The Riddle of Bruce Lunsford

Oct 8, 2008 at 6:17 pm

I arrive at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington around 11:30 a.m. to a near-empty tent. It is Sept. 20, a warm, sunny Saturday morning, the kind where you get burned without realizing it because the temperature isn’t quite as insane as the U.V. rays. I’ve beaten the Secret Service here by an hour, which can be kind of a subdued waking nightmare — arriving around the time they do decreases your campaign-event downtime measurably. The wireless Internet is not coming through, word is that the morning rally in western Kentucky has run a little long and, well, things are off to a slow start.

More than two hours later, neither Bruce Lunsford nor Hillary Clinton is here. The tent is crowded but not packed, with around 1,100 people — skewing older, skewing white — taking in a bluegrass band playing tasteful covers in one corner, getting chatty amid the vaguely foreign buzz of a major campaign event. Where I am — in the back, opposite the stage, in a sparsely populated press row — the people are generally annoyed that they can’t see anything but the backs of their fellow Democrats’ heads. A woman and her granddaughter are sharing my table, the kid standing on it and peering, asking Grandma just what is going on and where is this Hillary person. Once I’ve moved to the far right of the impermanent rectangle of cheap wood they ask, at last, if they’re crowding me. No, I say, folding my laptop closed to again wander the crowd. Not anymore.

I’m trying to take the political temperature of this group, to assess where exactly these people stand re: Democratic Senate candidate Lunsford, the prominent Louisville businessman challenging the seat of Sen. Mitch McConnell — but it’s difficult. Judging by some of the placards, there remains hostility over the Clinton-Obama primary tangle, and that is simply all there is to it — for some, that may never subside. Incidentally, or maybe not, I don’t find much Obama gear about, save the booth outside selling everything from your standard “Obama/Biden” bumper sticker to a Barack ball cap or cotton T in full camouflage. There is mostly just Lunsford and Hillary stuff, including a 5-foot stand-up of the senator from New York around which many are putting their arms and guffawing for photos. Lunsford signs — Kentucky blue, with a silhouette of the candidate laid atop a sleek outline of the state, all finished in red-white-and-blue God-bless-America ornamentals that are now required of all major American political campaign signage — abound, with forgiveness to the woman on stage who keeps waving hers upside-down. Somebody please help her out.

The first fundamental question about Lunsford is Can he win?, and I’m not sure this crowd has much to say about that, other than Yes, sure, they hope he can. It appears Lunsford is achieving exactly what he needs to in the present: to offer himself as a candidate not only for the rabid anti-Mitch voter (simply that he is here will suffice), but for those conservative Democrats who Clinton so appealed to of late. For Kentucky’s majority of tight-in-the-mind blue-teamers, Lunsford is a nice fit in some key ways: He doesn’t believe in the vaguely socialist notion of single-payer healthcare, and advises a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and redeployment to, firstly, Afghanistan, which appears to have been the point of this war business in the first place, but he is also not an anti-war candidate. His personal narrative is a bootstraps kind of story, featuring a hardscrabble rural childhood working on the family farm, then a political science degree from the University of Kentucky, then becoming a CPA and eventually graduating law school at Northern Kentucky’s Chase College of Law, a time when he also was in the National Guard; following was a dabbling in state politics as the head of the Commerce Cabinet in the administration of Gov. John Y. Brown III, then corporate ascendancy via Vencor and numerous other ventures, and now, the so-called giving back that is late-in-professional-life politics — Lunsford is 60.

He rarely wears a tie while campaigning, preferring instead a pressed Oxford shirt and blazer (blue or black) with nice slacks. At 5 feet 8 inches he is somewhat slight, though he is also built and a little stocky. His face is youthful and his eyes always seem keyed up for some kind of light intrusion; in general, he is gregarious and doesn’t appear tired or annoyed, unless he’s really pushed into a corner about something.

I asked him recently whether he supports the government’s taxpayer-funded bailout of flailing banks and investment firms; clearly a firm subscriber to capitalism, he said both yes and no: “I think the first bailout of Bear Sterns sent a bad message, and we paid a price for that. I think the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was almost required, but the policy that got us to that spot should be condemned, and the people who put us in that spot should have to pay the price for that. I think George Bush would if he were running for president, I think McConnell should, and I think generally maybe the Republican Party will.” He added that some regulation is called for here, but that generally he believes government needs to resist the urge to over-regulate.

