Issue March 31, 2009

Face/Off

When impending catastrophe is the only motivator for the state’s top two legislators to work together, we all lose

The official line from Frankfort was that things changed. Ask most people affiliated with legislative leadership, and they would say the partisan bickering that doomed the 2008 legislative session was bypassed this year in the face of dire economic circumstances. Seeking consensus, it was said, was the new goal.

“Isn’t it amazing how well they’re getting along?”

That was the rhetorical echo of aides, pundits, commentators and associates who pushed the talking point that Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg — both political creatures whose instincts for the game and upward mobility suggest they are of the same basic lineage — were cutting a trail out of the weeds, allied with a common goal of pulling the state back from the brink of financial ruin. It was partisanship be damned.

The prospect of cooperation between those two characters was laughable at first. Leading their respective chambers, Williams and Stumbo are each chiefly responsible for the direction of the state legislature, but neither held a reputation for working easily with the other side. In his eight years atop the Senate, Williams solidified his reputation as a highly skilled tactician and a fiery advocate for Republicans. It was Williams who provided the heavy hitting on U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s month-long, poll-panicked campaign bus tour of the state last year. At dozens of stops across Kentucky, Williams offered the fire and brimstone McConnell lacked, ripping into Democratic candidates Bruce Lunsford and Barack Obama.

For his part, Stumbo’s seizure of the House speakership in 2008 was a political masterstroke in its own right, occurring just a year into his second stint in the legislature. Previously, Stumbo served as attorney general and drew the ire of Republicans for pursuing criminal charges against then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Mt. Sterling Republican, on the grounds that Fletcher was firing state employees over political differences.

When Stumbo and Williams agreed to appear jointly at Friday morning press conferences in Frankfort during the session — axed amid increasing animosity between Williams and then-Speaker Jody Richards — it was hard to deny they were at least attempting pleasantries, despite their pasts. According to them, the gap between them was bridged under the looming shadow of the disaster wrought by a tanking economy — a simple explanation.

“I think everyone sat down at the table in these very difficult times and realized that we are dealing with very serious issues and that we needed to work together,” Williams told LEO Weekly in an interview.

“The current economic crisis is unlike anything we have seen before in our lifetimes, and if our chambers did not come together, all of Kentucky would suffer,” Stumbo said.

The central conceit of their story was that two master political gamesmen in oppositional roles and from different parties had overcome the partisanship that had previously provided them enough campaign fodder to uphold their political careers.

Did Williams and Stumbo stifle their ambitions and the opportunity for political points for the sake of the economy? Surely they would say they did.

But in politics, it is a fool who bets on principle when expediency wins elections.

 

The true masters of the art of politics succeed usually because they come from a particular breed of twisted genius. Highly successful politicians must typically be willing and able to perceive every element of life as a point in the game, a place where you’re brutally, publicly punished for mistakes and offered great power and more time in the game alongside each success.

With that as a constant, life in politics must become an existence where each step and word is a maneuver informed by an understanding of strategy and context. In the nooks of the marble halls of government, each private conversation becomes a chance to harness a vote, court an ally or secure a campaign contribution. Before the microphones and tape recorders of the media, each utterance becomes a potentially explosive missive, readily interpreted as controversial by a hungry press corps with columns that need filling. As such, words become the currency by which the politician lives or dies.

And, of course, it can be overlooked that the fate of our government, economy, homes, and families lies squarely in the balance.

The psychological effects of working in politics are probably not altogether clear to those of us on the outside, unexposed to the unique stresses of that environment. One thing is clear, however: With career and ego always on the line, the importance of winning the game usually rises above all else.

 

The Kentucky legislature was in the hands of two highly skilled politicians this session and, by extreme accounts, the fate of the commonwealth was in the balance. According to projections, state government faced a massive revenue shortfall when the session began. Whether it was by cutting spending, raising taxes or legalizing gambling, the legislature and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear needed to come up with a way to balance the books. The money was somewhere, but it was up to those in Frankfort to sort out where it would come from and who would bear the cost.

