Two Southern Governors Face Key Off-Year Elections

 

The headline-generating chief executives of Kentucky and Virginia are gearing up for off-year elections with significant ramifications for each man.

Pro-gambling, Democratic Kentucky Gov. Paul E. Patton is cruising toward easy re-election in one of the country's most powerful governorships -- Kentucky's legislature meets every two years and has sessions that last only 60 days, giving Patton unparalleled sway over Blue Grass politics.

Virginia's Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III, though not a candidate himself, is weathering a firestorm of Democrat-fueled criticism over his state's clogged highways as he looks to wrest control of the House from the Democrats and consolidate the GOP's hold on the Senate.

Patton, 62, is a man whose star is rising nationally, having recently been elected to chair the Democratic Governors' Association for 2000. There's been speculation he may have future designs on an U.S. Senate seat, following an all-but-assured second term as governor.

A former coal industry executive, Patton narrowly defeated Republican candidate Larry Forgy in 1995, and has proven himself to be a shrewd political operator and friend of organized gambling.

Patton has said that if 12 to 14 state-controlled, land-based casinos were established in Kentucky, the development would generate as much as $300 million annually for the state. Most of that money would be used "to revitalize our towns and cities and remove urban blight," Patton said in a letter to lawmakers. "This would make Kentucky the leading state in urban revitalization and rural preservation, and make Kentucky truly unique in the nation."

Casino money would also allow the Blue Grass state to give its troubled horse racing industry a financial boost, Patton added.

That proposal, floated earlier this year, received a lukewarm reception from state lawmakers and a predictably harsh rebuke from the Kentucky Council of Churches.

Despite having appointed an impressive number of women to state posts -- 45.2 percent out of nearly 3,000 appointments, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal -- Patton has been criticized by women's groups because Kentucky ranks next to last in the percentage of women holding elected office.

Patton is perceived as having favored Democratic men over Democratic women in a number of key state races. Women's votes were crucial to Patton when he defeated Forgy in 1995, but will be less of a factor in this year's election, given the weak, three-candidate field of Republicans he'll face in the fall. No Kentucky Democrat opted to challenge Patton.

That may be because of the manner in which Patton has adroitly assured himself of backing from Republican fundraisers, as well as Democratic contributors.

"He co-opted Republicans in a big way by reforming the worker compensation system," Louisville Courier-Journal political reporter Al Cross said. "That angered organized labor, but pleased the business community to no end."

Patton also played a large role in reforming "the higher education system, which also pleased many people in business," Cross said. "We have a relatively undereducated workforce in this state. That further built Patton support among people who typically bankroll Republican campaigns."

Lt. Gov. Steve Henry remains on the Patton ticket, although the two don't appear to share a close personal or professional relationship. Underscoring that perception, Patton has suggested that Kentucky lawmakers and voters may want to consider a constitutional amendment next year that would abolish the office of lieutenant governor. Actions like that appear designed to scuttle any prospects of a political future for Henry, an orthopedic surgeon, despite Patton's denials.

In Virginia, Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III, probably dreams about bumper-to-bumper traffic at night. Despite displaying economic management skills, and further enhancing Virginia's standing as one of the most Internet-friendly states, Gilmore, 49, and his team allowed Democratic foes to set the early agenda for the Nov. 2 election.

And the focal point of that agenda is transportation, specifically Virginia's highway infrastructure.

In the minority of Virginia's Senate and hoping to cling to a tiny advantage in the House, Dominion State Democrats have cleverly painted Gilmore as being unable, or unwilling, to address the problems affecting Virginia's roads -- particularly the gridlock-prone roadways linking the suburbs of Northern Virginia to Washington, D.C.

"We've got him on the run on the transportation issue," said Democratic Virginia Del. Kenneth R. Plum, the state's Democratic leader. "We have him essentially flat-footed."

Gilmore spokeswoman Lila Young said that Plum's "comment is just laughable, and it speaks more to the weakness of the Democrats' arguments than it does about Gov. Gilmore. If anything, the reverse is true."

Plum and his operatives have clearly benefited from serendipity -- several recent, high-profile traffic incidents have caused hours-long traffic jams for tens of thousands of Beltway commuters. Virginia Democrats gleefully seized the opportunity to draw attention away from Gilmore's accomplishments, which include having appointed the country's only secretary of technology and linking teacher raises to student test scores.

They suggested that Virginia's $167 million budget surplus, or real estate transaction taxes, be earmarked for road construction to ease traffic congestion. Democrats even floated a proposal that a special session be devoted to the state's jammed highways.

Charging into battle like the onetime attorney general he was before his election, Gilmore gave budget legislators a confrontational tongue-lashing last week in Richmond.

Characterizing the Democrat's proposal as "sloppy thinking," Gilmore proposed using part of Virginia's tobacco fund settlement to fund a transportation plan the governor will announce Aug. 31.

"Previously, he had been saying that in December 2000 he'd have a proposal," Plum said. "We've moved his timetable up quite a bit."

On Aug. 19, the head of Virginia's Department of Transportation resigned under pressure from Gilmore.

A total of 140 legislative seats will be contested Nov. 2, and Virginia Democrats face the possibility of being a minority in the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction.

In the House, Democrats have a minuscule 50-49 advantage over Virginia Republicans. In the Senate, the GOP prevails 21 to 19. Representatives of both parties were reluctant to guess how their candidates will fare in the fall.

Sprawl may be an important factor in several races, in light of an impressive victory by a county candidate who embraced a slow-growth platform.

 
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