If Matt Bevin’s election as just the third Republican governor since World War II was the equivalent of a political bomb being dropped in Kentucky, well, no wonder some of his early critics have gone nuclear in their response.
The dew hadn’t even settled on the newbie Frankfort career of the Tea Party-steeped businessman when ire toward his early words and deeds mushroomed to talk of impeachment. Make that more than talk: Two online petitions have drawn in excess of 20,000 signatures in their authors’ quest to oust Bevin.
Among other charges, the change.org effort cites Bevin budget cuts that will impact ethical oversight of the governor’s own office.
The petitionsite.com endeavor characterizes his election as a “mistake,” one made in part by the “staggering amount of possible voters” who didn’t show up in November, when it counted.
Though Bevin handily beat former Attorney General Jack Conway, capturing 53 percent of the vote to his Democratic opponent’s 44 percent, the second biggest headline of the day was that only about 30 percent of Kentucky voters bothered to weigh in after a campaign that was long on nasty and short on inspiration.
That paltry showing recalls Gil Scott-Heron’s immortal words, “Mandate, my ass” — but a win’s a win, even if two-thirds of the people opt out, and Bevin has plunged ahead with delivering on his severe campaign promises with speed if not much grace.
As for impeachment, it is a serious instrument that has been used only on Kentucky public officials who violated the public trust and committed clear wrongdoing, including breaking the law. It is not, and has not been, a go-to tool to overturn the will of the people, as expressed in elections — even elections without a mandate. The toxic spill from the partisan impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s infects and afflicts us still. Its stubborn poison in our body politic will be felt in this year’s presidential election, too; bet on it.
If that’s true for Clinton, it’s true for Bevin.
Sure, Bevin may be a blunt object inflicting damage on people as he has followed a campaign promise, one that got him easily elected, to dismantle programs such as kynect. That’s the name of the nationally-lauded state health insurance exchange, a Kentucky version of Obamacare enacted under former Gov. Steve Beshear, Bevin’s Democratic predecessor and post-election jousting partner in too many arenas to enumerate. The agency extended medical coverage to hundreds of thousands of people in Kentucky — a poor state with mammoth-size health concerns.
The governor may be a bull in a china shop with his bold but unsurprising maneuver that stopped newly-introduced abortion services at a Planned Parenthood health center in Louisville. He said the center was operating illegally in providing the procedures. The organization is challenging his assertion in court, and it is intent on resuming constitutionally-guaranteed abortions in a state where women are medically underserved.
He may be a one-man wrecking crew in demanding deep budget cuts throughout government — including in funds for state universities and the court system, which face special challenges in a commonwealth (so to speak) that is making progress but still is undereducated and over-incarcerated — that he says are required to shore up flagging state pension plans.
He may even be a world-class, red-state meanie by vetoing, as he did in the name of “tight financial times,” money directed toward services for preschool and college students, the indigent and the developmentally disabled, among other people, programs and projects worthy of legislative and compassionate consideration (see all the above).
OK, he may be more — say, a First Amendment-stomping dinosaur, breaching the wall between church and state. Tax incentives for a creationist Ark Park, reportedly worth up to $18 million, are supported by Bevin and, via a federal judge’s favorable decision, have found new life in Kentucky this year.
Yes, in his critics’ eyes, he may be all of those things has he as done or said all those things in a shockingly short period of time.
But, pay attention, please, because this is important: Despite all that, Bevin assuredly is not — so far — James. W. “Honest Dick” Tate.
A history lesson is probably in order to help make this point, as well as the distinction between an elected official who breaks hearts and blows minds — like Bevin, among some current constituents — and one who breaks laws and blows town — like Tate, in the eyes of time and all.
Unfortunately, given our compromised attention spans, we can’t go to the videotape, because it wouldn’t be invented until 120 years after “Honest Dick” was born in Franklin County, Kentucky, and 68 years after he disappeared.
So let’s go to the history books. True, they’re bulky, more than 140 characters in length and not trending anywhere, but their stolid reliability and stubborn thoroughness count in a 21st century still populated by politicians who must answer to the law, not popular or unpopular opinion, as well as by citizens who must answer to the same. This lesson sheds important light:
“Honest Dick” was born in 1831, first elected state treasurer in 1867 and returned to that office every two years until 1888, when he vanished in a puff of smoke. He left a lot of havoc in his dust. Took a lot of other people’s money with him, too. After his notable absence, he was found to have made off with a quarter of a million bucks — about a tenth of the treasury — from the state.
“A New History of Kentucky,” by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter, remembers “Honest Dick” this way:
“Praised for his integrity and affability, Tate was so trusted that other state officials did not even bother to carry out their duties and double-check his accounts. On March 14, 1888, Tate packed some bags for a trip to Louisville and Cincinnati. He was never seen in Kentucky again. A few days later, worried officials began to scrutinize his books. They found a chaotic, confused system that was no system at all. Bills had been laid aside and forgotten; others had been paid but not so recorded; and, more seriously, some had been marked paid when they had not been. State funds had also apparently been offered by Tate as personal loans to various friends and officials, including at least one governor. The treasurer had used the Commonwealth’s money to speculate in land and coal-mining ventures of his own. Finally, a clerk recalled that “Honest Dick” had filled two large sacks with gold and silver coins and had taken a large roll of bills with him on his final trip.
