Fletcher Struggles to Overcome Hiring Probe
By Louis Jacobson, Special to Stateline
LANCASTER, Ky. - For embattled Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R), the road to redemption - and a second term - runs through this small town of roughly 4,000 people, and others like it.
Only weeks from Election Day, the campaign trail led Fletcher earlier this month to Garrard County - a Republican area just beyond Lexington's suburban sprawl. He presided over a highway groundbreaking and later a political rally, where roughly 80 supporters packed inside a restored bank building on the public square.
A former member of Congress first elected governor in 2003, Fletcher is struggling for political survival following a hiring scandal that has ensnared him and members of his administration for more than two years. He and several key officials were indicted on charges that they illegally rewarded political allies with jobs. He pardoned the officials, while misdemeanor charges against him were dropped in an agreement with Attorney General Greg Stumbo (D).
But the publicity has turned a majority of Kentuckians against their governor. Even Fletcher's lieutenant governor, Steve Pence, refused to run for re-election with him and endorsed a primary opponent. Two polls of likely voters, taken for the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal (Louisville) in mid-September, found Fletcher trailing his opponent, former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, by 17 and 20 points. Fletcher's disapproval rating was 59 percent.
Beshear is making honesty and competence the central issue of his campaign. "Kentucky for the last four years has been paralyzed by the shenanigans of Ernie Fletcher and his administration," he said in a telephone interview. "Kentuckians are embarrassed by their governor."
At the rally in Lancaster, Fletcher pumped up the faithful by recounting his first-term accomplishments in education, energy policy and Medicaid reforms; by offering testimony, excitedly seconded by the crowd, about his conservative positions on abortion, gun control and domestic partnerships; and by making a passionate plea not to pursue casino gambling, something Beshear wants voters to consider in a referendum.
Fletcher alluded only fleetingly to the investigation, acknowledging, "I haven't been perfect." But the comments by the local politicians who joined him at the rally made plain the pressures that allegedly drove the personnel decisions in the first place: the desire for places like Lancaster to secure government largesse.
By longstanding tradition in Kentucky politics, the party in power controls the spoils. And until Fletcher's election, the Democrats had controlled the Kentucky governorship since Republican Gov. Louie B. Nunn's only term of office ended in 1971. (Kentucky governors were then limited to one term.)
"We need to win this election," Garrard County Judge- Executive John Wilson, a fellow Republican, told the crowd in Lancaster. "You know, the last time we had a major road project was 40 years ago. … What will it mean if it's another 40 years that the other party rules?"
The long run of Democrats in the governor's mansion had left a disproportionate number of their party loyals on the payroll in predominantly Republican counties, which irked GOP voters, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky and a Courier-Journal political columnist..
"There are dozens of roads that should have been built long ago but were never done (under Democratic administrations) because they went through Republican counties," Cross said.
"It led to tremendous political pressure on Fletcher to get 'our people' on the payroll," he said. "I think he and his folks saw a need to deliver and build their own following. And unlike their Democratic predecessors, they systematized and formalized the process, creating enough evidence that just one whistleblower was able to start unraveling the whole thing."
The negative news reports left Fletcher besieged, and "he didn't have the political acumen" to shape the storyline, said Lowell Reese, the former publisher of The Kentucky Gazette.
Most devastatingly, Fletcher in 2003 had won crucial support from good-government voters in both parties by promising to shake up the old, corrupt system, said Ronnie Ellis, who covers politics for a chain of community newspapers in Kentucky.
In an interview in Lancaster, Fletcher dismissed the hiring scandal as a witch-hunt. "I acknowledge that people made mistakes, but they were not criminal," he said.
He has tried to change the subject by crusading against casino gambling, an issue that Beshear has urged voters to consider. The governor has run several striking television ads on the subject and demonstrates both a command of the economic arguments against casinos and a passion not to see it spread to his state.
"We're at a crossroads," he said in the Lancaster interview. "It changes a state's values. It sends the message to every school kid that there's easy money out there."
But despite Fletcher's anti-casino push, voters seem to be siding with Beshear. The Democrat, who has practiced law since leaving the lieutenant governorship 20 years ago, is "a blank slate," said Kentucky Gazette publisher Laura Glasscock.
In mid-September, there were news reports about Beshear's law firm having been the subject of a secret ethics investigation about its litigation practices in a bank collapse several years ago; Beshear worked on the case in question, but has maintained that he did nothing unethical, and the firm was never found in violation. It's unclear whether the story will have any impact on the race.
Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to paint Beshear as too liberal for Kentucky, especially on social issues.
The Republican Governors Association, for instance, has launched an ad blaming Beshear for removing the Ten Commandments from schools, voting to release violent criminals early and trying to raise taxes. The Fletcher camp also plays up that Beshear would allow universities to offer benefits to same-sex partners. (Beshear says such a policy is needed to attract top talent, even though his own faith "teaches me that a marriage is a union between a man and a woman.")
For now, though, Beshear's biggest asset is not being Ernie Fletcher. If he can run out the clock, he is poised to become Kentucky's next governor.
"If you are that far behind this late in the race, you can't win without savaging the other guy," said Ellis, the newspaper reporter. "That's all the chance Fletcher's got."