FRANKFORT — “April is the cruelest month,” T.S. Eliot wrote. Has it been cruel to David Williams? Let’s go to the scorecard.
He suffered perhaps the biggest defeat of his 11-year career as state Senate president when House Democrats and Gov. Steve Beshear, not always in partisan harness, pulled a maneuver that left Williams with nothing of what he wanted in the debate over Medicaid and the state budget.
Then it was revealed that Williams had reported gambling losses of $36,147 on his tax returns from 1999 to 2002, indicating that he had winnings greater than the losses. Then he refused to release his recent returns, though he demanded Larry Forgy do it when Williams was running Larry Hopkins’ Republican primary campaign against Forgy in 1991.
Williams has made no secret that he likes to gamble, or did, but he has been the principal obstacle to the introduction of casino-style gaming to Kentucky. He says it’s not hypocritical, because he opposes gambling expansion not on moral grounds, but from concern for the public interest.
He’s right. It’s not hypocrisy. But it is incongruity. It just doesn’t fit, and that’s not good when you are running for governor.
It’s also not good when the wife of your running mate files for divorce, after he raised eyebrows with questionable spending as agriculture commissioner and refused to take the furloughs that all other constitutional officers are taking.
Richie Farmer was supposed to be sugar to Williams’ vinegar. He could still be, and we wish him and his family well. But the divorce case was a surprise to Williams’ campaign, so it raises questions about the candidates’ relationship.
Farmer can’t be replaced unless he is disqualified or has a severe disabling condition, but maybe Williams could use an unofficial, additional running mate: Hopkins County Attorney Todd P’Pool, who is unopposed for the Republican nomination for attorney general. He has already been attacking Attorney General Jack Conway for not challenging the federal health care overhaul law, and for not taking on the Obama administration on strip mining and other issue.
President Barack Obama is not popular in Kentucky, so he provides the best cudgel for Republicans to use against Beshear.
Williams’ latest radio commercial says he will “stand up to Barack Obama to support Kentucky coal.”
Tying the governor to Conway, who damaged himself in last year’s Senate race, could put some weight in Beshear’s boat. In late 2008, Beshear and Conway wrote letters objecting to a regulatory favor that the outgoing Bush administration did for Appalachian strip-mine companies. I can’t recall another instance in which a Kentucky governor objected to a pro-coal move by the feds.
Now Beshear is sucking up to the industry, demanding in this year’s State of the Commonwealth speech that EPA “get off our backs” with regard to Appalachian stripping. He knows coal interests may spend big to defeat him, perhaps in concert with Pikeville road contractor Leonard Lawson, who was acquitted of corruption charges in a prosecution aided by Beshear’s administration. At this month’s state Republican Party dinner, coal operator Joe Craft was the only individual giver recognized.
The U.S. Supreme Court has made it easier for businesses to mount campaigns for and against political candidates, and Kentucky’s governor’s race is likely to be the most competitive of the four being run this year, so it should be a magnet for money. But a campaign against Beshear is not without risk. If he wins a second and final term, he could make things harder for strip miners and other coal interests. Some of them may observe Ralph Waldo Emerson’s maxim, “When you strike at a king, you must kill him,” or suffer the consequences.
As they make that decision, those who would spend big money to oust the well-funded Beshear will consider just how good a chance they have. That may depend on how Williams performs in the primary, and how he looks in polls afterward.
This month’s Survey USA poll for The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV looked very good for Williams, showing him just short of a majority in the primary, with little-funded foes Bobbie Holsclaw and Phil Moffett far from striking distance. But it wasn’t as good for him as it looked.
The poll reached 2,198 registered voters and determined that 507 were likely to vote in the Republican primary. Since only 37 percent of the registration is Republican, 507 represents a 62 percent turnout — about four times what seems likely.
A fully contested three-way primary in 2007 drew only 20 percent.
If Moffett’s tea party types are more motivated than Williams’ more GOP-establishment supporters, and enough Jefferson County Republicans want to express their distaste for Williams, he could fall short of a majority, making him look like a less worthy bet in the fall. He acknowledges that he might get only a plurality, but says he doesn’t expect it because his foes have little money.
And as for his month? Williams says it has been “excellent” because of the poll and fundraising results, national interest in the race and other factors. He says Farmer is trying to save his marriage and “will take steps to donate (his pay for) those furlough days to a charity.”
He says the outcome of the legislative session was ordained by the Democrats, and voters tell him, “Thank you so much for standing up.”
But will voters stand up for Williams?
“We’re running a full-fledged campaign” to get out the vote, he said. “Complacency is the thing we’re trying to fight.”
Al Cross, former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His views are his own, not those of the University of Kentucky.