Bluegrass Politics: The political year in review

The hardest part of writing a year-end political wrap-up for 2006 was trying to decide what not to include. Indeed, it was that crazy.
From a governor under indictment and estranged from his own party to the politics of justice, from the upset of a congressional warrior to Democratic disinterest in being governor, it was quite the smörgåsbord for political junkies.

So, here’s one political observer’s Top 5 events in the Bluegrass for 2006:

1) Burning down the house. The top political story in Kentucky for 2006 has to be the continued burning down of the House that Mitch Built, namely the Republican Party of Kentucky. Over the past few decades, Sen. Mitch McConnell meticulously built a political empire, piece by piece. He took all but one congressional seat, the state Senate and finally the governor’s mansion after a 32-year drought.

But what McConnell took two decades to build, Gov. Ernie Fletcher was able to seriously damage in barely two years, mainly a result of his bumbling, tone-deaf handling of the Merit System investigation against his administration, eventually leading to his own indictment.

In response, Republican leaders have come out in full force seeking Fletcher’s head on a platter after he openly challenged McConnell’s clear, if unspoken, message that he step aside for the good of the party. Instead, as one GOP leader recently argued, Fletcher is going to board himself up with his few followers and burn the party to the ground, like the late cult leader David Koresh did in Waco, Texas, a decade ago.

Fortunately for Republicans, while Fletcher is burning down the GOP house, McConnell’s hard work ensured that it had a strong foundation, and once Fletcher is forced from office, it’s all but certain to be rebuilt in short order.

2) Fletcher indicted.
The Fletcher administration’s Merit System scandal rolled into its second year in 2006, and having previously pardoned everyone in his administration (except himself), the grand jury was able to focus on him, solely. By May, Fletcher was indicted on charges of political discrimination, conspiracy and official misconduct. But rather than providing the public with the “unvarnished truth” as he once promised, Fletcher instead opted for the scorched earth option — he shamelessly packs the courts with cronies and sympathetic judges who would hear his criminal case and attempts to stymie investigators by refusing to turn over evidence, making every effort to keep the grand jury from doing its work.

While Fletcher’s obstruction efforts paid off, somewhat, when Attorney General Greg Stumbo (D) agreed to settle the matter against him, the political damage did not stop. Following the dismissal, the grand jury issued a scathing final report concluding that Fletcher had approved a broad plan to fill state merit jobs with political cronies and covered up the corruption within his administration.

Fittingly, Fletcher’s job approval rating began the year at an anemic 31 percent, and despite those numbers bouncing between 24 and 38 percent throughout the year, last week’s year-end survey had him where he started — back at 31.

3) Yarmuth!
For Democrats, 2006 proved to be the year that they finally slayed their Republican dragon, U.S. Rep. Anne Northup. After a decade of failed tries, they succeeded with the unlikeliest of candidates: unapologetic liberal and LEO founder John Yarmuth (D). Despite being outspent in the general election by a 3-to-2 margin, Yarmuth was able to tap into the palpable voter anger over the direction of the country, particularly the war in Iraq, and defeat Northup by a 51 percent to 48 percent margin.

And while he was shunned by the state and national Democratic Party for most of the race, Yarmuth stuck to his guns, never yielding on his principles or apologizing for his philosophy. His victory provided a vivid lesson about this election season: The Democratic candidates who stood up for the people’s interests, took principled positions and fought hard, won. Yarmuth’s victory turned out to be the bellwether that national political observers had predicted heading into Election Night, and when the race was called around 9 p.m., the first sign of a Democratic takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives was unmistakable and reverberating across the country.

4) And justice for some.
Arguably, the branch of state government that came out the biggest loser this year was Kentucky’s judiciary. While corrupt governors will come and go, Kentucky’s courts took a disturbingly political turn, shaking the public’s confidence in the impartiality and integrity of our courts, particularly as they relate to the Fletcher investigation.

Besides the shameless and transparent effort by Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Lambert to help his ally (Fletcher) by inserting a footnote in an unrelated case stating that governors are immune from criminal prosecution unless first impeached, Lambert aided and abetted Fletcher to pack the courts. Most distressing of all was the dreadful Supreme Court ruling in favor of Fletcher’s efforts to slam the door on the investigation against him, granting him sweeping executive powers, thereby opening the door to future corrupt governors who abuse their pardon powers to stop any prosecutor from pursuing allegations of official corruption at the highest levels.

The silver lining is that voters elected five new justices to the seven-member court, and hope springs eternal that they will help restore some of the honor and integrity.

5) Thanks, but no thanks. Despite the political collapse of Gov. Fletcher, none of Kentucky’s top Democrats jumped at the chance to take him on in next year’s gubernatorial election. First and foremost on that list was U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler.

Since his loss to Fletcher in 2003, Chandler’s political fortunes have soared as fast as Fletcher’s have plummeted. While polling showed Chandler with a monstrous 30-point lead in a 2007 rematch against Fletcher, he opted to stay in Congress after Democrats took back control of both houses, finding himself with a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Beyond Chandler, other top-shelf candidates, including Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, Auditor Crit Luallen and former Gov. Brereton Jones, also declined to run. Instead, Democrats are expecting a wide-open primary race with lesser-known but still capable figures like 39-year-old state Treasurer Jonathan Miller and former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear, both of whom have recently announced bids.

Thankfully for Democrats, the Republicans have come up empty looking for their own top-tier replacement for the unelectable Fletcher. So far, only wealthy Paducah businessman Billy Harper has jumped into the primary race against Fletcher. But Harper, who served as Fletcher’s finance chairman in 2003, hasn’t impressed political observers, despite his apparent willingness to spend millions of his own money in his quest, leaving Republicans with few options themselves.

When it comes to politics, it’s never boring in the Bluegrass …
Next week: Political predictions for 2007.

Mark Nickolas is publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, Contact him at [email protected]