This year at Fancy Farm, the heat-soaked annual picnic where Kentucky politicos and wannabes gather for jocularity and jugularity to kick off election season, the crowd included clusters of hecklers working one specific theme, with each hurling cries of “queer” and “faggot” at a different political figure.
Stan Lee (the state legislator, not the Spider Man guy), who is running against Jack Conway to succeed Greg Stumbo as Kentucky’s attorney general, brazenly picked up on the theme from the podium. Lee, who seems to have a mild obsession with bodily traits, hair in particular, played on the rumors that Conway was/is gay, which appear to have been birthed when Conway lost a narrow race to then-U.S. Rep. Anne Northup in 2002. (The irony is made all the richer, of course, because the whispering campaign has Mitch McConnell’s imprint all over it, even while he himself is subject to rampant such rumors about his sexual persuasion.)
“I know how excited the media is about this race,” Lee intoned, “the city slicker vs. the country boy, the ultra lib-e-ral vs. the traditional conservative, the big-city trial lawyer vs. the simple country lawyer.
“And listen, I know the differences don’t stop there — I’ve hearrrrd what many of you ladies have been saying — and some of you guyyys: Why, he is so young. He’s so handsome, that — those eyes. That smile, that hair …”
Lee interrupted his soliloquy long enough talk about what he’d do as attorney general — crack down on drugs, child predators and identity theft, restore victim rights, oppose gambling and keep the Ten Commandments posted in public buildings — and then linked Conway to MoveOn.org, Howard Dean, the ACLU, labor unions, Nancy Pelosi, Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club before coming back to the weird personal stuff.
“Let’s just talk about sensitivity. Speaking of sensitivity, let’s just clear the air right now. I make one self-deprecating joke about my moustache, and little Jack Conway takes it as an attack on his hormone level. I didn’t know he was so sensitive. That is quite common with hormone fluctuation.”
As Lee wrapped his speech with his “Fear the ’Stache” tagline, the Conway camp was piqued. When he stepped onstage, Conway’s voice thundered, not in a Howard Dean way but with extreme focus. The battle was joined. If the 2007 governor’s race was fated to bore us to tears, not so this one.
Jack Conway is a 38-year-old Louisville native with an undergrad degree from Duke and a law degree from George Washington University. He went to work as assistant counsel for Gov. Paul Patton at age 26, then became deputy secretary of the Cabinet, working under then-Cabinet Secretary Crit Luallen. After losing to Northup, he entered private law practice with his father, Tom Conway. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have no children.
Stan Lee is a 46-year-old Lexington attorney with undergrad and law degrees from the University of Kentucky. These days he runs a law firm that works on the behalf of companies that get sued. He and his wife Tami have one child. He has represented the 45th District in the Kentucky House of Representatives for four terms, and he’s widely known as a standard bearer for the far-right wing of the state Republican Party. As a fundamentalist Christian (he supports teaching creationism in public schools and says students should learn that Christianity is the “one true religion”), Lee is especially fixated on the hot-button social issues. He received a lot of news coverage early this year after he raised a stink when the universities of Louisville and Kentucky announced plans to begin offering domestic partner benefits.
He filed a bill to bar Kentucky public universities from offering such benefits, which never became law. In June, Attorney General Greg Stumbo said the benefits violated Kentucky’s marriage amendment, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. After that opinion, UK announced a new plan, using no state money, that allows university employees to extend coverage to one qualifying adult and/or children in their household.
In a debate on KET earlier this month, Conway said Stumbo was correct and that the original plan encroached on the marriage amendment. Conway supports the new plan, and says that anytime you can insure more people, it is a good thing.
Lee disagrees. He accuses Stumbo of essentially laying out how the universities could alter their plans to pass legal muster. “When I’m attorney general,” he said, “we’re gonna take a hard look at that.”
Lee has painted Conway as too inexperienced for the state’s second most-important job. Conway’s rejoinder: “I’ll put my 12 years with the bar up against his 19 years any day, and twice on Sunday.”
Lee, who speaks with a pronounced yet sophisticated drawl, seems to enjoy pushing the fine line between self-deprecation and pejorative sexism with his bodily repartee. Just last week in Louisville, where he and Conway gathered for their final debate, he opened proceedings with another bad joke involving hair:
“Being in the party of Lincoln, I must confess to you that did give me an unfair advantage in my primary since I was the only candidate trying to achieve the Lincoln look. Six-four, a thin build and facial hair was good enough for the White House in the 1860s. Of course, 6-4 and facial hair was good enough for the White House in the 1990s — it just took both Clintons to pull it off.”
