This Kentucky math teacher just beat the House Republican leader who cut his pension

“I really believe I have a calling on my life to do this.”

Brenda during an interview with WBON TV. (Credit: Screenshot, YouTube, WBON TV)
Brenda during an interview with WBON TV. (Credit: Screenshot, YouTube, WBON TV)

In what was likely the most critical test of teachers’ electoral power in Kentucky, math teacher R. Travis Brenda won 51 percent of the vote against Republican House Leader Jonathan Shell, a darling of the party, in Tuesday’s GOP primaries for state representative of district 71.

Brenda, a longtime Republican who in the past voted for Shell and for Republican Gov. Matt Bevin (R), told ThinkProgress prior to his win that he was “disappointed” with their leadership and their efforts to push pension cuts through the state legislature, while “excluding” others from the process.

“That pension debate was going to affect our state employees,” not just teachers, Brenda said. “I do not believe the correct decision was made.”

Teachers across Kentucky shared Brenda’s concerns. This past spring, thousands of them staged rallies and strikes to push back against the state’s handling of the pension, which has been consistently underfunded under multiple gubernatorial administrations, resulting in nearly $40 billion in debt. Specifically, they protested a measure that aimed to cut retired teachers’ yearly cost-of-living raises in order to fund the retirement system.


While the measure was later amended to remove the cost-of-living cuts, distrust among teachers had already spread. The feeling only worsened when legislators quietly tucked the new bill into a 300-page sewage services legislation, with provisions that required new teachers to enter a hybrid cash balance plan, limited the number of sick days teachers could put toward their retirement, and ended the state’s inviolable contract with public employees, which promised state workers that their retirement benefits would not be reduced or changed.

The bill was rushed through the legislative process, largely with the help of Shell, who also co-authored the measure. It was never made available for the public to review prior to the vote, and Bevin signed it into law amid widespread teacher condemnations.

“I don’t even think it came out in a legal way,” said Brenda, who has taught high school for nearly 20 years. “That pension bill will not hold up in court,” he added, referring to the fact that it breaks the state’s non-voidable contract with public workers.

Brenda remembered fondly the day he and thousands of teachers across the state rallied at the capitol to protest the final bill.


“I think it was important to have that show of unity across the state. We were not just standing up for teachers, we were standing up for what we have been promised,” he said. “[Against] the proposed cuts in funding that would affect the kids.”

The pension crisis was one of many issues that prompted Brenda to run, including the state’s opioid epidemic and its limping economic development.

“In the classroom, I can see the effects not just of opioids, but of all drugs,” Brenda said. “There’s been an increase in the number of kids not raised by their parents and … lots of kids that are in foster care,” a phenomenon he attributes to the state’s rising drug addiction and overdose rates.

Brenda, who is one of about 40 educators who have run or are running for office in Kentucky this year, will next face off against Democrat Mary Renfro in the midterm elections.

“I really believe I have a calling on my life to do this,” he said.