LEBURN — In a heavily Democratic county badly hurt by the shriveling of Central Appalachia’s coal industry, the three Kentucky Republicans elected statewide drove a stake last week for some new public policy to build Kentucky’s farm economy, especially in Appalachia.
For at least two of them, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, the event in Knott County also showed the new kind of politics they practice, crossing old lines, breaking out of old boxes and occasionally angering more senior Republicans.
The events Comer held in Knott County and elsewhere in Eastern Kentucky showed a generational and attitudinal divide in the state’s Republican Party — one that may manifest itself in the 2015 primary for governor, which is about to begin with the entry of former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner.
By entering the race more than a year before the primary, Heiner is fulfilling the wish of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who would like the race to start now, in hopes of making Kentucky Democrats put their minds and money on it, rather than the challenge he faces this year from Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — and perhaps taking attention from his primary race with Matt Bevin.
Comer will enter the governor’s race on his own timetable and says he has been unwilling to do other things sought by McConnell and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-5th District — who was conspicuous by his absence from Comer’s events Monday, given his active interest in Appalachian Kentucky’s economy.
Comer made trouble for himself in some big Republican counties of Rogers’ district by cleaning house at the Agriculture Department, headed for eight years by Richie Farmer of Manchester, the former University of Kentucky basketball star who apparently thought his celebrity status allowed him to abuse the agency and make it a feather bed for his friends. Now they’re off the payroll and Farmer is headed to prison.
The audit was done by freshly elected state Auditor Adam Edelen, a Democrat and former chief of staff for Gov. Steve Beshear who will probably run for governor if former Auditor Crit Luallen doesn’t. That also rankled some Republicans.
Comer, of Tompkinsville, hasn’t been afraid to do that. He was the only state representative to support Paul in the 2010 Senate primary against then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson, the choice of McConnell and the state Republican establishment.
In 2011, he overcame conflicts with GOP gubernatorial nominee David Williams, then president of the state Senate, to become the Republican ticket’s only winner, racking up higher numerical and percentage margins than any other candidate on either statewide ticket. He hired former McConnell field director Larry Cox for a top job in the Agriculture Department, but Cox quit.
In early November, Comer went to Somerset, Rogers’ hometown, for a speech at a local Chamber of Commerce meeting in the Center for Rural Development, funded by Rogers from his perch on the House Appropriations Committee, which he now chairs. After being introduced by state House GOP Floor Leader Jeff Hoover of Jamestown as “the next governor of Kentucky,” according to the Somerset Commonwealth-Journal, Comer belled the cat in a speech that was clearly aimed at Rogers but perhaps also at McConnell.
As reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader, Comer said, “The days of party bosses hand-picking elected officials in smoke-filled rooms must end. No more scenarios where party bosses send some guy from, say, Louisville, who has never been to Somerset before and order you to support him because (they) can control him. I cannot be controlled.”
Such tough talk was once political suicide among Republicans with statewide ambitions, but things have changed, starting with Paul’s 2010 upset. McConnell quickly reached out to Paul, helping him in the general election, hiring his campaign manager and winning his endorsement for re-election. More recently, he joined the push by Paul and Comer to legalize industrial hemp — an idea opposed by Rogers.
Thanks to McConnell and Paul, the new farm bill allows hemp to be raised for research, and Comer’s announcement of five projects with state universities got more media attention than anything else he talked about Monday.
But he also announced a branding program for Eastern Kentucky products, “Appalachia Proud,” and several interesting research and development ideas, some of which would require investment — which he wants to get mainly through Paul’s proposed federal tax breaks for “economic freedom zones” in depressed areas and by returning all state coal-severance tax revenue to the counties of production — and spending that money more wisely, via a strategic plan like the one for state spending of tobacco-settlement money for agriculture.
Sound familiar? Beshear and Rogers have mounted a serious, bipartisan effort to craft a strategic plan to revive Eastern Kentucky’s economy.
Comer told the Knott County crowd, which appeared to include very few public officials, that he would work with Rogers, Beshear and the legislature to create the strategic plan and ask that 15 percent of its funding go for agriculture. But with him and Rogers on the outs, and Beshear interested in electing a Democratic successor, Comer’s plan seems much more likely to be a campaign platform before it becomes public policy.
That’s not necessarily bad. Campaigns should be about new ideas, and Comer has jumped into the legislative fray on non-farm issues, endorsing domestic-violence protections for dating partners and joining Paul in endorsing the original version of a constitutional amendment to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons — another break from Kentucky Republican orthodoxy, which seems to have been based on suppression of voting by African Americans.
“I’m going to do what I think is right, and that’s why Senator Paul and I get along so well,” Comer told me.
Paul is reaching out to minority voters, saying the GOP can’t remain viable nationally without a broader base. Thanks partly to him and President Barack Obama, who has damaged the Democratic brand in Kentucky, immediate Republican prospects in the state are better. The GOP gubernatorial nomination is highly valuable, and there’s about to be a very interesting fight for it.
Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column first appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.