The revenue shortfall emerged as an issue last session, when it collided head-on with Beshear’s first legislative agenda. The casualties were numerous then, as bickering between the Democratically controlled House and the Republican-run Senate led to the failure of many pieces of legislation — including Beshear’s coveted amendment to allow casino gaming.

That session offered the latest installment of battling between Williams’s Senate and the House, run by Bowling Green Democrat Jody Richards. Williams and Richards frequently and publicly battled over large and small issues, from the value of legislative junkets to tax increases. Bills passed in one chamber would be killed or gutted in the other. In particular, Williams and his Republicans in the Senate cut down a cigarette-tax hike lauded as a major move toward reversing the revenue shortfall.

Stumbo shocked many in the state when his reputation as a skilled vote counter paid off, and he ousted Richards — the longest-serving speaker in the state’s history — from the House’s top spot in January. But some believed Stumbo’s re-emergence in the legislature was not exactly a reason to believe he would collaborate with Williams.

The reputations of both men preceded them going into this session. Stumbo and Williams were each survivors of a climb up the political ladder wrought with vicious conflict and allegations of scandal. They endured to earn statewide power and recognition as skilled legislators and serious partisans. Most significantly, each was regarded as a fierce competitor with a record of success in Kentucky’s complex political landscape. The potential was there for a monumental conflict that could be a nightmare to progress for the state and the political careers of all involved.

 

It was David Williams who first accused Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Lunsford of theft. Just after a debate in western Kentucky, Lunsford picked up a Republican aide’s voice recorder from his podium and walked out of the debate hall. Several minutes later, Lunsford’s campaign returned the recorder to the aide at the request of a police officer, though some data was erased.

As reporters were assembling their notes on the debate, Williams saw an opportunity. With the retrieved tape recorder in hand and the aide at his side, he stood at a table in the middle of the debate hall and called an impromptu press conference of his own.

“It’s a criminal action that was intended to interfere with the free flow of information in a political campaign,” Williams said, jabbing the recorder in the air and asserting that Lunsford could be prosecuted for theft and destruction of property.

The decision to act on the incident was quick and seemingly risky. After all, the Republicans could look trivial for flaunting what may have been an accident as a crime. On the other hand, the right publicity could change the narrative of the race from McConnell’s vulnerabilities to something entirely different.

As it was, Williams’s judgment was astute. The fallout from the recorder incident spun the Senate race out of Lunsford’s control for several days and gave the Republicans the chance to file criminal charges against a candidate for the U.S. Senate. And, of course, coverage of the absurdities soon went national, and local media became obsessed with the details of what was perhaps one of the most mundane who-done-its in history.

Meanwhile, the issues of the race, few that there were, became lost in the dust storm. And it is hard to imagine Williams would have wanted it any other way.

Though they may loathe him, few can doubt Williams’s abilities as a political tactician or legislator. By all accounts, the state Senate belongs to him. Within the four walls of the chamber, he looms over the podium with an oversized gavel by his side, breezing through the official duties of the Senate president with the familiarity that comes with knowing the outcome of every action. The game in that chamber, for all intents and purposes, is his to lose.

Legislation in Frankfort is required to pass through both the House and the Senate before passing into law with the governor’s pen. Over the eight years the Republican Party has held the majority in the Senate, Williams has earned a reputation for turning that body into a Republican check on Democratic policy. In his own way, he uses the Senate to function as the state government equivalent to McConnell: a firewall or an obstructionist, depending on your perspective.

“He is a strategic tactician whose skills are unmatched in the state,” said David Givens, a freshman Republican senator from Greensburg. “His knowledge of the mechanisms and processes combined with his knowledge of the personalities in government make him a very effective legislator.”

