2 Kentucky governors, past and present, in acrid public feud
Kentucky’s two most recent governors are feuding, but they can agree on one thing: the FBI is investigating.
While peaceful transitions of power are a longstanding U.S. tradition, the handoff in Kentucky from Democrat Steve Beshear to Republican Matt Bevin has been ugly. The two men have argued loudly over health care, voting rights, pensions and even the appointment of Beshear’s wife to a state commission.
Things were so tense recently that Bevin and Beshear both claimed the FBI was investigating the other. An FBI spokesman would not confirm or deny anything, preferring to stay out of the fight like many in Kentucky’s political circles.
The spat has intensified so much that Beshear has taken the extraordinary step of starting a nonprofit group that is paying for ads critical of Bevin and his policies. Bevin, in turn, has launched an investigation of the former Beshear administration, using a state law granting him subpoena power and public money to hire a private law firm to determine if the ex-governor violated state ethics and procurement laws.
Also nipping at Bevin’s side is Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, Steve Beshear’s son. The younger Beshear has already taken Bevin to court — twice — over his policies. The result is an old-fashioned clash in this Appalachian state pitting one of Kentucky’s most powerful political families against a Republican outsider intent on upending a power structure in which Democrats have controlled things for decades.
"This has got the makings of a real Hatfield and McCoy feud," former Democratic Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. said. "I don’t think it’s good for Kentucky."
The harsh talk from both sides — with Bevin accusing Beshear of telling a "straight-out lie" and Beshear calling Bevin "a bully" — is surprising to some. Bevin had repeatedly promised on the campaign trail to change the political tone in Frankfort if elected.
Yet the hostilities emerged before Bevin took office when he called Beshear "an embarrassment" for appointing his wife to an unpaid position on the Kentucky Horse Park Commission. He then leavened his December inaugural address with some veiled shots at Beshear as the former governor sat stone-faced just a few feet away.
In March, Bevin posted a scathing video to his Facebook page of an empty state House chamber, chiding Democratic leaders for not meeting on the budget. The legislature wasn’t scheduled to convene until 4 p.m. that day, and House Democrats were in fact meeting in their offices across the street.
"His attacks tend to be personal attacks," Steve Beshear said. "It’s not just a disagreement over ideas. But because you disagree with me you are a bad person and I’m going to get you in some way."
Beshear has not been blameless. Ten days after Bevin was elected, Beshear held a news conference criticizing Bevin’s plans to dismantle Kentucky’s health insurance exchange and replace its expanded Medicaid program, both cornerstones of Beshear’s legacy.
Once he left office, Beshear started a nonprofit group which — because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling — can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on political ads as long as more than half of its spending is on social welfare issues. The group has already paid for its first web ad, declaring that Bevin "uses fake numbers as justification for an ideological agenda." And this week, he wrote a letter criticizing both Bevin and federal officials for negotiating "back room deals" for Kentucky’s Medicaid program.
"It’s protocol for a former governor or a former president to be gracious and let the new governor be the governor," said Damon Thayer, the Republican floor leader of the state Senate. "It just seems to me that Steve Beshear is having a hard time dealing with the fact that he’s no longer governor."
The feud is likely to ripple out into the fall elections as Republicans seek control of the state House of Representatives, the only legislative chamber in the South the GOP does not control. Democrats recently were clinging to a three-seat majority in the state House of Representatives, but campaigned hard against Bevin in a series of special elections, winning three out of four to solidify their majority for the rest of this year. Now Republicans are eyeing November, when all 100 seats in the House will be on the ballot.
Recently, Bevin prayed at a National Day of Prayer event at the state Capitol, where he lamented the division in the country, "some of which we seem to increasingly celebrate." But after the event, Bevin did not appear willing to reconcile his differences with Beshear.
"For those who have their own agendas and miss their role to such a degree that they keep hanging around, God bless them," he said. "I can’t speak for what the motivation is there. But I’m a little confused by it. It’s rather embarrassing for Kentucky, frankly."