterling’ individual, and I couldn’t have said it better. The power of that word really sticks with me when I think of David.”
For Kentucky’s new-if-unlikely Speaker (the humble Osborne frequently reminds people that he’s the “acting” Speaker), holding everyone together is key.
“I am determined not to let internal issues stop progress. Despite everything, caucus unity is good. Some personal relationships are strained but our people are united by policy and the overwhelming desire to deliver on our mandate to lead,” Osborne said. “People need to understand the severity of the pension crisis and the difficult nature of the coming budget. These problems were left to us, but we have to solve them.”
While the first two weeks of the General Assembly have seen little floor action beyond rules fights in the House, Osborne says that’s about to change.
“We’ve had bills moving through committee, and we have never stopped working for consensus on the pension problem. In the next few days I expect forward motion on Marsy’s Law, the budget, a pension bill, and more,” Osborne said. “We have not stopped doing the people’s business and on my watch, we never will.”