You don’t have to spend much time watching the two men to see the stark contrast. Conway is classically handsome, exudes confidence and speaks in moderate tones. These are not “Democrat or Republican ideas,” he says in one campaign commercial, “they’re common sense ideas to keep our families safe.”
Lee is a classic needler, polished but in a wholly different way. His coiffure is of a John Edwards magnitude, only it’s a wavy 1970s variation that looks out of time. There’s the thick moustache that also seems dated, and his voice exists in a register slightly on the high side. Those facets seem like points of pride for a guy who fancies himself an iconoclast. His detractors call him a frightening bigot. He seems to like that too.
Beyond Lee’s hardcore stance on social issues, Conway accuses him of being out of the mainstream on nearly every issue. He calls Lee an “outlier,” citing his votes against the two previous state budgets, consensus documents that passed 98-2 and 95-4. Lee says he was voting against hidden taxes and high spending.
The candidates have met in a number of debates, most recently last Wednesday at the downtown Marriott in Louisville. While Lee has not distanced himself from his conservative social views, he’s toned down his rhetoric to the extent that the candidates sound nearly the same on major points.
Both say the state has a serious drug problem (prescription drugs in the east, meth in the west) and should beef up its Internet Crimes unit. Conway says he’d pursue a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin, for marketing the drug improperly, and earmark a significant portion of any settlement money to drug treatment.
Lee paints Conway us ultraliberal and suggests he would be the sort of prosecutor who harasses the business community and wants to become the Eliot Spitzer of Kentucky.
Conway retorts that responsible businesses understand they’ll be regulated and merely expect things to be fair. He says good corporate citizens have nothing to worry about. “Without regulation,” he says, “you get Blackwater and Enron.”
Lee opposes expanded gambling and says a vote for Conway is a vote for more crime in Kentucky. Conway supports expanded gaming.
Conway points out that the AG is the top advocate for consumers, including on environmental issues, and says he’d emphasize that aspect. In a separate interview, he noted coal’s importance to the state economy but expressed discomfort with how mountaintop removal mining regulations are enforced. (Lee did not grant an interview to LEO.)
Although he hails from Lexington, Lee likes to portray himself as one of the little guys. Conway thinks that’s silly and predicts the anti-Louisville schtick won’t work this time. He also laughs at how Lee calls him a “trial laywer” and notes that the two essentially do the same thing, except that one (Conway) represents plaintiffs while the other (Lee) defends companies.
Polls have consistently shown Conway leading by double-digits, but he has not cracked the 50-percent mark, and about a quarter of the voters remain undecided. Conway has more money — he reported $640,000 to Lee’s $184,000 in the most recent filing — and he has a measure of name recognition by dint of his Congressional race, when he was on TV in parts of four Congressional districts. But he acknowledges needing to raise his profile statewide. To that end, he talks frequently about his interesting travels along the campaign trail, things like shooting skeet in Monkey’s Eyebrow. Conway also notes that he often visited his grandfather’s farm in Western Kentucky, and a recent TV commercial picks up on that folksy theme. In the debates, Conway has used lines like “sometimes you gotta take the bone with the pork chop” to describe how Lee should realize he’ll draw criticism if he insists on taking “extreme” stances.
Conway has several key endorsements and notes that 158 members of the Lexington Bar Association, in Lee’s hometown, signed on as hosts of a fundraiser there, which he says speaks to how Lee is viewed in his own backyard.
While Lee’s endorsements run more along predictable partisan lines, some Republicans have distanced themselves from him. Larry Bisig, a Louisville PR executive who has consulted for Republican candidates extensively over the past two decades, said one drawback to the party is that it doesn’t rally around all of its candidates after contentious primaries. He acknowledged that Lee is what he seems to be — a far-right-winger — but says he’s more thoughtful than people may realize.
But despite appearances to the contrary, Bill Roberts, a former Republican Party chairman for Fayette County, said Lee has not become a pariah within the party. “I think everyone in Fayette County holds Stan Lee in high esteem,” Roberts said. “He’s obviously not a (politically correct) figure. I appreciate that.”
Conway now laughs off Lee’s personal attacks, saying his opponent mistakenly assumed he has a glass chin. In conversation, Conway comes off as a complete policy wonk, which seems to disprove the notion that he is prim-arily flash.
Lee, who smiles easily and often refers to himself in third person, has not relented. He seems sure to stick to his themes come hell or high water, and he’ll certainly keep things entertaining up through Nov. 6.
The contrast seems amazingly clear: Will voters prefer the proverbial prince with substance, or the conservative wingnut who thinks religion belongs in the public sector? At this point, only God (and campaign hair-dressers)
know for sure.
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