Issue January 23, 2012

Crit, Democratic women emerge

At a Saturday evening party of the party faithful, lawmakers, labor, lobbyists and a few retired journalists converged on the Henry Clay to praise Democrat Crit Luallen and to bury the shards of the glass ceiling she helped shatter.

The event was a benefit for Emerge Kentucky, “the premier training program for Democratic women,” according to a fund-raising envelope left on each of the 500 seats, which attendees paid $125 to occupy. “Our goal is clear: to increase the number of Democratic women in public office.”

Jennifer Moore, legal counsel to the Kentucky Democratic Party and chief organizer of the event, echoed the grim statistics laid bare in the program booklet: “Kentucky ranks 39th among the states for women in elected office. Among the 120 county judge executives, only five are women. Only 18 percent of the seats in the General Assembly are held by women.” With 17 percent of Congress women, the United States ranks 84th internationally — behind China, Mexico and Pakistan.

The event was billed as a roast, but Attorney General Jack Conway noted the absurdity of lampooning such a class act as his political mentor: “You roast Charlie Sheen; you don’t roast Crit Luallen.” The last time he made fun of someone, “it was a curly haired Texan — and we all saw how that worked out,” Conway joked of his lackluster U.S. Senate bid against Rand Paul.

Conway and seven other roasters were left to focus on Luallen’s legendary perfectionism — her excruciating attention to detail — and how it inspired panic among her colleagues and, from 2003 to 2011 as state auditor, the targets of her uniformly “scathing” findings and recommendations.

For the most part, Conway, like most of the featured speakers, conveniently opted to barbecue public officials whose corruption Luallen exposed. He presented a frenzied video clip from “Airplane!” and a still shot of the decadent frat boys in “Animal House” to supplement his satire.

Conway was one hilarious SOB. In an edgy moment, Luallen, who nicknamed him “Danger Boy,” looked as though she’d like to kick him in the shin, he noted.

Gov. Steve Beshear struck a divine chord in asking, “What would Crit do?” and speculating that she wouldn’t be caught with a “work fridge and a laptop at home,” a slap at former ag commissioner and GOP lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Richie Farmer.

Then Beshear asked, “What will Crit do?”

It was the $64,000 question at the event, which raised $62,500 in ticket sales alone. Developer and 21c Hotel co-owner Steve Wilson quipped that Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson started a rumor that she’ll run against U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014. But she’s more likely to run for governor in 2015, according to friends and interviews with Luallen. That may disappoint Abramson, who is positioned to succeed Beshear. The former Louisville mayor, whose Department of Housing and Family Services was scandalized in a 2010 audit, was conspicuously absent from the event.

Denied rumors persist that Beshear may resign to challenge McConnell, leaving Abramson to run for re-election as an incumbent governor.

Enthusiasm for Luallen to re-enter public service was palpable. It climaxed in applause after Moore said, “This is not — repeat not — a retirement dinner.”

Luallen, 59, has served as an appointee to six governors. She was executive cabinet secretary to former Gov. Paul Patton, who joked of her sterling reputation, “It ain’t so; I worked for her for seven years!”

Other tributes were more straightforward. Kentucky’s only female governor, Martha Layne Collins, whom she helped elect, congratulated her for “restoring the people’s faith and trust in their government.” Nana Lampton, CEO of American Life, called her “a citizen for the common good” who “stands in her own light.”

After the event, Moore was sifting through contribution envelopes and nomination cards. She was stunned that so many people stayed so long. Normally, roasters speak through dinner. But the ceremony had paused while Luallen circulated through the ballroom to thank supporters.

“It was her idea,” Moore said.

It seemed a thoughtful intermission by a candidate between acts.

Thus Moore’s remark, “This is not — repeat not — a retirement dinner,” had a double meaning.

The raucous roast was a smashing success.