By Don Pratt
Editor’s note: Following the February 2011 weekend occupation of the governor’s office by Kentucky Rising activists, several Frankfort women organized a Sit-in for the Mountains (email@example.com). Nearly every Thursday, a small dedicated group of volunteers gathered outside of the governor’s office to bear witness on behalf of the people, flora, fauna and/or land of Appalachian Kentucky. Local rabble-rouser, former grocer, amateur sign-maker and perennial candidate for local office Don Pratt began regularly attending these sit-ins. Below are sketch observations from time spent sitting outside the Governor’s office.
Many of the capitol staff were supportive, quietly or openly, from the very beginning. Caroline Taylor Webb, who deserves most of the credit for maintaining recruitment and sharing the ongoing sit-ins for the mountains, had worked there a few years ago, so the staff mostly welcomed us. Spaulding Bakery donuts won over a few others who became first name acquaintances. I was usually able to generate some smiles when I began suggesting my state capital appearances were undertaken while on work release or lunch break from Little Caesars Pizza.
When it comes to state legislators, Louisville has far and away the best set of leaders from throughout the state. In total, I estimate that statewide there are about six very conscientious, bright, elected members. None are very successful since the predominance of politicos and ownership of Kentucky is damnable.
Lexington’s Kathy Stein fits into this group of conscientious, extremely bright and capable leaders, though she was not one of the more friendly in passing every day. It may be personal as I have consistently challenged the CORRUPT, primarily Democratic, “liberal establishment” that dominates Lexington, whom I sincerely judge to be socially progressive Dixiecrats owning better educations. But still, she is a good leader; I wish those male dominated, owned bodies would respect her.
Christmas at the capital
Thanks to Caroline, by the time the legislative session began this year, groups of kids, musical performers and religious groups had already spent time in front of the governor’s office.
Near Christmas-time, Martin Mudd arrived for a stint dressed up as Santa Claus, his pillow stomach consistently sliding below his belt, to deliver switches and coal to the governor and other legislative leaders. Santa Mudd brought with him an entourage of jolly elfs, academics and journalists. His witty, creative mind even wrote Christmas carols, which became an issue when our small group began singing them.
Seems we needed a permit to sing in the building.
Caroline hustled off to do the paperwork while Santa and his elves went off to the Capitol annex to deliver coal and switches to legislative offices. By the time they returned, I’d written an anti mountaintop removal version of “O Holy Night,” Caroline had returned with a singing permit in hand, and the incredibly beautiful voice of Jane Harrod had arrived to sing our O Holy Night.
The legislative session
When the legislative session began this January, the Sit in for the Mountains group, though just a few of us by this time, tried to maintain a daily presence on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. The legislature hardly met on Mondays or Fridays except to call roll and immediately adjourn. The shorter workweeks made travel home easier for some living longer distances away, but still, during session when they showed up for three days of work, legislators got paid seven days a week, with pay and expanses coming out to over $300 per day.
Some legislators claim to use their “down time” to work on bills or attend committee meetings, which is a ridiculous claim. Go watch some of the committee hearings where bills are discussed. Some vital information may actually be heard, but quality and productivity out of committees is mostly lacking. In truth, committees don’t matter much. Too many of the state’s decisions are being made by too few, at other places, and during times before or after committees take place. Frankly, it is sad to see the sincere efforts of citizens, and a few paid lobbyists, who come to sessions thinking they can and or will make a difference.
After this year’s I Love Mountains Day, the Sit-In soon became nothing but my own appearance, but by this time I had discovered a way to make issues noticeable. I hung around outside the cafeteria between 11:30 and 1:30. Then from 1:30 to 2:15 when legislators move to their capitol chambers, I set up at the end of the tunnel between the Capital Annex and Capital buildings. On sunny days when legislative members took the shorter outdoor route between buildings, I stood inside the capital back door.
Many legislators passed by. I started making signs.
One was a Sit-In woman’s small but profound sign, which I turned into a 2 & 1/2 by 4 foot sign. On one half was a large photo of “Made by God” mountains with a dove carrying an olive branch; on the other half, a huge flat mountain scar, a small skull and crossbones and large print “??Kentucky Proud??” The size and message drew lots of attention from those I knew, some I didn’t know, and even from lobbyists glad-handing as many people as they could.