Williams gave Beshear hell in 2008, wielding the Senate against the Democrats and cutting down that cigarette-tax hike that would supposedly remedy the revenue shortfall. Beyond that, many pieces of legislation simply stalled because Democrats knew no progress would be made once they tried to cross a bill over to the Senate.

The control Williams exerts as president of the Senate is mirrored to some extent in the speaker’s position in the House. There, the speaker leads the Democratic caucus that controls much of the body’s rulemaking, allowing for handy control over the flow of legislation. Generally, a speaker dictates whether a bill will survive or die in his chamber.

In ascending to that position, Stumbo proved himself a master of the inside political game and a Democratic equivalent to Williams. His gamesmanship was proven when his victory over Richards capped a two-year blitz, from political unemployment to the top position in the House.

After 24 years representing his hometown of Prestonsburg, Stumbo finished a four-year term as attorney general and a stint on Bruce Lunsford’s losing gubernatorial ticket in 2007. Out of the political game for the first time in decades, he began scrambling for an office. He considered a 2008 U.S. Senate run, going so far as to form an exploratory committee. Ultimately, however, it was Lunsford again who emerged as the favored candidate in that race.

Stumbo returned to his old district, held by a close political ally. In short order the seat opened thanks to the incumbent’s resignation, after what he called “prayerful consideration.” A special election was called, and Stumbo easily won. Beshear soon appointed the retired incumbent to a state job. Almost immediately, word emerged Stumbo would seek to oust Richards.

Richards had been a problem for Beshear during the governor’s first legislative session. With the gentleman from Bowling Green at the helm in 2008, Beshear was largely considered a failure as highly touted campaign promises fell by the wayside. The fact that Beshear’s coveted expanded gaming legislation could never find the floor under Richards was a problem. Stumbo, on the other hand, was an ardent advocate of expanded gaming.

In time, some Beshear supporters began whispering that Richards was responsible for failed bills in the House and immobile negotiations with Williams in the Senate. It was Richards who was hurting the Democratic label and unable to address the revenue crisis, not Beshear. And though the governor’s office continually denied giving any support to Stumbo over Richards, Stumbo reportedly told colleagues he would be more open to negotiations with Williams, should he win.

With the top Democrat enjoying a closer relationship with the governor, the 2009 session seemed destined for trouble. It could become a venue for two of the state’s top political tacticians to brawl over every punctuation mark in legislation and every tedious decision to be made.

It would have been bad for the state, but good for a story.

 

With the closure of the session last week, most reviews from legislators and media observers were quick to declare success. Throughout, the expectations of problems seemed to be overturned, as hardened members of the press corps spoke of how smoothly things were running.

Those Friday morning press conferences developed into minor blips where Williams and Stumbo jointly deflected volleys from the press, feeding off of each other and denying anything was troubled in any way, shape or form.

Late in the session, a wrinkle emerged in the effort to pass the state’s massive new $3.7 billion road plan — an investment into the state’s transportation infrastructure. The concern was that Williams wanted the portion of the plan outlining each project to be approved by the House before his Senate approved a measure that would help fund the plan. Stumbo, on the other hand, wanted the Senate to pass the funding measure first, so it could go to the governor jointly with the projects portion.

Seated next to each other on another Friday morning, Stumbo and Williams begrudgingly admitted their differences on the plan, and the press corps perked up. Instead of agreement, could this potentially be called “controversy”? A “brawl”? Or just a “curveball”? When a reporter went so far as to ask if the two were at “loggerheads,” Stumbo and Williams tripped over each other with denials.

“We are not there,” they said in unison, shaking their heads vigorously and announcing their intention to compromise.

Quickly, morning news stories were filed dispensing word that the situation had developed into a “standoff” among Beshear, Williams and Stumbo. Almost as suddenly, the anxiety cooled and an agreement between the chambers was reached that afternoon.

