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Voters elect first Republican magistrate

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By Stephanie Hornback

No one can say with absolute certainty that Jeff Lear is the first Republican magistrate in Nelson County’s 225-year history, but local historian Dixie Hibbs said she can’t remember ever reading about one. And there definitely hasn’t been one since 1923, County Clerk Phyllis Mattingly said after looking through some election records.

“We just didn’t have Republican candidates for many, many years,” Mattingly said.

That changed this year with many Republicans running for office in Nelson County and Lear emerging triumphant in the District 4 magistrate race. Fellow Republican, State Rep. David Floyd, was re-elected as well.

A Republican since he registered to vote at age 18, Lear said he hadn’t really thought much about his victory in terms of his political party.

“I guess it’s always a positive thing when you can make a little bit of history, but it wasn’t my focus in my campaign,” he said.

It matters a lot to others, however, particularly the Republican Party of Nelson County.

“We’re very excited that we had candidates in almost every race, with the exception of some of the magisterial districts, and candidates that posted good showings,” said Jan Ballard, Republican Party of Nelson County chairwoman.

Ballard and Bobbie Floyd, treasurer of the Republican Party of Nelson County and vice-chair of the Nelson County Republican Women, think Lear’s background in business and strong communication skills will serve him well on fiscal court.

Judge Executive Dean Watts, who was re-elected to another term Tuesday, said he is looking forward to working with Lear.

“Jeff seems to be a very good businessman and is well respected in the community,” Watts said, adding that the District 4 magistrate race was a tough one. Lear defeated Democrat David Shields and Independent J.T. “Thomas” Fulkerson. He will fill the seat vacated by Tim Hutchins after Hutchins decided to run for judge executive.

Ballard thinks Lear’s win is evidence of the growth the Republican Party is experiencing in Nelson County.

“As more people get involved, they are becoming aware of the direction that they want not only their local government to go, but the country as a whole,” she said.

Hibbs said that growth has been a long time coming and is due in part to Nelson County’s changing landscape. Historically in Kentucky, Democrats were concentrated in more rural, agricultural areas while Republicans were largely in metropolitan areas and the eastern part of the state, Hibbs said. Nelson County has been shifting more toward industry than agriculture, she said.

The framework for Nelson County and much of the south being predominantly Democrat was laid after the Civil War, Hibbs said. People on both sides of the conflict were unhappy with the way they were treated by the military and government, she said. And since Abraham Lincoln was commander in chief, southerners tended to turn away from his party — Republican.

“Lincoln got blamed for a lot of things that he didn’t even know happened,” Hibbs said.

One hundred and forty-five years after his death, Republicans are finally making some headway in Nelson County. But that isn’t a priority for Lear in his new role as magistrate.

“It’s certainly not one of the most important things for me,” he said.