Issue May 16, 2006

Bluegrass Report: Real right-wing conspiracy

As the attention of horse-racing fans turns from Kentucky to Maryland this week, another oddly parallel connection is happening relating to each state’s Republican governors, both of whom are mired in merit-system scandals.

While we’re all familiar with last week’s indictment of Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) on political corruption charges stemming from his administration’s manipulation of the state’s merit system, an eerily similar scandal is brewing in Maryland.

Last year, at almost the same time as Fletcher’s scandal became public, complaints began hitting the Maryland media alleging that shortly after he took office in 2003, Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) fired longtime merit workers to make room for Republicans loyal to the governor. Ehrlich was the first Republican in 36 years to be elected governor (Fletcher was the first in 32 years), after previously serving in Congress and in the state legislature (as did Fletcher).

Immediately, Ehrlich and Republican legislators called the accusations a “witch hunt” by Democrats, who nonetheless moved forward with investigations and hearings by the legislature, creating the Special Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections.

Last Friday, while Fletcher’s indictment dominated Kentucky news coverage, Maryland’s media was running with Ehrlich’s denial that politics played a role in the firings of state workers, while allegations swirled that an aide to Ehrlich compiled a hit list (they called it the “death list”) of people to be fired. The administration denied the charges, saying that it did not know the political affiliations of those fired or the people that replaced them. (Aren’t these similarities almost scary?)

In Maryland, investigators are in the final stages of the initial probe into the Ehrlich administration, while in Kentucky, a grand jury just took the leap from investigation to indictment.

While I try to avoid grand political conspiracy theories at all cost, there are too many similarities here to dismiss as mere coincidences. Several years ago, a top Democratic insider in Washington told me that beyond the efforts to win elections, the conservative movement was simultaneously focused on dismantling three pillars of traditional Democratic power in the hopes of de-funding Democratic candidates. Those pillars are organized labor, trial lawyers and public employees.

Here in Kentucky, we just witnessed the Fletcher administration try to take on all three in one fell swoop — and lose all three battles. First, using bogus and self-serving selected statistics, Fletcher supported union-busting, right-to-work legislation and the repeal of prevailing wage laws. A bi-partisan group of legislators killed that effort in committee.

Next, he went after trial lawyers by trying to enact limits on the damages that injured consumers could obtain in court, falsely claiming that such suits were causing doctors to flee the state (they weren’t) and that doing so would lower insurance rates and eventually lower health care costs (even the insurance lobby disagrees with the assertion). That legislation died in the Senate.

And finally, upon his election, Fletcher undid an order by former Gov. Paul Patton (D) that allowed state employees to unionize. Soon thereafter, Fletcher and his henchmen went down the road to removing long-time state merit workers so they could pack their jobs with Republican cronies.

In fact, you might recall a 2002 battle between President Bush and Democrats during the homeland security debate. Then, Bush demanded that similar civil service protections be removed from millions of federal employees by arguing that the president needed the ability to make personnel moves during a time of war.

Thankfully, a Franklin County grand jury said enough is enough, and indicted Fletcher on political corruption charges, ensuring that his record on these matters was 0 for 3, and likely ending his political career.

But I’ve learned in politics that when you see similar things happening across the country, it’s rarely a coincidence. When 15 or so states enacted gay marriage amendments in 2004, it most assuredly was part of a larger plan.
Keep a close eye on the developments in Maryland, as you do here in Kentucky, and don’t be surprised if you hear similar issues sprouting in other states. The conservatives came to power with a lot of money — and a strong desire to fundamentally change the system to suit their agenda.

Fortunately, they got sloppy along the way, not being careful enough in their e-mails to hide their efforts to undermine merit laws in places like Kentucky and Maryland. As I wrote in this column a few months ago, the day of reckoning is almost here, and not a moment too soon.

Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org, which recently won the 2005 Koufax Award for Best State or Local Blog in the country. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org