A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Al Cross: Start of new governorship always leans to theatrics, but — really — it’s a new day in Frankfort


The start of a new governorship necessarily involves theatrics, which help signify the importance of a historic event, establish comity after an election and signal the shift from politics to governing. But theatrics can have meaning that signals the substance and the politics to come.

Tuesday’s inauguration of Gov. Andy Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman had all those things. It repeatedly emphasized the pivotal role of teachers in Beshear’s narrow ouster of Republican Matt Bevin, who would have been re-elected if he hadn’t angered them.

Teachers led the inaugural parade, filled the stands and even spoke at the ceremonial swearing-in. Their brothers and sisters in organized labor were at the end of the parade, recognized but not emphasized. (Louisville’s Teamsters Local 89, which was a key to electing Paul Patton governor in 1995, seemingly tried to make up for its rear position with a semi-trailer truck.)

Kentuckians have a softer spot for teachers than unions, and Beshear is signaling that his likely uphill road to re-election runs straight through our public schools – an area where he can find common ground with many of the Republicans who make up the supermajorities in the General Assembly, and with their constituents.

Gov. Beshear with Senior Adviser Rocky Adkins on inauguration day. (Kentucky Today photo)

Coleman, a former teacher holding her first public office, went too far when she declared, “Public education is the solution to every challenge we face.” But when she added that education can “break the cycle of poverty” and help children “find stability, safety, hope and opportunity,” she was reflecting many Kentuckians’ own experience, and their hopes.

Those experiences and hopes will help mute public reaction to Beshear’s first substantive act, the appointment of a new Kentucky Board of Education, to replace one that was friendly to charter schools.

Beshear actually abolished the old board and created a new one, a move that will probably stand up in court. The “reorganization” will expire in June unless codified by the General Assembly, and many Republican legislators will try to block it. But even if they do, after they adjourn in April he can issue another executive order doing the same thing – unless the courts surprise us and decide to blow the whistle on his legal fiction.

A bigger question is how the school-board spat will affect Beshear’s relations with a legislature that can pass pretty much any legislation it wants, no matter what he proposes. I’m guessing not much, since many Republican legislators are close to teachers and are big supporters of public education; they’re the reason charter schools haven’t been funded and private-school tax breaks haven’t passed.

Still, as a new Democratic governor asserts power, a Republican legislature is likely to follow suit. Several states with Democratic governors and Republican legislatures have seen the latter limit the former’s powers, and the Senate seems ready to do that by making the governor appoint the transportation secretary from a list approved by the state Chamber of Commerce and lobbies for counties and cities. (That wouldn’t affect new the new secretary, former Lexington Mayor Jim Gray.)

That being said, Beshear’s inaugural set a good tone, as Senate President Robert Stivers said, and surely appealed to Republican legislators who were weary of dealing with Bevin – or not dealing with him at all. There are many nice, little things a governor can do for legislators, including appointing members to boards and commissions, but Bevin didn’t cut them in, and Beshear may get to name more than his share because Bevin reportedly let many terms expire without filling them.

Also, legislative relations are likely to benefit from former House Democratic Leader Rocky Adkins being Beshear’s “senior adviser,” a term I can’t recall seeing in a Kentucky governor’s office, and one that seems likely to give the Democratic primary runner-up to Beshear broad purview and influence.

In making Adkins a sort of deputy governor, Beshear seemed to recognize that he needed someone with deep knowledge of the legislature and the recent workings of state government other than his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, and someone who can rebuild the Democratic Party in small-town Kentucky. He thrice reverted to campaign mode in an inaugural speech that was about as long as Coleman’s.

Amid all of Tuesday’s declarations and platitudes, one of the most evocative was from former state Rep. Jack Coleman, who said in introducing his daughter, “I knew Jacqueline had the ability, but I wondered if she would ever have the opportunity.”

So many parents have wondered likewise, showing the need for more opportunity in our society, especially for the disadvantaged and the marginalized. One piece of theatrics, the grand march in the Capitol rotunda, had some of that when Gray walked with his partner, Eric Orr, making them the most prominent same-sex couple in Kentucky public life.

It’s a new day in Frankfort.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune and KyForward are the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.


Related Posts

Leave a Comment