True to her roots: State Rep. Joni Jenkins leads Jefferson County’s legislative delegation but keeps connected to Shively

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013 @ 3:55AM

It’s an observation that has perplexed state Rep. Joni Jenkins since her first term in the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1995: Why do the poorest districts in the state send their richest citizens to Frankfort to represent them in the Kentucky General Assembly?

“There are not many people sitting on the floor and voting who are middle-class, working people,” lamented Jenkins, a Democrat who serves the 44th House district, which is located in southwest Jefferson County and includes the city of Shively.

But Jenkins, the daughter of a former union president and a homemaker, feels a kinship to her constituents and can identify with their workaday existence.

“They’re Norman Rockwell people,” she explained. “They’re just good, hardworking folks that care about their neighborhoods, care about each other and for each other. Their churches are very important to them. Their schools are very important to them.

“I think I truly am representative of the people in my district,” she added. “I think I understand how they work.”

Helping the disadvantaged

Jenkins’ own professional experience includes positions with government agencies, higher education institutions and nonprofit organizations.

The majority of her jobs have centered on working with marginalized and disadvantaged people, especially women and children.

Currently, Jenkins is program director of Health Career Pathways, a Jefferson Community and Technical College initiative that works to recruit less-fortunate students to allied health and nursing programs.

She takes a leave without pay when the General Assembly is in session but still manages to stop by her office each Monday to check messages and e-mails and make sure the program is running smoothly.

Building consensus

Jenkins, 49, first ran for office in the mid-1990s as a political novice. Now in her 13th year in Frankfort, she is a veteran lawmaker who has won the respect and admiration of many of her peers and colleagues.

Since 2003, Jenkins has been chairwoman of the 24-member Jefferson County legislative delegation, which sets capital construction and funding priorities for Greater Louisville during General Assembly sessions.

Last year, she was named to her first chairmanship, leading the House Licensing and Occupations committee.

State Rep. Scott Brinkman, R-Louisville, may sit on the opposite side of the political aisle from Jenkins, but he is quick to recognize and praise the work she has done helping to pass legislation in support of victims of rape, sexual abuse and violence.

Brinkman, who is one of two vice-chairmen of the Jefferson County delegation, acknowledged that there are times during the session when he and Jenkins must agree to disagree.

For instance, the two often will take opposite sides on labor-management issues.

But, for the most part, the lawmakers work together to provide a unified front in Frankfort, Brinkman said.

“We know that resources are always scarce and that we need to speak as one voice in terms of Jefferson County,” he explained. “Joni’s done a superb job of making sure that she builds a consensus.”

Backed incentive package for Ford

For Jenkins, an interest in government and the political process dates back to her childhood days, when she used to skip school to help work at the polls on Election Day.

Her father, Jim Jenkins, was a Shively City Councilman in the 1970s and 1980s and served as mayor of the city from 1994 to 2004.

Always active in Democratic Party campaigns, Joni Jenkins was approached about running for office herself following the retirement of longtime state Rep. Jim Yates. She succeeded him.

At first, Jenkins admits, she was most passionate about throwing her support behind social service and education measures. She said she knew and cared little about economic development issues.

With experience, Jenkins said, she’s come to realize the importance of economic development and the legislature’s role in promoting it.

She said she is particularly proud of being the lead sponsor last year of a bill that provided state tax incentives to Ford Motor Co.

The incentives were designed to entice the automaker to maintain its two Louisville plants and preserve local jobs.

Some fun on the side

Being a legislator and having a full-time job leaves Jenkins precious little free time, and she doesn’t have trouble finding activities to fill what time she has.

She serves on the church council at Chapel Hill United Church of Christ in Shively, volunteers for the Every 1 Reads literacy program and works out each morning at the Southwest Family Branch of the YMCA.

Jenkins, who has never married, also runs with a group of friends known as the “Fun Girls.”

Together, they enjoy shopping, trying new restaurants throughout the city and — not surprisingly — talking politics.

One of Jenkins’ fellow Fun Girls is the Rev. Bev Lewis, pastor of Chapel Hill United Church of Christ.

Lewis described the group as “fervent Democrats” and called Jenkins one of the best friends she has ever had.

“She has a very strong ethical base,” Lewis said. “She is somebody that I trust all the way down to my toes.”

Joni Jenkins

State Representative
Born: Dec. 6, 1958
Marital status: Single
Hometown: Louisville
Residence: Shively
Job: Program director of Health Career Pathways, a Jefferson Community and Technical College initiative
Education: Bachelor’s degree in communications, University of Kentucky, 1980
Hobbies: Reading, traveling, also enjoys shopping

Staying in shape

State Rep. Joni Jenkins said she got a bit of a wake-up call about the importance of taking care of herself in April 2006 when fellow state Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, suffered a heart attack as lawmakers were wrapping up a session of the Kentucky General Assembly. He recovered and still holds his elected office.

Since that time, Jenkins said, she has resolved to work out daily at the gym, eat better and lose weight.

Today, at 49, she feels better than she did at 48, she said, and she’s glad she made her personal health a greater priority.

In the spotlight

Though never much of a publicity seeker, state Rep. Joni Jenkins doesn’t shrink from the media spotlight when it is her turn to be in front of the camera.

In those situations, the veteran lawmaker jokes that she’s found that her constituents sometimes care less about what she has to say and more about how she looks when she’s saying it.

After 13 years in office, she said, she’s discovered the importance of appearances when it comes to meeting her public.

“I’ve learned that you don’t go to Kroger with no makeup on and (wearing) your campaign T-shirt,” she quipped.

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