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Former Ky. Rep. Jonathan Shell files to run for agricultural commissioner

FRANKFORT, Jan. 2 -- House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell, R-Lancaster, discusses proposed House rules for the 2018 session.
Legislative Research Commission
LRC Public Information
House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell, R-Lancaster, discusses proposed House rules for the 2018 session.

Jonathan Shell, a former Republican leader in the Kentucky legislature, formally filed to run for agriculture commissioner this week. He announced his intention to run last year.

Shell was the majority floor leader of the state House of Representatives from 2017 until 2019 before he was ousted during a primary election.

He’s a fifth-generation farmer who will be running for the office vacated by current Republican Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who is term-limited. Quarles is a candidate in the 2023 gubernatorial race.

During an interview, Shell said his legislative experience makes him a good candidate for the job.

“As House majority leader, I saw a lot of issues that we’ve got and problems and challenges, but also opportunities. I’d like to be a voice to try and help fix some of those things — whether it be connectivity through broadband, rural healthcare which is a big issue in the state, or infrastructure in general,” he said.

On his campaign website, Shell refers to himself as a “proud conservative and will put his pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-growth and pro-farmer values to work for Kentucky families in Frankfort.”

The role of Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner includes promoting the state agricultural industry and regulatory duties such as inspecting gas pumps across the state and issuing hemp growing licenses.

In 2021, the Republican-led Legislature expanded powers by giving the commissioner the authority to appoint all 13 members on the State Board of Agriculture and a majority of seats on theState Fair Board—two powerful agencies in the state.

Shell said he wants to focus on creating jobs in the agricultural sector.

“In Kentucky, we’ve got the best farmers in the entire country. Creating more secondary businesses off of agriculture, more manufacturing jobs in rural and urban communities alike and really finishing more products here, that’s some of my goals,” he said.

Shell graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business. Elected in 2013, he represented House District 71, which includes Garrard, Rockcastle, and a portion of Madison Counties.

He helped recruit Republican candidates for House races in 2016, when the GOP took control of the chamber for the first time in nearly a century.

Republican leaders rewarded his efforts by making him the youngest-ever House majority floor leader at 30 years-old, a post he held from 2017 to 2019.

Shell lost his Republican nomination in 2018 to Travis Brenda, a teacher who campaigned against pension reforms put forward by Republican lawmakers and then-Gov. Matt Bevin. Shell was one of the authors of thecontroversial bill that sparked thousands of teachers to protest in Frankfort in 2018.

U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell tapped Shell to chair his 2020 reelection campaign, in which hedefeated Democratic rival Amy McGrath by about 20 percentage points.

Republican Rep. Richard Heath of Mayfield has said he will also run for the position, but he hasn’t officially filed yet. Heath is the chair of the Kentucky House Agriculture Committee. He ran for the post in 2015, but lost to Ryan Quarles during the primary election.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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