January 25, 2006

Bluegrass Politics: The odd disappearance of Lt. Gov. Steve Pence

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.” —Lt. Gov. Steve Pence, in his inauguration speech.
From the moment Steve Pence agreed to be Ernie Fletcher’s running mate, the public has been constantly reminded that Pence is the corruption-fighting U.S. Attorney of BOPTROT fame. In one memorable sound bite from Pence himself, the future lieutenant governor sneered at Gov. Paul Patton’s decision to pardon some of his political cronies before trial.

“Things like that are not going to happen in a Fletcher-Pence administration,” he vowed.
Of course, they did. Halfway into its second year, the Fletcher-Pence team found itself up to its eyeballs in the same sort of political scandal both had deplored as candidates. This has put Pence, who may have gubernatorial aspirations, in the awkward spot of defending the Fletcherites even as he distances himself from them. It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off, and so far the jury is still out on just how much Pence has been damaged (or strengthened) politically by the governor’s repeated gaffes.

Just last week, a scheduled meeting between Pence and some county prosecutors was interrupted by Fletcher, who showed up unexpectedly to chastise the prosecutors for their interpretation of an earlier meeting with his budget director, Brad Cowgill. According to the prosecutors, Cowgill strayed from talk about the budget so he could lean on them to urge Attorney General Greg Stumbo to pull the plug on his investigation of the administration’s hiring practices.

Fletcher told the prosecutors that they simply did not hear what they thought they heard. Cowgill did not ask them to intervene with Stumbo, the governor insisted. But the prosecutors stuck to their story, and Pence again was caught in the middle.

Given Pence’s impressive record of fighting corruption, many Frankfort observers wonder why he remains on his job while his boss tramples the rights of state employees, insults the citizens serving on the grand jury investigating the merit system violations and has now been accused of using his budget director to exert influence on prosecutors. He was named running mate to provide the antidote to such things.

One reason could be that Pence is positioning himself to run in the 2007 Republican primary should Fletcher take the hint from his dismal approval ratings and not seek reelection. Unless Fletcher pulls off a miracle or two during the legislative session, his chances of being nominated for a second term are far from automatic. The list of potential challengers includes names like U.S. Reps. Anne Northup and Ed Whitfield, Senate President David Williams and, of course, Pence.

At Fletcher’s announcement that he was pardoning everyone in the administration, whether charged with a crime or not, Pence was nowhere to be seen, an obvious sign that he was unhappy with having to eat his campaign promise about no pardons. Indeed, instead of standing by his man, Pence opted to attend a fund-raiser with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the boss of bosses in the Kentucky Republican Party.

Since then, it’s been rare to find Pence standing anywhere near the governor, literally or figuratively.
More signs of a schism between Fletcher and Pence arose with Pence’s public announcement that he supports expanding gaming. From day one, Fletcher has remained firmly on the fence, not wanting to alienate either his supporters in the horse industry or the religious right that’s such a big part of the Republican base.

More recently, soon after Fletcher had urged support of teaching intelligent design in the public schools, Pence dismissed the idea during a television interview.
Unsurprisingly, all of the governor’s men have dropped Pence’s name from their vernacular. When they are forced to mention him, it’s only to credit the job he’s doing as Secretary of the Justice Cabinet, not as lieutenant governor. In Fletcher’s State of the Commonwealth address, his only reference to Pence was to acknowledge his efforts in fighting drug abuse.

After a high-profile first year, Pence now seems content to fly below the radar. Other than an occasional appearance to discuss the gambling issue or his thoughts on castrating sex offenders, he seems to be in wait-and-see mode, pondering both his role in the administration and his political future.

So now he’s just another lieutenant governor who must find relevance by doing other things. Mostly nothing.

Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org.