This is typical nuance for Lunsford. In the three times I’ve interviewed him at length since 2007, he has appeared thoughtful, composed and knowledgeable on certain issues — healthcare and the economy, particularly — but also somewhat more broad on esoteric ones, like the environment; this makes for trouble delivering the political zingers that so titillate the mainstream media and more casual observers of politics, and it bothers some, including the people trying to keep him on message, something at which his opponent is keenly skilled.

Lunsford is improving on this front — he managed to move almost every question of our most recent in-person conversation back to McConnell and corruption, and in campaign appearances large and small, he keeps his message simple: McConnell, he will say, is corrupt, and is to blame for the so-called mess in Washington. (Translation: McConnell’s famous money = free speech construct is approaching its natural end at the moment. Do you like what you see?) Lunsford finally appears to understand that a campaign at this level revolves not around actual issues and seven-minute answers featuring the context and complexity of everyday governance, but almost solely around the shrewd characterizations of 30- and 60-second TV ads; the candidate who shapes the conversation wins, regardless of the facts.

If three recent polls showing a statistical dead heat are to be believed, and most tend to believe them because they are, frankly, all we have to go on in terms of judging wide public opinion (to be fair, there have been other relatively recent polls showing a McConnell lead from high-single digits to doubles, although they are from less reliable sources), then the margin sending one of these two men to victory will be thin. According to a recent Survey USA poll that had McConnell at 49 percent to Lunsford’s 46 percent, the Senate minority leader’s approval rating has plummeted 23 points since May, and now more Kentuckians disapprove of the job he is doing than approve. (McConnell is probably reeling from the financial crisis: He voted in 1999 to deregulate banking and investment sectors, and according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has taken more than $4.3 million from the financial sector in the past two decades.)

With a tight race, the smaller, more issue-oriented groups standing under the Democratic tent could wield atypical influence, which raises the second fundamental question about Lunsford: How does he fare with the farther reaches of the party? Does Bruce Lunsford have a progressive problem?

He has done the rather unusual thing in trying to directly reach progressives in Louisville and Lexington, the state’s two biggest metropolitan areas and, thusly, most liberal: Lunsford has met with them. Three times here, in relatively private, small-group settings of between one- and three-dozen. His campaign gathered a list of prominent, active progressives, asked them to come face-to-face with the candidate and essentially let loose. And they have. Many have reported these meetings to have been direct, even confrontational; most who attended say Lunsford actually listened, tried to digest issues and engage questions, and generally assuage the cage-rattling his centrism has caused — without pandering. In fact, some of this city’s most prominent progressives have come around not only to quietly support Lunsford but work for him, including some of his most virulent critics, which was precisely the point of his meeting with them in such an unusually open manner.

In a race where a small group could tip the scale, such a strategy may — to borrow a banking term — pay dividends.

From the portable stage eventually is delivered a 12-minute speech by former future-president Clinton, a woman who many — including some of the assembled speakers here, a slate that includes Gov. Steve Beshear, fundraiser Terry McBrayer and former party chairman and Clinton flogger Jerry Lundergan — praise for her grace and tenderness in recent defeat. Clinton offers bromides about the essentialness of electing Democrats this time around (Obama definitely included). Her tone is more conversational, perhaps less burdened with the atrocious human reality of campaigning for the presidency of this country for almost two years. She is calmer, more focused and less hysterical. She is pleading, and she sounds more than ever like she believes these words she speaks. She is classy, she is strong, she is the former candidate now less-candidate, more actual person, and this is a refreshing change, especially considering that her Job No. 1 at this moment is to help people like Lunsford and Obama achieve public office.

She has known Bruce Lunsford, she says, and he is good. He is a man of business and modern understanding who will accomplish much in the United States Senate, once he puts down Mitch McConnell. This, she reminds, is important. Suppose we wake up Nov. 5 and the two Mc’s have won, she begins after a reflective pause. Remember how bad that felt in 2004, how you didn’t want to do anything but wallow in self-pity and curse those who voted for Bush-Cheney, she continues. We have the chance, she says. The chance. It has arrived. And this, she reminds, is important.

Here is fertile ground for Lunsford. Clinton crushed Obama in this state’s primary; he won two counties, she the other 118. People have begun to call her Kentucky’s adopted daughter. For whatever reason — and it surely doesn’t have to do with policy — Clinton is perceived to be less liberal than Obama. Broadly speaking, their plans, as candidates for president, are largely similar. (Perhaps it’s a race thing we should avoid in such an article.)