One visitor offered a “Topless Mountains are Obscene” bumper sticker.
I turned Joel Pett’s international Climate Summit cartoon into a second 2 1/2 by 4 foot visual for passersby. The cartoon was of a man in the audience at the summit saying, “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” A few stopped to read Joel’s cartoon and compliment his work, but I got more comments and compliments from any number of different small signs I created daily to stimulate minds and challenge readers.
Two of those small signs followed the day the Newport Aquarium celebrated their 40th(?) anniversary by bringing a penguin to both chambers. The penguin took a dump just below Senate President David Williams’ feet, and it became national humor quickly. My sign the next day read “Penguins only leave a little on the Senate floor.”
A few understood but many more enjoyed the next day’s sign: “Penguin for State Bird!” Representative Melvin Henley smiled and commented frequently about this sign. He took it with him the last week of regular session, possibly to his Florida retirement?
Representative Reginald Meeks took a different great sign: “Politicians think of the next election. Statesmen think of the next generation.”
What became scary after the first few days outside the cafeteria and the halls was legislators calling me by name. Most of these were people I did not know nor had I met.
Early on one Hazard legislator accompanying my representative Ruth Ann Palumbo tried to tell me I knew nothing about the mountains and asked me where I was from. I loudly responded to him as he walked down the hall that I was born in Hazard, his town, but was from Hindman Settlement School about 25 miles away. He quieted as I tried to tell him before he got on the elevator of my time spent working in opposition to broad form deeds, against the old strip mining of mountains (replaced by MTR due to a loophole in the law), and for black lung benefits and coal miners’ rights.
There must have been a “whisper campaign” going on between these legislators, who for the most part became amazingly friendly. This did not include much of the Lexington delegation, though each was friendly at times.
Two memorable, but negative, exchanges occurred.
The first exchange was by two regularly attending, anti-abortion Catholics who stopped to convince me my pro-choice beliefs were wrong. After inquiring and finding that I was agnostic, they quickly objected to my using “Made by God” in my Kentucky Proud sign. Not wanting to be hypocritical, I covered over “God” and wrote “???”, which may not have pleased them either.
The second was Representative Jeff Greer’s objection to my small new sign, “Tornadoes and MTR are much alike.” Greer is chair of the House Banking and Insurance committee and reputed to be a big supporter of Pay Day lenders. He wasn’t friendly after that, but MANY legislators complimented, smiled and/or conversed often on other days.
Governor Beshear stopped to shake hands and say hello after testifying in the annex one day, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo tried to defend MTR as he rushed by, catching as much verbal exchange as I could get out.
One of the most surprising was Senate President David Williams. David had passed often with no response to my greeting him, staff and his security detail. Mostly, he just rushed by. But on the final day of the special session he passed, turned around, stuck out his hand to shake mine and sincerely said, “I want to compliment you on your diligence.”
A little shock kept me from being clear about my words criticizing the late hour state budget funding to the hallucinatory (NOT VISIONARY) ideas for a Lexington “entertainment district.” There’s always next session.
NOT ENOUGH, I admit!
I know there is effect—though not enough—with what I do. So I will continue to sit in on Thursday outside the governor’s office as often as I can until next session. I will return over and over and hope to see others join me regularly. And I will continue to offer small suggestions for doing things NOW. ~ Don Pratt
Pratt Platform for Change NOW:
–A statue of Kentucky’s most famous citizen to the world should be placed inside the capital rotunda NOW! That person is Muhammad Ali, who would then become the first African American to have a statue in the state building. Kentucky’s state government could honor him for the world to see, and this should be done while he is living
–A statue of Madeline McDowell Breckinridge should also join her relatives, Henry Clay and Dr. Ephrin McDowell, in the rotunda, as should one of Kentucky’s first female governor, Martha Lane Collins, in the hall next to Happy Chandler.
–Many pregnant employees passing at the capital gave notice that no day care facility was on premises for preschool children of employees working there. Why not?