Kentucky is playing a new political ball game in Washington, D.C. In last November’s elections Kentuckians changed the makeup of their elected officials in the Senate and House of Representatives from five Republicans and three Democrats to seven Republicans and one Democrat.
The most high-profile change took place in the Senate, where both Kentucky seats are now held by Republicans after Representative Jim Bunning narrowly beat Representative Scotty Baesler in a hard-fought contest to replace the popular Democratic Senator Wendell Ford, who retired.
This marks the first time in nearly 15 years that Kentucky has employed two senators from the same party in Washington, and the first time in nearly 27 years that both senators were Republicans. Also of interest to Kentucky Living readers, both senators come from urban parts of the state.
What’s behind these political changes?
Bunning and Senator Mitch McConnell answer that question by pointing to the record of the past several years, in which Republicans have been increasing their presence in the Kentucky delegation. But they offer slightly different reasons for that trend.
Bunning sees a shift away from party identification in Kentucky, which traditionally has a lot more registered Democrats than Republicans.
“In Kentucky it used to be you’d vote your party first and you’d look at the person second, but now I think they look at the person first and the party second,” says Bunning.
McConnell acknowledges that voting behavior might be changing in northern Kentucky, but he emphasizes what the Republican party has done to achieve its gains.
“I don’t think there’s been a change in the mood of the electorate. This is still basically Democratic turf,” says McConnell, noting that both he and Democratic President Clinton received majorities from Kentucky voters in 1996. “We’ve been able to overcome that by having good candidates and running good campaigns.”
The senators agree that the nature of the delegation does represent the generally conservative nature of Kentucky voters. Bob Garrett, political columnist for Louisville’s Courier-Journal newspaper, says the makeup of the delegation is “reflective of
Kentucky in that it is right of center politically.”
Garrett also notes the “novel situation” of Republicans dominating the Washington delegation and Democrats largely controlling the state Capitol (although that balance may have been somewhat affected by the announcement in July that State Senator Dan Seum of Louisville changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, creating a 19-19 tie in the Kentucky Senate).
“I don’t know of a time when the federal and state were so divided,” says Garrett. “Each party has all their eggs in one basket.”
He says that could get especially important in future elections, because if either party lost its hold on its center of power, it might have a very hard time regaining sources of funding and supporters.
What all this means for Kentuckians is a story that is still being written in the votes and debates in the Senate and the House. How the story unfolds will depend on the character and actions of the elected officials.
Jim Bunning is new to the Senate, but not to Washington. For 12 years he served in the House, representing northern Kentucky. He started his working life quite differently, as a major league pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies, pitching two no-hit games and getting voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Some credit his baseball years with giving him the intensity and competitiveness for elections, politics, and public service. Bunning says it also taught him the important trick of being able to take a break from the pressure.
“The tension of my prior job has really assisted me in this job,” he says. “One of the secrets I had, even as a professional athlete, is that I can relax when I’m off. It’s important, because if you’re on and you’re constantly on you have a tendency to never really rest.”
The 67-year-old Bunning and his wife, Mary, have nine children. In 1977 he won a seat on the Fort Thomas City Council and two years later was elected to the Kentucky State Senate.
Since Bunning started in the Senate in January, he says he’s already found that, compared to a member of the House, a senator can have enormous impact.
Bunning describes how Senate rules allow a single senator to hold up legislation. And he tells a story about how he used the Senate power of appointment of Cabinet officers, and his position as a member of the Energy Committee, to get funding for a uranium recycling plant in Paducah. He says that, working with Senator McConnell and Representative Ed Whitfield, he held up nominations for three officials in the Energy Department until the funds were made available.
“That’s something I could never have done in the House,” Bunning says. “It’s unbelievable what one senator can do.”
Other specifically Kentucky issues on Bunning’s mind include revamping health care regulations he says are hurting rural doctors, and freeing up money for coal mining reclamation. He mentions those issues as evidence that, although he’s from populous northern Kentucky, he has a record of listening to rural concerns.
“We need that reclamation money to get some economic development going in the areas that are not being brought up by our economy,” says
Bunning credits his predecessor, Senator Ford, with working hard to protect Kentucky’s interests, but adds that he thinks there are benefits to his close ties with Senator McConnell, who helped Bunning get elected to the Senate.
“Mitch and I have a personal relationship. I see him every day,” says Bunning. “For the good of the Commonwealth, we’re in tune with each other.”
Both Bunning and McConnell started the year with the historic experience of sitting in judgment of a president during the Clinton impeachment trial. Even before that, McConnell says, “We really had a bonding experience last year going through that very, very competitive, difficult race. I now consider him one of my very best friends.”
The 57-year-old McConnell, in 1996, became the first Republican in Kentucky history to be elected to three full terms in the U.S. Senate. And, the biography on his Internet website continues, at the time he was the first Kentucky Republican to win a statewide race in 30 years.
Lately McConnell has made a national name for himself, in part by chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which assists Republican Senate campaigns all over the country. He is also often quoted opposing efforts to limit campaign spending. In the Senate he chairs the Rules Committee, which oversees federal election law, and he chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations.
Although he’s from Louisville, McConnell says that over the years he has overcome an initial skepticism about his ability to represent the rural parts of the state. He recalls his pledge to get a seat on the Agriculture Committee. He kept that promise, and says that assignment has put him in a good position to influence policy not just on tobacco, but other major elements of Kentucky agriculture, including beef, dairy, soybeans, winter wheat, corn, and the walking horse and thoroughbred industries.