The reason Clinton is good for Lunsford is that he’s had, shall we say, a credibility issue with Democrats. He has in the recent past (2003) appeared on a stage with McConnell to endorse former Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher over Democrat Ben Chandler, who had just whipped him into a fury with a below-the-belt attack ad in the last week of their bitter primary campaign. Lunsford was a rookie then, and he sent the biggest Fuck You he could think of to his former opponent and party. That was how he rolled, and it was pretty tough-guy, if absolutely a crazy political move. You never tell your party Fuck You if you want to have a political future.

Lunsford also is wealthy — his financial disclosure earlier this year put his personal wealth at between $32.7 and $150 million (his campaign says it’s closer to the former) — and even though that wealth is largely self-made, according to Lunsford’s oft-repeated personal narrative, it can be annoying to the party that is, at least ostensibly, supposed to be more “of the people” (of course this is routinely shown not to be the case, but mostly we forget about it because there is, paradoxically, no other real option). He owns many thoroughbreds and is apparently something of a titan in that industry. He owns property in Chicago, California, Arizona, New York and Florida, although the McConnell TV ad saying Lunsford lives in Chicago (and the associate slick, full-color mailers) is a lie — he lives at 1400 Willow; McConnell’s ad refers to a document used as part of a property purchase that lists his business partner’s Chicago address under Lunsford’s name. With Ed Hart he co-owns a film production company, Hart-Lunsford Pictures, that shares an office — a sprawling, ultra-modern affair with high angles and lots of glass, where everything permanent is painted red, white, blue or the yellow of corn, on the second floor of the historic Schuster Building on the corner of Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway in the Highlands — with his Senate campaign, which currently employs about two dozen people, including (for the purpose of full disclosure) Cary Stemle, former editor of this newspaper. Posters of Hart-Lunsford’s high-profile films (“Grace Is Gone,” “Diminished Capacity,” “Dedication”) are on prominent display in his conference room, which features eight black chairs arranged around a long rectangular glass table, at one end of which is a 44-inch flat-screen TV, and light gray carpet, four tan leather chairs on the periphery of the more formal meeting area, and a wall of glass through which you look out onto the first floor.

Here is what is known: Lunsford has pulled off a spectacular trick in the last five years. He ran for governor, told his party Fuck You and endorsed the Republican, came back and ran for governor again last year and lost again in the primary to a known quantity whose ideas were considerably less visionary, took it on the chin a few more times in public for a “scandal” (Vencor, late 1990s*) that is so hopelessly complex few outside Lunsford’s inner circle fully understand it, entered the Democratic primary for Senate at the last second earlier this year (at the insistence of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Sen. Chuck Schumer, it has been reported, although the Lunsford camp did not offer a straight answer when I asked), pissed off nearly the entire progressive community for edging out their first choice (Andrew Horne, now a big-time Lunsford supporter), then kept pissing them off by handling the further-left and less-funded Greg Fischer in the primary, gained Chandler’s endorsement in the general, and is now polling dead even with McConnell less than a month before the vote. All the while, Lunsford has used many of his own millions of dollars to fund his campaigns, which allows him to say (often) that he’ll be an “independent voice” because no one has invested or would invest the kind of funds he has in his own candidacies.

If it is still available for common usage, I believe the term Maverick might apply. He has referred to himself this way before.

The last time McConnell was up for re-election, in 2002, about 30 percent of the state’s eligible voters turned out, or roughly 1.25 million people. If current polling is correct in suggesting a margin of somewhere around two percentage points, using ’02 figures, that’s about 25,000 votes, meaning fewer than 13,000 votes could shift the election in a conservative, ideal hypothetical for Lunsford.

We know also that polling this year shows record numbers of newly registered voters in Kentucky, and it’s probably safe to say a good chunk of those have registered specifically to vote for Barack Obama rather than against him (ignoring the brief bump and rather sudden flameout of Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin). Although Lunsford is more Hillary than Barack, it will no doubt help the Democrat.

So we’re looking at not many votes in the margin here.

In addition to offering his hand to progressives — of which some estimate there to be several thousand, on the low end, just in Louisville — Lunsford has been reaching out to other former antagonists, in particular labor unions, which have responded favorably: Change to Win, the state’s largest coalition of labor groups, has endorsed him in what has been reported as a shocking reversal (just shocked!). In general, his campaign is highly aware of the need to appeal to smaller, more precise voting blocks.

When I ask Lunsford whether he thinks he has a progressive problem, he says, in part, this: “I may not be the poster child for what you’re looking for, but I can win. And you have no one who is a bigger obstructionist of the issues that are important to you than McConnell. I won’t be that obstructionist. I will listen to reason. And I’m not going to be up there for 24 years.”

