87 days. That’s the amount of time between when Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear was sworn in and the first official case of the coronavirus in the Commonwealth. Beshear’s first year in office was a time of unpredictability and on-the-spot decision-making, with the pandemic causing a public health crisis and economic disaster. In Louisville, after police officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her home, the city saw more than 200 days of protests, becoming a leading voice in a worldwide movement for racial justice. During the protests, a heavy and aggressive police presence, and the governor’s decision to send in the National Guard, became controversial and deadly.
Those two major events — the pandemic and the movement — were completely intertwined with Beshear’s time in office.
Although he stepped up during one of the state’s most rocky years, helping and inspiring people to get through it, his decisions and actions didn’t escape criticism and questioning.
“I think that when you look at the response to the pandemic, I think that’s an A; he’s done an excellent job,” said state Rep. Nima Kulkarni, a Louisville Democrat. “I think that for a lot of people, especially in the racial justice movement, his response to the protest, his discussions about or lack of discussions about what prompted them has been more tepid, more lukewarm, not as strong as some people might hope and perhaps not as much attention given to it as much as other issues.”
Shameka Parrish-Wright, a Louisville activist and the operations manager for The Bail Project, said, “I think Beshear’s first year was like our year. It was rough. It was a lot of unexpected challenges. It was a time of reflection and it was a time to be innovative and make hard decisions. And that’s what I saw him doing in his decisions. Do I think everything was perfect? No.”
For this story, we spoke with area politicians, activists, academics and businesspeople about the governor’s performance. As you can imagine, the conversations generally veered toward the same topics. Below, we broke the conversations into five sections that our panel spoke the most about.
COVID restrictions and policy
On March 6, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Kentucky. As more information about the virus’ danger emerged, Beshear responded with strict measures: He closed restaurants to in-person dining, banned mass gatherings and transferred schools to online-only learning all in one month.
Since last spring, there have been more than 300,000 people contract the virus and more than 3,000 deaths. Kentucky ranks 28 out of 50 states for number of cases per capita and 40 for deaths, below that of some of its closest neighbors, such as Indiana and Tennessee.
“Fighting the pandemic, he’s done a great job,” said activist and poet Hannah L. Drake. “You’re trying to build the car as you’re driving it. You don’t know what’s really going to work…I think a lot of people are giving him a difficult time when we’re trying to figure out something we never experienced. And it’s all to save lives. He’s not a power hungry person trying to shut down churches, schools and restaurants just because he can. He’s literally trying to save lives of Kentucky residents.”
Beshear’s orders, which also include a mask mandate, have received backlash from some in the business community and state Republicans for being too restrictive, damaging the economy in the process.
“I think he probably could have avoided a lot of political headaches and a lot of the kind of divisiveness that’s been going on with a lot of the people in the legislature right now if he had taken a few fewer steps and maybe mitigated some of the response somewhat and, you know, done some stuff that would have put a lot more people at risk,” said Robert Kahne, co-host of the left-leaning My Old Kentucky Podcast politics show. “But instead of doing that, he really did the right thing in terms of the response by listening to the public health experts instead of other Republican politicians who I think a lot of people wanted him to respond to.”
William Woods, a self-described “non-radical conservative” who ran against Matt Bevin in the last Republican gubernatorial primary, praised Beshear for following the advice of medical experts in the face of opposition from state Republicans, including an ongoing impeachment attempt.
“The Governor, facing overwhelming opposition from my party, has shown himself to be the leader Kentuckians truly needed in the wake of the Bevin Administration,” Woods told LEO via a direct message on Twitter. “Let’s not forget, the Kentucky GOP is all-in to attempt impeachment of the one leader in this Commonwealth who has put politics aside in order to save lives. Meanwhile, they’ve not had one plan to address the situation. Their plan, the GOP plan, is simply to ignore it — no matter how many Kentuckians die.”