The justification from the leadership remained economic. The road plan under consideration during that brief incident was qualified as a “stimulus” plan, and the rhetoric surrounding it reiterated the need for agreement to spark job creation and growth. The plan sends millions across the state, drawing from federal stimulus money, a state bond issue and standard federal highway funds. The largest amount of federal stimulus money sent to any senator’s district, of course, ended up in Williams’s rural 16th. Senate leadership was treated well all around, with Democratic Minority Leader Ed Worley’s district raking in the second highest amount of funds.

The districts of House leaders, on the other hand, were generally not ranked among the top recipients of funds.

Some questioned the allocations, but they may make sense considering what has to be the most exceptional measure of compromise achieved between Williams and the Democrats this session.

Though he spent much of the 2008 session working to block cigarette-tax hikes in his Senate, 2009 found Williams completely reversing course. Early in the session, Williams and other Senate Republicans supported Beshear’s long-revered cigarette and alcohol tax hike in the name of doing something — anything! — to boost state revenue.

Even bills not directly pertaining to economics that could have caused major rifts in the legislature were kept under cover and compromise by the Senate. The controversial Senate Bill 68 would have barred same-sex couples from adopting children, but it never saw a vote on the floor of either chamber. When queried on the bill, Stumbo said simply that it was not going anywhere, while Williams kept his mouth shut.

Williams’s behavior was at first confusing. Jumping on S.B. 68 and opposing the cigarette-tax hike could have been easy opportunities to score political points by hammering on Democrats and making trouble for a second consecutive session. Instead, Williams ended up taking flack for reversing his position on taxes — a potentially heavy blow for Republicans — and gratitude from those on the political left for opposing the adoption ban.

Somehow, the potential war between the political titans had been averted and the word “consensus” appeared to be a buzzword actualized.

Ask Williams, Stumbo or Beshear, and they will assure you economic circumstances were the absolute key to pushing a consensus agenda. No distractions were needed and action was immediately necessary. But, when legislative leaders make such drastic compromises and longstanding gaps are suddenly bridged, it is worth asking again: Why did they do that?

 

“The tone was really defined by three people,” suggested state Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, D-Louisville, of this session. “Speaker Stumbo wanted to get off to a good start, the governor was ready to work with both chambers, and David Williams was on his best behavior.”

Those responsible for pushing the talking points of consensus this session are the same leaders with their careers on the line, for whom failure is not an option. Without some measures to salvage the financial crisis in the commonwealth’s government, a crisis of an even greater magnitude could have developed and been attributed to them. Therefore, even in the hyper-competitive political game, when met with a challenge as monumental as this, the greatest play may be to band together.

For Beshear, working with both chambers was the only option. After a checkered 2008, another losing session could mean his four-year term would be off to a potentially irreversible bad start.

But for Williams and Stumbo, upward political ambition may have driven two skilled political tacticians together as a team for a bizarre moment in history — a play in the game, but a play nonetheless.

Stumbo’s ambition to seek higher office has always been clear. Whether it was jockeying for the speakership, the U.S. Senate, the lieutenant governor’s office, or even the Prestonsburg district that propelled him back into the state House, it is clear he is always considering his future. Some even interpreted his agreement to drop the charges against Gov. Fletcher as a move to free himself from the responsibilities of the attorney general’s office in order to run for governor himself.

For his part, Williams has already sought a U.S. Senate seat once, and speculation that he would try again in 2010 has lingered in Frankfort much of the year. Williams recently met with national Republican leaders about seeking junior Sen. Jim Bunning’s seat, and has been the subject of jabs from Bunning, who views Williams as a potential primary challenger. As Bunning continues to descend into a self-destructive fit amid talk that he is a weak candidate or may retire, Williams and Secretary of State Trey Grayson are two highly rumored replacements for the post, joined by local libertarian hero Rand Paul — son of the former presidential candidate.

