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Bill Straub: Kentucky’s famous statesman Henry Clay preferred being right, Bevin just wants to be governor

It was one of Kentucky’s most celebrated statesmen, Henry Clay, who, way back in 1839, uttered the memorable phrase, “I’d rather be right than be president.”

Perhaps Clay’s words have served as an inspiration for Gov. Matt Bevin, aka St. Matt the Divine of New Hampshire, who seems to be giving a new twist to the old phrase through his actions – I’d rather be a twit than be governor.

St. Matt, in this his fourth year holding the commonwealth’s highest office and seeking re-election come November, has never been shy about letting the electorate know he holds himself in the highest regard. While that is not an unusual position for a politician to assume, Bevin has proved so enamored with his own excellence that he is constantly picking fights that the more sober-minded seeking a return to the office might assiduously avoid.

Henry Clay

Bevin, for instance, faced opposition in the May Republican primary from Rep. Robert Goforth, of East Bernstadt, a pharmacist serving his first term in the legislature with little or no political capital at his disposal. Regardless, Goforth earned a remarkable 39 percent of the vote, holding St. Matt, the incumbent, to a relatively puny 52.4 percent.

Now most politicians, looking at those results and sensing a bumpy road to Election Day, would let bygones be bygones and seek the support of an intraparty foe who rendered him vulnerable.

Not St. Matt.

Attending the annual Kentucky State Fair Ham Breakfast in Louisville last week, Goforth told WHAS-TV that he hasn’t heard from the governor since the primary. That statement was made while St. Matt stood just a few feet away. Bevin, Goforth noted, apparently “doesn’t feel he needs to’’ make nice to solidify his chances in the fall.

“I don’t need to track him down,” Goforth said. “If he wants to speak to me, he knows how to get a hold of me.”

The reporter, Chris Williams, subsequently turned to Bevin, telling St. Matt that he just “ran into Goforth.” To which Bevin responded, “Who?’’

“A name so easily forgotten,” the governor said. “Enjoy the ham breakfast.”

Ah, the way to make friend and influence people.

There’s a reason this might carry significance. Much of Goforth’s primary support came from what is known as “the old Fifth,” counties that made up the Fifth Congressional District in southeastern and southern Kentucky for years and years. It historically has been the commonwealth’s most dedicated GOP region. Statewide Republican candidates frequently took the opportunity to quote Psalms 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

Bevin didn’t get a whole lot of help out of the old Fifth, which was Goforth’s home base. Regardless, the results show St. Matt isn’t number one with a bullet in that neck of the woods to begin with. Further alienating those folks wouldn’t at first blush seem to be a solid political strategy. They may not vote for Bevin’s Democratic opponent, Attorney General Andy Beshear, but they might not vote at all, which presents its own share of problems for our boy.
Then there is the Hampton fracas, which makes even less political sense than the Goforth melee.

Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton was a relatively unknown stalwart of the conservative Tea Party movement in 2015 when Bevin plucked her to serve as his running mate. It’s not like anyone else was exactly swinging elbows trying to land this particular job but Hampton did at least add some right wing bona fides to Bevin’s short resume.

Hampton upon assuming office added just about what Kentuckians have come to expect from their lieutenant governor – practically nothing. A Kiwanis Club here, a groundbreaking there, membership in a couple of do-nothing boards and you get a pretty good idea of what she’s been up to the last three-plus years. Regardless, as part of his re-election bid, St. Matt chose to unceremoniously dump her from the ticket in favor of Sen. Ralph Avarado, R-Winchester, considered more likely to wage a successful gubernatorial campaign of his own in 2023 and perhaps bring in some campaign dough from nursing home interests.
Fine. Times change. FDR had three different vice presidents.

But then came the insult to injury. The Bevin administration fired Hampton’s chief of staff, Steve Kinipper, in January and then followed that up by canning her deputy chief of staff, Adrienne Southworth, in May, without providing so much as a how-do-you-do to the lieutenant governor.

The turn of events has not gone well. In fact, the commonwealth now has a ringside seat to the spectacle of the sitting lieutenant governor suing the sitting governor in Franklin Circuit Court seeking reinstatement of the two officials until the expiration of Hampton’s term in December. Bevin’s favorite judge. Phillip Shepherd, heard arguments in the case and urged both sides to work it out, which appears unlikely.

St. Matt is hoping to make this appear as much ado about nothing, insisting that he considers Hampton a friend. Her response? “My friends don’t treat me this way.”

This may carry political implications in addition to the usual hard feelings. Southworth in particular has not gone quietly into that good night. She maintains ties to the Tea Party and is a former moderator for Take Back Kentucky, yet another right-wing outfit. Again, it’s unlikely those sympathizing with Hampton will vote for Beshear. But they can hurt Bevin by staying home on Nov. 5.

Then there is the constant, ongoing brouhaha with the state’s teachers, which sees St. Matt continuing to pour gasoline on the fire.

The Commonwealth’s teachers rely heavily on a pension system for their retirement since they are ineligible for Social Security. The problem is the system has traditionally been poorly funded, so the governor and lawmakers started fiddling around with potential solutions that would inevitably screw over the state’s already underpaid instructors.

So the educators staged sick-outs both this year and last to protest the proposed changes. Ten school districts closed for one or more days during the 2019 legislative session when large numbers of teachers called in sick. Many gathered in Frankfort to protest the looming pensions bill.  One particularly devastating package passed by the legislature and signed by St. Matt eventually went down in flames before the Kentucky Supreme Court because lawmakers tacked the language of the bill onto an unrelated measure just before the General Assembly adjourned.

That suit, by the way, was brought by Beshear.

Throughout the process Bevin bad-mouthed the teachers, asserting at various times that their protests led to school closures, resulting in the potential for harm to students forced to remain at home. He also insisted teachers protested just so they could take off work and get paid.

The teachers, simply stated, are not amused. Another day, another fight.

Now the Bevin administration is back in court. Earlier this year, the Kentucky Labor Cabinet asked school districts around the state to provide it with the names of all teachers who called in sick during teacher protests. It has since collected the names from the Department of Education and determined that 1,074 educators violated the law by engaging in an illegal work stoppage.

Beshear has sued the cabinet, claim ing it doesn’t hold the authority to conduct an investigation into the absences.

Other issues exist but a full accounting of Bevin’s unnecessary feuds, boorish behavior, and downright stupidity would fill enough volumes to outdistance Remembrance of Things Past. One poll already shows he is the nation’s lest popular governor and an internal Democratic poll shows Beshear holding an advantage.

But Bevin can’t be counted out. There are really only two issues of great relevance in Kentucky – abortion and guns. Bevin opposes the former and supports the latter. With the election coming in a period when Kentucky’s economy isn’t godawful – as unusual as that may be – smart money says St. Matt survives. But just barely.

But remember, Henry Clay said he’d rather be right than be president. He got his wish.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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