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What the debates are telling us




Subtly but surely, we have seen a transformation in this campaign for Governor. As the weeks have worn on, Democratic challenger Steve Beshear has begun to look more and more gubernatorial than incumbent Republican Ernie Fletcher.

Under the hot glare of the TV lights and relentless questioning, Beshear has remained cool, calm, and unflappable. On the other hand, Fletcher has become increasingly shrill and petulant. He whines and he postures. He continues to make assertions and accusations that have been discredited many times over.

With about two weeks remaining until the Nov. 6 election, Fletcher seems to have finally given up on his anti-casino-gambling crusade and his outrageous attempt to blame Beshear for the Kentucky Central Insurance mess. Oh, he still beats the dead horse, but without much conviction. Lacking substance, his accusations never got any traction.

Now he’s finally gotten around to bragging about his accomplishments, such as they are. But it’s too little, too late. Most of the voters already seem to have their minds made up. Beshear has the ball and the lead, and now all he has to do is go into the “Four Corners” offense that North Carolina Coach Dean Smith employed before the advent of the shot clock.

With one “debate” looking and sounding more or less like the one before it, interested parties can now hope for little unscripted nuggets that reveal the mood and disposition of the candidates.

One such moment came early in the debate last week sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Kentucky Broadcasters Association. Early on, when Fletcher was answering a question, the lights suddenly went out in the ballroom at the Capital Plaza Hotel.

Fletcher became agitated and made some curt remarks to hotel employees. He’s so paranoid that he probably thought Greg Stumbo was playing a dirty trick on him. When the lights flicked back on, Beshear quipped: “I think they just turned the lights out on this administration.”

Ater the debate, Fletcher said he thought Beshear’s comment was a “cheap shot.” To the contrary, it was the perfect crack to make, similar to the one he made in an earlier debate when Fletcher, trying to hammer Beshear on the Kentucky Central fiasco, said, “Steve, some people think you had better get a criminal defense attorney now.”

“The only one up here who has hired a criminal defense attorney is you, Governor,” Beshear fired back.

Indeed, Fletcher was forced to hire lawyers to defend him in the state merit-system hiring scandal that, according to evidence presented to a Franklin County grand jury, he either orchestrated or approved. The grand jury indicted Fletcher and 14 of his aides in open court, then issued sealed indictments on 14 others.

Fletcher pardoned them all before any could go to trial. He has yet to pardon himself – something he may do before leaving office – but his legal bills mounted to the point that he needed to establish a legal defense fund and ask his supporters for contributions.

Under the law, Fletcher doesn’t have to reveal the name of the donors to his legal defense fund until after the election. He claims that none of the donors have ever been awarded a state contract under his administration. The operative word here is “claims.”

Remember, this is the same guy who ultimately signed an agreement with Stumbo that dismissed the merit-system charges in return for his acknowledgement that there was serious evidence of wrongdoing, and that the attorney general’s office acted within its constitutional duty in pursuing the case against him and others in his administration – only to resume accusing Stumbo of conducting a “witch hunt” even before the ink was dry on the agreement.

“We have followed every … law,” Fletcher had the audacity to say, again, at the October 16 debate.

Well, if Fletcher is telling the truth about his legal defense fund, the ethical thing to do would be to reveal the list of donors so the public can judge for itself. But he will no more do that than he will invite Steve Pence, his Lieutenant Governor and erstwhile runningmate, to the Mansion for Sunday dinner.

Poor Pence refused to buy into the Fletcherites’ attempt to cover up their illegal behavior in the merit-system scandal, so he was banished to the Capitol equivalent of Siberia. In Ernieland, you’re either with him or against him, and there’s no middle ground.

In last week’s debate, both candidates said they believe Kentucky needs to repeal laws that tax horse feed and other horse supplies, treating the equine industry just as it treats those for cattle, alpacas and other livestock.

But that’s something Fletcher hasn’t done in four years, so why should anyone believe that he would do it in a second term? If he really wanted to help the horse industry, he’d go back to his old position – and Beshear’s consistent position – of letting voters decide the casino-gambling issue in a statewide referendum.

The horse industry, you see, needs some of the revenue from casino gambling to beef up its racetrack purse structure, something that has worked in other states that are using larger purses to lure horses from Kentucky’s tracks.

As always, casinos were a hot topic in the debate, with Fletcher asking Beshear if he would vote to put a casino in Dawson Springs, the small community in Hopkins County where Beshear was raised.

Instead of rolling his eyes and laughing, Beshear said, “No, I wouldn’t.” It was just more silliness from Fletcher. Everybody knows that small rural towns can’t support casinos and probably don’t want them. But there’s plenty of evidence that rural Kentuckians are quite willing to drive across the river and bet at the Indiana riverboats.

Everytime Beshear says he favors allowing casinos only at racetracks and a few other metropolitan areas, Fletcher gets hard of hearing and continues to distort Beshear’s position on the issue.

Fletcher touted his record of building roads while Beshear criticized it, saying that Fletcher has borrowed money to build roads that the state will someday have to repay without a revenue stream to do so.

“You’ve put those road funds in a crippling situation that I’m going to have to deal with,” Beshear said.

The roles have been reversed. The challenger is the man in charge, the one landing the solid blows while the incumbent dodges and ducks.

Barring the unforeseen – and who knows what reckless charges the Fletcherites might fabricate before Election Day? – the remaining debates will be more or less the same.

But the next time you see them together, ask yourself this: Who looks more gubernatorial? Who seems more polished and self-assured? Here’s a hint: It’s the Democrat from Dawson Springs.

Billy Reed is an award-winning sports writer and political columnist who has worked for the The Courier-Journal in Louisville, The Lexington Herald- Leader, and Sports Illustrated magazine.


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