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Kentucky's top-ranking state House Democrat announced Wednesday that she won't seek reelection this year, saying she won't stand in the way of a “person of color" being elected in her newly redrawn district where racial minorities represent the majority of eligible voters.
Rep. Joni Jenkins, who is white, said she’ll maintain her legislative seat and title as House minority floor leader through the end of the year. She withdrew from her reelection campaign a day after the filing deadline for candidates to run in this year’s primary election in Kentucky.
The new House redistricting map was passed this month by the legislature’s Republican supermajorities, though a lawsuit is challenging the new House boundaries. In Jenkins’ newly redrawn Louisville-area district, Blacks make up nearly 50% of the voting-age population, whites nearly 45% and Hispanics about 5%.
“I have long advocated for a General Assembly that looks like Kentucky, so when minorities became the majority population in the newly redrawn 44th House District, I did not want to be a barrier to a person of color joining the Kentucky House of Representatives,” Jenkins said in a statement withdrawing her candidacy.
Shively Mayor Beverly Chester-Burton, a Black Democrat, filed to run for Jenkins’ seat. She was the only other candidate to file for the race.
Jenkins has been a House mainstay for decades and made history with her rise to the top of the depleted House Democratic caucus. She was first elected to the House in 1994 and for most of her tenure Democrats were in charge of the 100-member chamber.
Her announcement comes against a backdrop of a legal challenge to Kentucky's newly redrawn congressional and state House district boundaries.
A lawsuit, filed last week, claims the boundaries reflect “extreme partisan gerrymandering” in violation of the state constitution. Republican legislative leaders say the new maps meet legal requirements. Leading supporters of the new lines said they’re confident the once-a-decade mapmaking would hold up against any suit.
Republicans gained control of the House after the 2016 election, cementing the GOP's dominance in Kentucky's legislature. Jenkins' fellow Democrats selected her to lead their ranks in late 2019, making her the first woman to head a legislative caucus in Kentucky's legislature.
She said Wednesday that there's been “no greater honor” than leading the Democratic caucus.
“I have loved representing my beautifully diverse district for many years and will be forever grateful that the voters gave me the chance to serve them," Jenkins said.
Lawmakers have a packed agenda in this year's session, topped by work on a new two-year state budget that comes amid a massive revenue surplus.
In praising her long legislative record, Democratic Party Chairman Colmon Elridge said Jenkins “built an impeccable record serving the commonwealth, protecting our most vulnerable and improving the lives of Kentuckians from all corners of the state.”
Republican House Speaker David Osborne said that Jenkins “puts people before politics.”
“Her extraordinary work on behalf of women and children has brought attention to the challenges our state faces, while her willingness to work across the aisle has provided an opportunity to seek meaningful solutions,” Osborne said in a statement.