This is an important statement. Let’s parse it.

First, Lunsford’s “poster child” comment establishes several key points. He is acknowledging that he is not the ideal, which is the opposite of pandering and, thus, intrinsically attractive to those who don’t fall for pandering, which is probably fewer people than you think. He also is setting up this maverick meme with the subtle implication that he’s so independent that he is consciously aware of this independence and it is part of his way of life, his actual being, and not a campaign strategy. We, voters, have little way of knowing whether this is actually true. At some point, we have to decide to trust a candidate, or we decide that we trust no one and pick what we discern as the less-ridiculous, less-dangerous one, but regardless, we have become a people attracted to independence, perceived or actual. Does it matter whether it is perceived or actual? How far will this go? Independence doesn’t extend in a two-party system, particularly for a first-time senator who would be part of a majority party that has suddenly pulled the stopper from the tub. Unless, of course, independence means being independent from one’s own party, which Lunsford may well be, in which case, given the charged partisanship of a majority of the electorate, may not bode well for him. Taking this a step further, how appropriate is it to raise governance questions like this during an election? It’s not really done anymore, nor may it even be appropriate, given how vicious and absurd and removed from reality our campaigns have become. As someone who has never held public office, it is more difficult to assess Lunsford’s history of this sort of thing; it is decidedly easier, in fact, to argue from a point of independence having zero political past. (Maverick.)

He says he can win, which triggers endorphin rushes in anti-Mitch voters (and, importantly, casual voters who may swim after smelling blood in the water), especially on the heels of such strong polling amid the total collapse of many things McConnell has worked for these recent years — deregulating the banking industry, continuing the war in Iraq. He is keeping on message. But what do we actually get if Lunsford wins? We do not know, because so much of that answer is dependent on other factors outside his control — what will the Democratic majority be in the Senate? Who will the president be? Will leadership change? Will America enter another Great Depression in spite of itself? Will Lunsford, like U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, seek and quickly find the support and respect of his more permanent colleagues? And if he does not, will this independence do us a damn bit of good? Does this independence clash with his image as a moderate who presumably would work in a bipartisan way? What does it mean to be independent in the U.S. Senate? Joe Lieberman is officially an Independent, and that man is a caricature of a bad senator, as far from actual independence as Mitch McConnell or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Finally, is it more of a positive to remove the negative from a situation, as Lunsford’s campaign is directing us to do, than to take what good things we could get — from McConnell, it’s pork — and attempt to continue ignoring the more distasteful aspects? Lunsford says he does not believe Obama would be a successful president with McConnell around to obstruct the Democratic agenda. What would Lunsford do to bolster it?

This is where Lunsford tries to hit his homerun, over and over now (repetition makes the message), by focusing his campaign less on what he will be doing and more on his desire and ability to end what McConnell has been doing. He ties the assumedly unrelated question of whether he is in trouble with progressives back to that which probably infuriates them most about McConnell: Since the Democrats took the House and Senate in 2006, the Senate Minority Leader has obstructed major initiatives that have not seeped from his own party, including a major expansion of healthcare for children, a timetable for ending the Iraq war and new provisions to protect workers.

Lastly, Lunsford adds in some liberal bona fides — e.g. “I will listen to reason” — and closes with a play on the “change” narrative everyone but McConnell is trying to claim now. What do progressives — those who are most likely to advocate actual change — make of it?

The progressive agenda can be loosely defined to include issues of war, healthcare, education, environment and social equality. It typically eschews the divisive social issues — abortion, gay marriage — affected by the right wing, instead presenting its own relatively rigid concept of the way things ought to be. It is a demanding agenda, but in terms of what government actually could accomplish without the assist of the Supreme Court, it is eminently practical.

Mike Bailey is perhaps the highest-profile progressive convert to the general cause of Bruce Lunsford. For some time on his diary on the blog, Bailey — who’s been highly active as a local political organizer since moving here from Colorado — trashed Lunsford, riding him for the usual stuff: the collapse of Vencor, the Fletcher endorsement, his seeming finger in the wind. Bailey had been a supporter of Democrat Andrew Horne, who withdrew from the Senate primary upon Lunsford’s entrance.

Somewhere along the way, friends — including one on the Lunsford campaign — implored Bailey to give the candidate a second look. “Once Horne dropped out and I had to decide between (Greg) Fischer and Lunsford, I spent some time and kind of came away feeling a little shame-faced that I had been so hard on him before, because it just seemed like most of the stuff that was out there was innuendo and smear that started showing up right when he was in this primary with (Ben) Chandler, which made me feel like a lot of this stuff came from a negative primary and just never went away,” he says.

