Former Kentucky House Speaker Jody Richards announced Monday he won't run for re-election this year, joining a growing list of veteran House Democrats planning to bow out of a chamber where Republicans are now in solid control.
The looming retirement of Richards, who served as speaker for 14 years, along with the departure of several other incumbents, means Democrats will have to defend those seats while trying to cut into Republicans' sizeable advantage in the House.
State Republican Party spokesman Tres Watson said Monday the departures reflect the new balance of power tilting heavily in favor of Republicans.
"They realize it's not very much fun being in the minority," Watson said.
Richards didn't mention those political dynamics in announcing he'll leave the House after his current term. He offered his "warmest thanks" to constituents for letting him represent them.
"It has meant the world to me," Richards, of Bowling Green, said in a release.
Among incumbent Democrats who are not seeking re-election in the state House, where all 100 seats are up, are two longtime lawmakers from Democratic-friendly Louisville — Jim Wayne and Steve Riggs — as well as incumbents from districts trending toward Republicans. Democratic Rep. Gerald Watkins of Paducah, a GOP target in recent elections, has said he'll run for a seat on the Paducah City Commission. Democratic Rep. Rick Nelson opted to run for Middlesboro mayor this year.
The departures create opportunities for the GOP to hold or boost its majority, Watson said.
Nelson said Democrats' status as the minority party had nothing to do with his decision.
"In some ways, it's easy to be the friendly opposition," he said. "For years they (Republicans) had the luxury of voting 'no' for everything. And now, if it's something we like, we can vote for it. But if it's something we don't like, we can get up and voice our opposition to it."
Nelson said Democrats have a chance to gain back House seats in the November election.
They're not saddled with running on the same ballot with Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, who were unpopular in much of Kentucky. And they could capitalize on opposition from state workers and teachers to a GOP push to overhaul public pension systems, he said, and on a sexual harassment scandal that ensnared the House's Republican speaker, Jeff Hoover.
"I can see some pretty good commercials coming out of it," Nelson said.
While Democrats now have to defend a number of open seats, at least four House Democrats ousted in the 2016 election are running to regain their seats.
Richards, meanwhile, has been a mainstay since his House tenure began in 1976.
Known for his gentlemanly demeanor, Richards was House speaker from 1995 until early 2009. He played an important role in shaping the state's landmark education reform law in 1990. Richards served as House Education Committee chairman for part of the 1970s and 1980s and helped sponsor changes to the state's postsecondary education system more than 20 years ago.
He pushed for greater funding and higher standards for public schools. He also made two unsuccessful bids for governor.
Republicans took control of the House a year ago, ending a nearly 100-year stretch of Democratic control.