McConnell singles out the estate tax as a high priority issue for reform.
“I call it the death tax,” he says. “It has a devastating effect on the family farm and on small businesses, most of which, under the weight of this 55 percent estate tax, end up having to sell the land to satisfy the government.”
McConnell was raised in Louisville, and graduated from the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky’s College of Law. He has three daughters and is married to Elaine Chao, who is also often in the news as a Heritage Foundation distinguished fellow and former president of the United Way of America and director of the Peace Corps.
McConnell acknowledges there are difficulties with public life, but concludes, “Almost every night I can go home, prop my feet up, think about the day and conclude that I probably had an impact, a positive impact, on Kentucky and America.”
For a public servant himself, McConnell takes an unusual view of notions about cynicism toward government and low voter turnout.
“Skepticism about government is healthy. It’s as old as America,” he says. “A government as big as ours is big enough to take away everything you have, and I think the voters should be skeptical.
“The voter turnout issue is a nonissue,” says McConnell. “Discontented voters are the ones that come to the polls to express themselves and vote for change.…I’m glad that we have a well-established enough democracy and a content enough electorate where people can go fishing, go take care of their kids, go to church, and not feel like they’re not being good citizens because they don’t watch Congress on C-SPAN every night.”
Unpolitics As Usual
Although Republicans now dominate the Kentucky congressional delegation, that might not be as significant as it first appears, says the senior Kentuckian in the House.
“We’ve always worked in a bipartisan way, and we still pull together on Kentucky projects,” says Representative Hal Rogers.
“When you get down to the nitty-gritty of getting something done, you throw politics out the window.”
Rogers, who represents eastern Kentucky, cites tobacco policies and a variety of economic development efforts as areas where the six Kentucky House members work closely together. Even though the election last fall shifted the Republican majority in the delegation from 4-2 to 5-1, Rogers minimizes the practical effects of that change.
“Philosophically we’re more in tune with each other,” he says, “but Kentucky is a conservative state whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. There’s not much difference in philosophies.”
Pulling together for Kentucky also calls for being in office long enough to get senior positions on the right committees, says Rogers. “We’re situating ourselves very well and improving our seniority,” he says. As examples, he cites Senator Mitch McConnell’s 12 years in the Senate, the seniority Senator Jim Bunning was able to take with him when he moved to the Senate after 14 years in the House, and Representative Ed Whitfield’s position on the Commerce Committee’s Energy and Power Subcommittee.
Rogers says seniority can help give an edge to a relatively small state like Kentucky. “We’re competing every day with huge delegations from California and New York,” he says. “Unless you’ve got seniority to get equalized, you’ll never get anything.”
Rogers contributes his part to that influence. Now in his 19th year, he belongs to the College of Cardinals-an informal term for the subcommittee chairs of the powerful Appropriations Committee. He heads the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary, and is vice chair of the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee.
Rogers says he uses that influence to help bring in jobs and development. Describing the new businesses locating in parts of eastern Kentucky, including those using the latest in high technology, he refers to the development in California’s Silicon Valley by saying he thinks in eastern Kentucky they’re creating “Silicon Hollow.”
Rogers says he is motivated in these development missions by his experience early in his career, when he had to move away from Wayne County and out of Kentucky to get a job. Later, at the University of Kentucky Law School, he says, “It still burned in me that we had to leave to get jobs.”
That desire for development also played a part in his work to start the PRIDE (Personal Responsibility in a Desirable Environment) program. PRIDE focuses on cleaning up Kentucky in a wide range of ways, from properly disposing of trash to getting sewer systems installed. Rogers sees PRIDE as a way of encouraging people to have pride and self-respect for their communities, and as a way of attracting jobs and development. “You’re not going to get a factory to town if there’s pollution and garbage around,” he says. “Tourists won’t come if it’s dirty.”
Rogers credits electric cooperatives with helping form and carry out the PRIDE project. In particular, temporary staff, billboard ads, and other assistance were provided by Winchester-based East Kentucky Power Cooperative, which supplies electricity for 17 local electric distribution co-ops in Kentucky. In deciding to work with the co-ops on PRIDE, Rogers says, “I couldn’t think of anyone more grassroots than East Kentucky and the co-ops.”
All those cleanup and development efforts are beginning to pay off, Rogers says. “When you drive through eastern Kentucky you can see a difference. There’s a new attitude and a renewed sense of pride in their communities.”
The Senators on Electric Utility Deregulation
Senator Mitch McConnell: “I don’t think it’s going anywhere at the federal level. I’m not going to support any legislation that dictates a specific date for nationwide retail competition. Having said that, with or without government action, there is competition coming to this business and we know that. It’s happening without government doing anything one way or the other. You know that old saying, ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’? We’ve got a good deal here. We’ve got very low utility rates. The rural electrics in Kentucky are doing a great job, and it ain’t broke and I don’t want to fix it.”
Senator Jim Bunning: “We’re waiting to see what the House deregulation bill looks like, and we can use that as a starter. A lot of people believe we shouldn’t infringe on state regulations, particularly a state like Kentucky, which is the second lowest-cost producer of electricity due to our reliance on coal. The Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority on those things always worries me, because they seem bound and determined not to react to sound science in making their regulations but they make them up by the seat of their pants. And I really worry about that, because it adversely affects us here in the Commonwealth more than it would somebody else…We should really look at local control of energy at the state level. Whether we impose federal will, it will be with reluctance on my part to do that. But I want to see what comes out of the House. We have not had a bill even proposed in the Senate yet.”