Since then, Bailey has been involved in the Lunsford campaign’s progressive forums — one insider says he’s a ringleader and example of what the campaign is attempting to pull off here — and although he’s not working directly for the campaign, he is advocating on behalf of the Louisville businessman. “A lot of (progressives) had accepted the meme that had been propagated on the Internet, including propagated by me, and it was hard to get many folks in during the primary,” he says.

Judy Munro-Leighton is a community anti-war activist who came around to Lunsford after the primary. “I really have come actually to look upon him favorably (rather than just abiding him), even though he wasn’t my first choice in the primary and I was upset that they even had a primary,” she says.

Even Greg Fischer, the left-leaning Dem who lost the sometimes-nasty Senate primary, has hit the trail for Lunsford — albeit in a rather diminished capacity, introducing him at various speaking engagements. “I think he’s been working hard to reach out to all constituents of society, Democrats and Republicans,” Fischer says. “I give him credit for that.

“I think he’s gaining momentum. After the primary, there were some people who weren’t real happy. But … people start looking at what their choices are,” Fischer adds.

Dr. Garrett Adams is an advocate for universal healthcare who says he’ll hold his nose and vote Lunsford — Lunsford doesn’t support Adams’ big issue. A bona fide and active progressive, Adams says Lunsford does not represent the “transformational change” needed in Washington. “When his name comes up, there are people who have very strong feelings against Bruce Lunsford,” Adams says. He worries that Lunsford hasn’t generated the same enthusiasm among voters as Fischer — more of a perceived outsider — would have.

In order to rectify his stances on these issues with those of progressives, Lunsford has constructed his own morality play. Take healthcare: Lunsford advocates a “blue-plate special” plan, a bare-minimum and cheap health insurance policy that the government requires every citizen to have. He says the states and federal government would have immense bargaining power with the insurance companies to force costs down far enough to make the plan affordable.

“Unless you decide you’re going to attack that overall number (of money spent on healthcare in America) by driving down costs, in a market-driven system — I’m not a single-payer (proponent) — unless you do that, you can’t really drive the costs down,” he says.

This is a crucial point of departure for some progressives, which is where the morality play enters: Lunsford will say healthcare is a moral issue, and it’s indefensible that there are close to 50 million people in this country without healthcare, and that is where everybody agrees and ultimately where everybody needs to land, and so yes, he hears you, and no he doesn’t agree on particulars, but you are kindred spirits. It’s imperfect for several reasons — most notably that it’s so imprecise at this level of discourse that it’s stultifying (but where, in a campaign, is there ever room for actual discourse but over the weird modernistic distance between you and a candidate’s website, which has its own set of distinct problems?) — but it’s a baseline, and it has convinced some, including Bailey, who calls Lunsford’s approach to healthcare “pragmatic.”

The candidate’s pragmatism — with ideas and issues, with being the self-financier, with being a centrist who has a natural appeal to the Kentucky Democratic base and is closer than anybody thought he would be to Mitch McConnell with less than a month to go, with spending all this time going after the smaller voting blocks of his party in trying to piece together an inch of victory tape — is the real campaign being waged here. For those who cannot get excited about Lunsford for his ideas, there is the fact that he’s running against a man who people seem to be poised at least to vote against — for more than a year there has been a coordinated effort here to oust McConnell, beginning with the Iraq Summer campaign and continuing mostly online and in meet-up groups. There is the motivator of Barack Obama, who also is polling surprisingly close to John McCain in Kentucky (the aforementioned Survey USA poll showed prospective voters splitting their ticket — voting for McCain but not McConnell — at a rate that is likely spooking the campaign of the Senate minority leader somewhat. Also, since the release of that poll, McConnell has declined to participate in three major debates: the League of Women Voters, Centre College and KET, which would’ve been the only chance for the two candidates to debate for a statewide audience. Also, as of this writing, his campaign has just been caught scamming a World War II veteran into attacking Valor Healthcare — which offers veterans healthcare services; Lunsford is a director currently on leave — for a campaign commercial.

“When I saw the advertisement that McConnell did of me and took my words out of context, I was pretty angry, because that was not my intent,” says Navy veteran Adolfo Piñaz in Lunsford’s response spot, adding that he’s been happy with Valor’s services. The McConnell campaign quickly released a new edit of the attack ad without Piñaz’s comments).

