BLUEGRASS POLITICS: It’s Ernie’s world — and he lives there alone

Jul 18, 2006 at 7:37 pm

There are rare moments in life when a situation becomes so perverse that you could scarcely create even fiction from it. For fiction to work, readers must believe the events could actually happen.

The real-life political saga of Gov. Ernie Fletcher is fast approaching that point. And his appearance at last week’s Louisville Forum was the latest twist in an epic drama.

I attended to get a firsthand look at how Kentucky’s first Republican governor in 32 years is holding up while under attack by his own party’s leadership — not to mention indicted, abandoned by his lieutenant governor and disliked by the public (28-percent job approval).

I expected a humbled and downtrodden governor. Instead, Fletcher was in full campaign mode, unwavering in his quest to complete his term and get re-elected next year. (Although I’m not entirely sure whether he was defiant or simply “delusional,” as Jefferson County Republican Party Chairman Jack Richardson IV recently suggested.) It was almost as if someone dared him to spend the hour pretending nothing was wrong.

But there he was. He first spent a good 15 minutes working the room, going from table to table to greet guests before he spoke. Including me.

As he spoke, Fletcher never deviated from a laundry list of self-proclaimed accomplishments. No mention of his legal troubles, and certainly no mention of the mutiny in his own party. Fletcher described accomplishments that seemed as miraculous as they were contrived, reminding me again of Richardson’s characterization. Things didn’t change when the moderators read questions submitted by guests.

For example, asked about his political problems, Fletcher fell back into full denial mode, acknowledging only that “young folks” in his administration had sent “indiscreet e-mails.” Strange, considering that the 14 indicted officials are, on average, 49 years old.

As instructive as Fletcher’s comments were, it was more telling to see who was missing. There were no state legislators or mayoral candidates. No local or state Republican Party officials. His Louisville-based lieutenant governor was nowhere to be seen, nor were any congressional members. Politically, Fletcher appears to have little more left at his side than former Jefferson County Republican Party Chairman Bill Stone. Stone (who wrote a column for LEO in its early days) seems intent on going down with the ship, an unusual level of loyalty in today’s cut-throat political world.

Fletcher’s main pocket of support in the room was a front table of Republican Metro council members, whose applause accounted for the lion’s share of the decibels during his remarks. Oddly, Fletcher pointed out that both of his lawyers were present, which made me wonder whether they now monitor his every public utterance as a form of damage control.

Many Republicans tell me it is Fletcher’s faith that keeps him going, regardless of the Category 5 political storm he’s sailing through. In fact, insiders say Fletcher, a former Primitive Baptist lay minister, believes he’s serving God’s will and that things will get better for him.

I respect the sentiment and devotion, but I’ve always questioned why God would choose sides or look out for one particular man’s personal ambitions. In fact, there are plenty of biblical references where God put the wrong man in charge to teach the public a lesson, as he did with the Pharaoh, requiring Moses to lead the people away from the tyrannical leader and to the Promised Land.

Beyond his faith, there’s little empirical evidence to suggest Fletcher can survive this crisis. Aside from an unending rat-a-tat-tat of Republican condemnation, he now finds himself with Hobbesian choices at every juncture. For example, in court filings last week, the governor argued that he shouldn’t be prosecuted for violating merit laws because Democrats have broken it repeatedly for 45 years without being punished. Never mind his ubiquitous, singular mantra during his gubernatorial race, to “clean up the mess in Frankfort.”

Fletcher’s appearance at the Louisville Forum ended in the same manner in which it began, with a governor determined to weather this storm, even if the political world is lined up against him. For many in attendance, we couldn’t help but wonder whether Richardson is right on money. Then again, I recall that Rudy Giuliani was a very unpopular mayor on Sept. 10, 2001.

In such a volatile political environment, I guess you can never say never.

Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, Contact him at [email protected].