“Eventually investigators found that Tate had embezzled $247,000 from the state. He had doctored bills, deleted accounts and forgotten transactions in a fairly crude way, but the loose controls had allowed him to continue his fraud for 15 years.”
Now, that’s impeachment material.
And so it was that snookered state officials belatedly held “Honest Dick” to account. As per the law, Kentucky House members impeached him, and the Senate convicted him of the charges and kicked him out of an office he’d already vacated. “Honest Dick” never answered to criminal charges in civil court because he was never again seen in Kentucky. (He was believed to have traveled extensively before kicking the bucket list in China.)
“Honest Dick” is one of not even a handful of public officials to have been impeached in Kentucky’s long history. A report titled “Impeachment in Kentucky,” compiled by the Legislative Research Commission in 1991, offers descriptions of the others, too:
— Thomas Jones, surveyor of Bourbon County, was impeached in 1803 “for overcharging the state for work done, for failure to perform his duties, and for surveying the wrong tracts of land.” He resigned from office during the Senate trial.
— Answering a petition by constituents who made the charges, McCreary County Judge J.E. Williams was impeached in 1916 for “numerous acts of misfeasance and malfeasance as county judge.” He wasn’t removed from office because the Senate couldn’t reach the two-thirds vote needed to convict on any of the articles.
— The state House of Representatives brought a single article of impeachment against Commissioner of Agriculture Ward “Butch” Burnette in 1991. While in office, Burnette “had been convicted by a Franklin Circuit Court jury of complicity to theft by deception, a felony offense.” Burnette had signed a time sheet “for a department employee reflecting that she had worked for the entire month of June, 1988, when in the opinion of the jurors, she had not worked during that period. He was sentenced to a one-year term and fined $1,500.” In its article of impeachment, the House cited his conviction, the theft of funds belonging to the state and “a willful disregard” of his oath of office. Burnette resigned before the Senate trial was supposed to begin.
I reached out to two members of the Kentucky House impeachment committee for Burnette, who are still in public life. Greg Stumbo was the committee’s chair and is now the Democratic speaker of the House. Anne Northup was then a state representative who has since served as a Republican U.S. congresswoman representing Louisville.
No such luck.
A few learned observers would talk, but Stumbo and Northup were among those who declined to comment, in the words of the LRC report, on “this grave matter.” (Stumbo’s office did provide a link to the LRC report.) It’s as if the I-word were radioactive, especially during the legislative session when most of the contacts were made for this story.
Kentucky’s rarely used law applies to “the Governor and all civil officers … for any misdemeanors in office.” The LRC report notes this use of misdemeanor “does not have the same connotation as in the judicial sense. Rather, ‘misdemeanor’ in this context has been defined as any activity involving a breach of the public trust, or any act which can be construed as misfeasance or malfeasance.”
Loathsome, but legal, public policies don’t count. Neither do loathsome, but duly-elected, public officials, red-state meanies included.
Now, back to those petitions to impeach Bevin.
The impetus for one of the petition authors — 31-year-old Jenna Borden, a professional artist who describes herself as a political centrist who switched from Independent to Democrat so she could vote in Kentucky’s primary — was to “raise awareness”’ of objectionable policies and actions being taken by the new governor, and to gauge how many other people might feel as she does. In an interview, she said that when she learned there is no mechanism for recall elections in Kentucky, she launched her impeachment petition drive.
But the petitionsite.com explanation she wrote for her drive offers a better answer for a misplaced passion on the part of citizens who want to go nuclear when no evidence now exists for supporting such a response.
Vote in every election.
Don’t be a “possible” voter.
As Borden wrote of those who didn’t speak with their votes last November, “We need to take responsibility for having failed each other, and this Commonwealth.”
You take responsibility by being a voter. By showing up, even in off-year elections — especially in off-year elections. You don’t leave this to somebody else, and impeachment is not a fail-safe tactic to get rid of unwelcome results when you do leave it to somebody else.
A glimmer of hope for the new governor’s critics who want to move beyond signing a petition and get to work on next time:
On change.org, right beneath the impeachment petition, which is just shy of its goal of 15,000 signatures, there’s also a petition to support Bevin. Last time we looked, it had 19 supporters. You have a big head start. •
Pam Platt is the former editorial director of The Courier-Journal. In the name of disclosure for this piece, she worked for two months with Planned Parenthood as a contracted communications consultant after she left the newspaper.
* * *
THE NATURE OF IMPEACHMENT
“The removal of a public official from office through the process of impeachment is a grave matter, as it represents a repeal of the will of the people who have elected an individual to an office of public trust. Because it is a reversal of the inherent power of the people in a democratic society to choose those who govern, it is a power rarely exercised, and one which has fortunately been required in few instances in Kentucky’s history.
Because impeachment has been such a rare occurrence in Kentucky, a shroud of mystery envelopes the process itself. There are many procedural questions for which answers are difficult to ascertain, and many constitutional issues which have been subject of debate among those in government, academia and the courts. Two of the major questions involved in impeachment relate to the types of conduct which are to be considered “impeachable” and whether the decisions reached by an impeachment tribunal are subject to judicial review.” — “Impeachment in Kentucky,” Legislative Research Commission, 1991.
To read the full Legislative Research Commission report on impeachment, go to: lrc.ky.gov/lrcpubs/IB176.pdf