For politicians with eyes on other offices, the calculation cannot always be to fight, but sometimes just to survive. If anything, these two men are experienced enough in politics to understand that hard-charging partisanship may win primaries, but not general elections. And, while the noble sentiment that the economy must be saved is surely appreciated, political gamesmen surely consider the long-term consequences of their actions. The ultimate threat in a campaign is what can be used against you, and nothing could be used more than failure. Beyond that, harvesting accomplishments suitable for television commercials and stump speeches holds its own rewards.

While the tax plan Williams agreed to obviously earned him some enemies that may have been among his ranks before, it is possible that what its provisions may avert could serve his agenda further than sticking to his guns and remaining a one-dimensional anti-tax robot — this act of saving Kentucky from certain economic crisis may offer just the right kind of statewide appeal for a rural conservative to carry on past Democratic Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, who’s running for Bunning’s seat as well.

The fact that Williams is making these long-term calculations about future races was readily apparent during a brief interview. When asked about criticism from supporters of two other potential candidates, Williams naturally and casually assailed both Paul and Grayson.

“There are some people that are certain levels of libertarian or certain Paulist groups that say let the government shut down, it doesn’t matter,” Williams said of Paul. “He’s opposed to anyone that’s ever done anything.”

Grayson is a hot commodity in Republican circles; he said recently he would run should Bunning step aside. Criticism from his supporters, however, would not fly from Williams, who referenced his time in the Senate as proof he was able to make decisions — even tough ones, like tax policy.

“One day, he’ll have a record, if he ever has to make any decisions,” Williams said of Grayson. “He doesn’t have a record. It’s always an advantage to not have a record.

“He’s done a good job, but what is the job?” he added.

From Stumbo’s perspective, getting key bills passed may be of the utmost importance in order to be perceived as an effective speaker, as Shaughnessy suggested. The motivation could not have been clearer when a reporter pressed Stumbo about the process for the passage of this year’s road plan.

“How is this different from what has happened in the past?” asked the reporter.

“The difference is it’s going to pass,” Stumbo said.

 

In a sense, the most lauded accomplishment of this session’s consensus agenda is a measure that helped the government fight on to another day. In fact, it took this drive for survival to turn a bitterly partisan legislature into one that, at least for a moment, made some bipartisan strides. The self-interested motivations of the players of the political game could have survived in no other way.

Of course, because the motivation was likely self-interest and the preservation of future ambitions, the consensus faded after the emergency measures were passed. By the end of the session, the Senate, Beshear and the House had come to a stalemate. Stumbo wanted to pack up the House and get out of Frankfort without considering any of the remaining legislation the Senate and Beshear considered valuable. The legislation — including a bill designed to lure a NASCAR Sprint Cup race to Kentucky and another to provide stop-gap funding for public defenders — ended up dead as Stumbo headed back to Prestonsburg.

Furthermore, while everyone from Grayson to Williams to Beshear was glad to praise the bipartisan nature of the laws that did pass, each also cited other provisions he hoped could have made it through. Those, of course, were not all vital to every politician and thus met the scrap heap.

“This session was indeed less contentious, and some important legislation was passed,” Grayson said. “Unfortunately, until we pass comprehensive tax reform that will allow our economy to grow and thus increase our revenue base, no legislative session can truly be called a success.”

“People thought raising taxes was difficult, but the real challenge is coming,” said Shaughnessy. “We drastically need to restructure the entire tax system.”

Beshear bemoaned the lack of NASCAR legislation, while Stumbo wished expanded gambling had ascended.

The illusion is that consensus trickled all the way down, but by the end of the session it was clear that was only for the abbreviated session and scaled to a few bills. Agreement on areas of vital importance to the state, such as a reform of the healthcare system, environmental controls and economic growth in impoverished regions, was ultimately neglected in favor of a celebrated tax hike and a plan to build more roads.

Needless to say, not everyone was impressed with the session’s supposed consensus agenda.

“It is a step in the right direction,” Shaughnessy said. “Is it a significant step? A historical step? We are at a point in Kentucky history where decisions that are made are going to impact this generation and Kentucky for a significant amount of time.

“We have a long way to go,” he added.