Kulkarni said Beshear’s initial shutdown policies were “good,” but, as cases stayed relatively low, Beshear started reopening Kentucky’s economy in May. This loosening of restrictions has proved difficult to reverse, even as cases have soared beyond what they were at the start of the pandemic. In November, Beshear shut down aspects of some businesses that he said were most responsible for the spread of the virus, including in-person dining. But, he kept most businesses open, and when his rules expired, he did not renew them.
Kulkarni said that the situation got complicated when reopening started and the state ran into trouble.
“I was a proponent, obviously, of the shutdown, and I think the more stringent a shutdown is — and this may or may not be a popular opinion among different circles — but you can look at other countries that did this and they’re kind of on the other side of the pandemic,” she said. “At least in terms of stopping the spread and the number of cases, contract tracing, etc.”
Olivia Griffin, who owns The Limbo, Riot Cafe and The Mysterious Rack, said that she thinks Beshear is smart and is glad Bevin is no longer running the state, but that perpetually modifying the rules and regulations on restaurants and bars became difficult to deal with. Griffin, who is part of the collective Louisville Operating Venues Safely, takes the measures seriously, but she also thinks the constant changes resulted in confusion and less people following the rules.
“I wish that since the beginning there would have been a single set of regulations that remained consistent,” Griffin said. “And whether it was either more conservative or less conservative, it almost doesn’t matter as long as it stays consistent and it enforceable.”
The pandemic and the public
Beshear has become known for his daily public address, where he’s used a calming and sincere approach to curb collective anxiety and frustration.
“In terms of dealing with the public, I said very early on, that he’s not all that polished in his presentation, but there’s an earnestness about him that I think came across really well,” said Al Cross, a political columnist who is also a professor and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at UK.
Beshear’s briefings also promoted “a sense of communal responsibility,” Kulkarni said.
“Here’s our governor telling us what we need to do. We’re all listening to him at the same time every day, and we know what we need to do,” she said. “And I think that resulted in a lot of people following the guidelines, right, successfully. So, wearing masks, social distancing, not going out, not eating out, not gathering, that kind of thing. I think that really, really helped us understand the scope and the importance of individual responsibility in order to get through this and stop the spread.”
Sending in the National Guard
On May 30, Beshear ordered the National Guard into Louisville during the city’s Breonna Taylor protests. Beshear said the decision was in reaction to the night before, when violence and damage took place downtown — a particularly volatile night in the usually peaceful protests, with several out-of-town groups making an appearance. But, the decision to send in the National Guard proved deadly. Just after midnight on June 1, Louisville police and the National Guard stormed a parking lot on 26th Street and Broadway. They were more than 20 blocks from where the downtown protests took place, but officials said they were there to enforce the 9 p.m. curfew that was in place. Months later, the city changed their narrative, claiming they received intelligence that a protest caravan was forming in the neighborhood. David McAtee, owner of YaYa’s BBQ, was cooking food for friends and family who frequently gathered at his restaurant on Sunday evenings. The police shot pepper balls at the group. McAtee fired a gun outside of his kitchen and then was killed by a National Guard member, who fired a rifle round. None of the officers involved had their body cameras on.
Drake, who was consistently at the protests, said that sending the military in was a big mistake by Beshear.
“I was Tweeting at him, ‘This is a bad decision,’” Drake said. “‘Somebody Black is going to die.’ I knew it before it happened, because inevitably this always happens when there’s such force against Black people simply for protesting. I was upset with that decision. That’s a misstep, but it’s a costly misstep, because someone is dead.”
Drake said that the governor could have better understood the protests, and gained more respect from the people at them, if he would have showed up at Jefferson Square Park, the epicenter of where people gathered.
“Your constituent people, who voted for you, who helped you win, who canvassed for you, are in this park hurting — come stand with the people,” Drake said. “You can wear a mask, you can stand six feet away from us. We get it. But how are you not standing with us during this time? When the nation is screaming her name.”
Griffin, who has three businesses downtown, said that when the National Guard came and set up barricades, it was an unnecessary show of force that continues to stigmatize the area.
