Frankfort, KY – Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has chosen another powerful Senate Republican to fill a gubernatorial appointment. And as Kentucky Public Radio's Tony McVeigh reports, the governor's intentions are clear.
In 2007, Steve Beshear was elected governor on a promise to let voters, through a constitutional amendment, decide if they want casino gambling in Kentucky. But 22 months into his first term, Gov. Beshear has not delivered. His latest setback occurred in the June special session, when an expanded gambling bill passed the House but died in the Senate budget committee. Since then, Beshear has leveled unrelenting criticism at Republicans who control the Senate.
"I've made it very clear that we need to have senators and representatives that are open-minded and will work with me on various issues," said Beshear. "And, you know, we've had at least one issue that I don't believe some senators have been open-minded about and that is the gaming issue."
And with Beshear focused on wresting control of the Senate away from the GOP, one of the governor's most effective tools appears to be his broad appointment powers. In July, Beshear appointed the former chairman of the powerful Senate budget committee, Republican Charlie Borders, to the Public Service Commission. At the time, Borders, who sought the appointment, was asked if he feared his departure could erode Republican control of the Senate.
"I don't think I'm the appropriate person to respond to that," said Borders. "But the fact is, when I first got elected to the legislature, there were six Republicans, 31 Democrats and one vacant seat. There were a bunch of us coming at that time together and it went from 11, to 14, to 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22."
Before Borders departed, the Senate had 21 Republicans, 16 Democrats and one independent. But, the ratio soon changed to 20 Republicans, 17 Democrats and one independent, when Democrat Robin Webb of Grayson won the Senate seat vacated by Borders. That was in mid-August. By September, Senate President David Williams was accusing Gov. Beshear of poisoning the political atmosphere in Frankfort and predicting Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly would be next to go.
"There's one issue on this governor's mind and that's slot machines," said Williams. "He's the slot machine governor and that's how he'll be remembered. And until he gets the slot machines, I don't think he's willing to stop at anything to take control of the General Assembly."
The administration fired back, saying the governor's bipartisan record on numerous issues proves he's about more than just slot machines. But Williams' prediction that Beshear would appoint Sen. Kelly to a circuit judgeship is now fact. The governor set December 8th as the date for a special election to fill the vacant Senate seat. And if asked, Beshear says he will campaign for the Democratic candidate.
"Elections are partisan contests and I'm sure that Republicans will be campaigning for the Republican and the Democrats will campaign for the Democrat," said Beshear. "And I'll be there, if the candidate wants me to be, to campaign for them."
Democrat Jodie Haydon, a former representative from Bardstown, and Republican Rep. Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon are already running for the seat. Dan Kelly's departure leaves the Senate with 19 Republicans, 17 Democrats and one independent. But Sen. Robert Stivers, whom Republicans quickly elected as their new majority leader, doesn't believe his tenure will be short-lived.
"I don't think Republicans are in danger in the Senate," Stivers told Kentucky Public Radio. "If we happen to lose Sen. Kelly's seat, which I don't think we will, what happens then? We are still the majority party within the Senate."
"But you're getting kind of narrow," said McVeigh.
"Well, we've had narrow numbers before," replied Stivers.
Indeed, they have. In fact, ten years ago, it was defections by two then-Democrats - Dan Seum and Bob Leeper - that gave Republicans a narrow 20-18 edge in the Senate and control of the body for the first time in almost a century. Nine years earlier, Democrats controlled 30 of the Senate's 38 seats.