And then there is Lunsford himself, who seems to be making a surprisingly convincing case, generally speaking.

“I think initially there was this Ditch Mitch movement,” says Joni Jenkins, a Democratic state representative from Louisville who’s a self-identified progressive and supports Lunsford. “I think by going to these small groups and sitting down and saying, I care about your issues, and maybe I don’t know everything I need to know about them, but you know — in some of the forums I’ve been at he’s been very much a listener … and I think he’s given people a reason to be for Bruce Lunsford, not just against Mitch McConnell.” It is Sept. 3, a stuffy Wednesday evening, and I am surrounded by something like 100 Democrats in the second-floor bar on the patio at Molly Malone’s, the Irish pub on Baxter Avenue. A sharp contrast to the audience at the Hillary Clinton event, these are mostly young people, young professionals as it were, and party insiders — and, refreshingly, they aren’t all white people.

Nobody quite knows when Lunsford will arrive to speak. Jennifer Moore, chairwoman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, is here. So is Andrew Horne, the Iraq war veteran who not long ago appeared to be the human future of bluegrass Democrats. He was initially the guy who was going to take down McConnell, Dems said, and then, well, then Lunsford was, and Horne seemed OK with that, at least outwardly, dropping out of the Senate primary and hitting the trail (he’s been at every Lunsford campaign event I’ve been to in researching this story).

I am floating the notion of Lunsford’s “progressive problem” to everyone I meet, and the response is generally the same: Yeah, but …

1. He’s running against McConnell, for god’s sake.

2. He’s self-financed and can compete with the estimated $20 million many are saying McConnell will have spent once this thing is done.

3. He’s a pragmatist and can get things accomplished, which is part of the progressive ethos.

4. Damn right he’s got a progressive problem. So what?

And it occurs to me: Does it matter?

A. That Lunsford could be the most imperfect perfect candidate for this gig?

B. That people might not vote for one guy as much as against the other?

C. That the candidate we are offering in Kentucky is so almost, so kinda, so just-about?

How does that establish the future of Kentucky politics?

Or should people get behind Bruce Lunsford because he has done all that has been asked of him — he has won his party’s primary, given face time to groups that don’t always get it, traveled the state trying to round up every vote to be found, put forth his ideas yet again after taking it harder on the chin than most people could tolerate in full public view, and spent $14 million of his own money in elections prior to this one (no telling how much he’ll spend this time) so that he is able to say with the most utter conviction possible, where most American politicians can’t, that nobody owns his vote?

Suddenly Lunsford emerges from behind the bar and wades into the crowd. (I later learn he’s taken some back/roof entrance to avoid the young man with a video camera who is outside taping these proceedings for the McConnell campaign and whatever other general hang-ups the challenger in arguably the most important election aside from the presidency this year might face on a well-populated street.) He smiles and glad-hands awhile, then steps to the front, flanked by Moore and Horne. Both offer glowing endorsements to much applause — just as you would imagine such an event to feature.

When it is his turn, Lunsford is concise. He tells a story: Earlier tonight he decided to take a few minutes to himself at home and watch the news. Between 6 and 6:30 p.m., he saw seven advertisements attacking him. People laugh nervously and with bewilderment — just imagine, for a moment, how strange it would be to sit on your couch and passively observe yourself being mischaracterized and called out in front of thousands and thousands of people watching just as passively, taking it in, probably not heading directly to their computers to sort out the missing details.

Lunsford just laughs. And people cheer. And that is that.

*Bruce Lunsford was a co-founder and major stockholder in Vencor, a health services company based in Louisville. When Congress cut rates for reimbursement through federal medical programs in the late 1990s, Vencor lost. Big. Management decided to split the company into two, Vencor and Ventas, in 1998, and issued equal stock in Ventas to those currently holding stock in Vencor. According to a report by University of Louisville economist Paul Coomes about the Vencor downfall (commissioned by Lunsford), five of the top seven publicly traded U.S. nursing facility companies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as a result of the changes in reimbursement — including Vencor. Shareholders who kept their Ventas stock have seen it increase in value, while Vencor stock became worthless (those who bought between May 1998, when Ventas stock was issued, and September 1999, when Vencor declared bankruptcy, would’ve suffered a total loss). Lunsford did not sell his stock, and the Vencor reorganization eventually led to Ventas, Kindred Healthcare, Atria and Pharmerica. While Vencor provided some 2,000 jobs in Louisville (about 63,000 nationwide), its affiliated companies now employ around 2,130 statewide.