“These are peaceful protesters, and the presence of the National Guard exacerbated the problem, and barricades completely prevented a lot of us from doing our jobs,” Griffin said. “It also created a sense of fear and trepidation about going downtown.”
Louisville activists also have criticism for how Beshear has responded to Breonna’s Law.
The bill, primarily sponsored by state Rep. Attica Scott, is in direct response to Taylor’s death. It would ban no-knock warrants in the state, but it would also institute other police reforms, including a requirement for Kentucky law enforcement to wear body cameras and take a drug and alcohol test if involved in a “deadly incident.”
Shameka Parrish-Wright, a regular presence at the Louisville protests and a family friend of Scott, said that she would have liked for Beshear to call a special legislative session when Scott first proposed the bill this summer. That would have allowed legislators to vote on it immediately instead of waiting until this year, when the formal session began.
“I do think he could have spoke out more for justice for Breonna Taylor,” said Parrish-Wright, who is now exploring the possibility of running for mayor of Louisville. “I do think he should be helping us make sure that that gets, that Breonna’s Law gets heard…But I think he comes out on top by continuing to be transparent, continuing to be open and ready to do whatever it takes to move our state forward.”
Drake said, “It would be great for the governor to come out and say, ‘I support this law.’ I support the right for people to be in their homes and police not banging their door and shooting them. It only benefits the people, and it benefits law enforcement. I get that COVID is going on, but I also understand and respect that Andy is a very smart man that can handle several things at one time, because we as protesters have to handle COVID and we have to fight racism.”
Looking to the future
More moderate observers of the governor believe that he could have done more to reach out to Republican legislative leadership, and his decision not to might have an impact on the rest of his term.
Cross, who regularly writes about Beshear in his column, said that while he believes that the governor has done a nice job with decisions during the pandemic, he could have built better relationships with lead Republican lawmakers, especially House Speaker David Osbourne and Senate President Robert Stivers.
“When it comes to dealing with the legislature, you’ve got to give him a D,” Cross said. “He basically gave them the stiff arm, and that’s not a wise thing to do when you’re a Democratic governor facing a supermajority Republican legislature. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why he took that sort of attitude. Yes, there were Republicans that wanted to chew on his ankle, but I do not count speaker of the House and the president of the Senate among those Republicans. They know how to manage their wilder members, and I think if he would have occasional or regular meetings with Stivers and Osborne, things would have gone more smoothly.”
Woods, the former Republican governor candidate, said, “The governor’s team must focus on outreach to independents and true conservatives.”
Woods defined “true conservatives” as “Reagan conservatives” who do not support “violent rhetoric” against the governor, such as hanging him in effigy, which occurred outside his residence in May at a Second Amendment rally/coronavirus regulations protest.
Beshear’s current handling of relationships with Republican leadership could make the rest of his term significantly more challenging, Cross said. The pandemic and social justice movement are still going to be prominent issues in Kentucky politics, but when the Kentucky legislature returns on Feb. 2, things like passing a budget will also be focal points.
“It’s a narrow governorship — he’s been defined by the pandemic,” Cross said. “Starting next month, he’ll begin to be defined by other things, more traditional things.”
Beyond his first year, Kulkarni said she hopes to see Beshear continuing to “stop the spread” of coronavirus but also helping the state recover.
“I know he’s trying, and I know he’s allocated a lot of funding, and I hope that continues. His budget, I thought was excellent. You know, obviously, we would always want to see more help, direct assistance to our constituents, to struggling families. But, I hope that that’s the focus. Because it’s going to have to be, quite frankly, and the next year is making sure that we have our businesses back on track, we have our families back on track. And that will require sustained assistance and support financially.”
Kahne is looking even further into the future — to where Beshear might go next.
“His national profile has been raised significantly this year. Especially with his response to COVID. I think next to maybe [New York Gov.] Andrew Cuomo, he’s probably the most well-known governor when it comes to COVID-19 response. And, what’s going to happen with that? You know, I don’t know. He’s pretty young, and I don’t know what his ambitions are, but I think there’s a lot out there for him.” •