Joe Gerth is a political reporter and columnist at the Louisville Courier-Journal, Kentucky’s largest paper. The Louisville native and resident started at the paper as a clerk while still in college. Twenty-two years later, he’s covering Kentucky’s Democratic and Republican senate primaries, and readying for the general election match-up that’s just around the corner.
That means Gerth has a front row seat to two of the country’s most interesting and closest Senate primaries. The Democratic side features Louisvillian Jack Conway, the state’s attorney general, facing off against Appalachian-born Daniel Mongiardo, the state’s lieutenant governor, who fell less than 25,000 votes short of defeating now-retiring Senator Jim Bunning just six years ago. Much of the state’s Republican establishment is backing secretary of state Trey Grayson, now facing a strong challenge from political newcomer Rand Paul, a ophthalmologist who is perhaps best known as being the son of Texas congressman Ron Paul, the libertarian hero. CJR spoke with Gerth last week. His edited and condensed thoughts are below.
1. On both sides, this is a very, very, ugly election, in which the candidates don’t like one another personally. Republicans aren’t used to this kind of primary in Kentucky, and there’s a question of if they’ll be able to pull together in the fall.
It’s sharper attacks then usual. On the Democratic side, we’ve got charges of ethical lapses flying in both directions. Dan Mongiardo is claiming that Jack Conway has accepted money from utility interests and then gone easy on them, when he’s supposed to be going to bat for Kentucky ratepayers when the utilities request rate increases. In the other direction, you’ve got Conway saying that Mongiarido has pocketed the $30,000 housing stipend he is paid by the state, and has used that to invest in real estate that he wants to develop into a subdivision. Recently Mongiardo was asked if he loses the primary is he going support Conway in the general election, and he would not say that he would. That’s where we are here.
As in most of these things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. On the issue of the rate hikes, what you’ve got is a situation where it doesn’t look great for Conway. Mongiardo has claimed that he basically has decided these cases, but it’s not like Conway can go out and hand out rulings that are beneficial for these utility companies. He is a player in the cases, but there’s a professional division in the attorney general’s office that does nothing but handle rate cases, and then the public service commission sits down and decides whether the settlement is good for ratepayers, bad for ratepayers, or acceptable for ratepayers. So there is a backstop.
And again, it doesn’t look good, but there’s nothing illegal about what Mongiardo has done with his stipend. Kentucky used to have a lieutenant governor’s mansion. The cost of keeping that fully staffed was so great that a few years ago they took that away and just gave the stipend to help with living expenses and entrainment. It doesn’t say where you have to use it, how you have to use it, or if it has to be devoted to housing or anything. It’s just part of your salary package.
On the Republican side, Trey Grayson has accused Rand Paul of tax evasion and reported him to the IRS for it, and sent copies of the letter to newspapers. Paul recently said he’s very angry about this, and has referred to Grayson as a “third-grade snitch.”
Grayson may have Paul on this. What he has alleged is that his campaign has wrongly classified workers as independent contractors and therefore not paid withholding taxes. The CPAs I’ve talked to say that’s kind of a tough stretch.
The interesting thing about this is that, even before the Republicans emerged as a power over the past twenty-five years or so, Kentucky always had a two party system before. But the two parties were actually just personality-based wings of the Democratic party that fought tooth and nail and then came together in November.