November 9, 2014

Why Kentucky's a red state and Grimes can't win

(This story ran Oct. 31, 2014 in Kentucky Roll Call.)
Lightning strikes! But it is unlikely that Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrats’ nominee, can oust Sen. Mitch McConnell on Tuesday. The race for the US Senate is a federal race where philosophy is foremost and people still don’t know what Grimes stands for. Voters are wondering if she has a philosophical rudder. If so, what does she believe?  What are her inner-soul values?

Candidates in Kentucky can hide their deepest beliefs and still win — if they’re running for magistrate and not a federal office. Grimes has raised a lot of money, but has not spent it wisely; her strategy appears to have been to conduct the race like she’s running for a local or state office.

She’s not the first secretary of state to make that blunder. In 2010, then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson ignored the distinction with embarrassing results. In the Republican primary that year, in the open seat for the US Senate, vacated by Jim Bunning, Grayson lost to Rand Paul in a landslide — 58.8 percent to 35.4 percent — because, after serving six years as secretary of state, and throughout his campaign for the Senate, voters never quite knew what Grayson stood for.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), one of America’s most famous journalists of the last century, noted that the nation’s Capitol “represents more closely [than state and local elections] the inner soul of people.” Mencken recognized seemingly that everyone must have something to live for (faith, hope, purpose) as well as something to live on (food, shelter, clothing), and in the realm of government, citizens will always try to send to Washington those who represent their “inner soul.”

That standard doesn’t apply to candidates running for mayor in a small, rural Kentucky town. Those are races that can be won by promising to keep the weeds cut along the road coming into town. 

But farther up the political ladder one climbs, winning depends on philosophy in proportion to the height of the office. On the state level, philosophy first comes into play in General Assembly races. It increases to maybe 50 percent in a governor’s race — the other half is rudderless (pleasing the courthouse crowd, redistributing wealth from the state treasury, playing raw and subtle politics).

Going higher still to the office of president, and in races for the US Senate and House, elections become intensely philosophical, as much as 80 percent or even 90 percent, would be my guess. Kentucky is not a red state in federal elections because Republicans are lucky, are better looking, more intelligent or raise more money than the Democrats. Republican are winning federal races because their beliefs are better aligned with what the voters’ value in themselves.

This alignment matters more in choosing who we send
to Washington, because Washington is where the action is. The issues and subjects that define us as individuals are debated in Washington — not so much at the state and local levels: Examples are the debates over the boundary lines of free enterprise, fairness, religion, guns, gender issues, abortion and limits on how bad government can get.  

Who thinks like you do? That is the question that turns federal elections. Former Congressman Larry Hopkins, R-Lexington, recognized that fact in winning his first term in 1978. The slogan on his billboards was, “He Thinks Like Us.” And he went on to serve seven terms.

Power of beliefs

Beliefs are extremely important; they are the protector of every society, and as American writer and poet Marianne Moore (1887-1972) put it, “Belief is even stronger than the struggle to survive.” Think of the jihadists but also of American soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for our country. 

Grimes picked wrong strategy

Elections are complicated endeavors, and multiple factors make a winning campaign. However, all of the components put together won’t work successfully in a federal election without the voters’ perception that a candidate’s inner self is aligned with theirs.

The voters in Kentucky don’t sufficiently know what Alison Lundergan Grimes stands for. She has made a name for herself. But her strategy for winning has been wrong. Consequently, though she has raised a lot of money, she hasn’t spent it wisely. Saying you’ll fight for women, that you’re in favor of jobs and raising the minimum wage, while complaining that your opponent has served too long in Washington — that’s not revealing your own inner self; that’s hiding it.

Staking out a position on a few selected legislative issues doesn’t disclose the character and values embedded in a candidate’s inner self. But it’s a nice illusion. — by Lowell Reese

November 3, 2014

David Williams expected to win judgeship race

(This story ran in Kentucky Roll Call, Oct. 31, 2014) 
Former Senate President David L. Williams was appointed to the bench two years ago by Gov. Steve Beshear, to fill an unexpired term of the late Circuit Judge Eddie Lovelace, of Albany. Williams is running for election to a full eight-year term against retired District Judge Steve Hurt, of Burkesville, Williams’ hometown. In fact, Williams and Hurt were classmates in high school, graduating the same year.

This is a “fairly heated” race and Judge Williams is expected to win. The jurisdiction contains Clinton, Cumberland and Monroe counties. The judicial community in the district (attorneys and court staff), if conventional wisdom is gauging it right, is rallying behind Williams.

Williams, 61, has run for seven different offices throughout his rather short public career — county judge-executive, commonwealth attorney, state House and Senate, US Senate and governor — and this will be his first race to win, other than both chambers of the General Assembly. A source said Williams is strong in Clinton County and “that should clinch it” for him. 

High school classmates aside, this is not a friendly race. Williams is hitting Hurt hard in ads on double-dipping: Hurt retired from the bench to take senior judge status, which enhanced his pension by hundreds of thousands of dollars (the average is about $1 million) by enriching the formula used to calculate judicial pensions.

Williams is making an issue, however, not on the size of Hurt’s pension but on the fact he’s trying to come out of retirement for a government pay check on top of his pension. Hurt is not firing back that Williams will get an enhanced legislative pension based on his pay as a judge. 

Hurt is mad at Williams over a bill in the legislature that died when Williams was president of the Senate. The bill would have extended the Senior Judge Status program, but it died in the House, in effect, sunseting the program — but not before Hurt boarded that gravy train. 

Actually, the House Democratic caucus killed the bill; it wasn’t Williams who did it. But apparently Hurt thinks Williams didn’t try hard enough to save it, and, seemingly, he is holding a grudge against Williams over it. Some local folks are calling this a race for “judge” and a race for “grudge.” 

July 11, 2014

Yes, there is a place named Cloverlick

The Courier-Journal, in a story online today, reports that, "The campaigns of Alison Lundergan Grimes and Sen. Mitch McConnell are now involved in a social media skirmish about whether or not there really is a place in Harlan County called "Cloverlick," a place mentioned in Grimes's newest ad."
Cloverlick, Ky. is identified in the ad as the hometown of retired coal miner Don Disney, who appears in the ad hitting McConnell on the issue of Medicare. 

Josh Holmes has tweeted that "Reality Check had been unable to find a town named Cloverlick, Ky." Further, a national Republican PAC called America Rising tweeted, "Kentucky Senate Ad Claims Man Is From A Make-Believe Town."

Holmes and America Rising need to back away from that spin posthaste — there is a community in Harlan County called "Cloverlick Junction," which the locals refer to as the "Cloverlick" area. 

See my Kentucky Atlas, a book of place names in Kentucky, at

Below is the comment I posted on the Courier website about today’s story. 

"Joe [Gerth], you mentioned in your story that Cloverlick is not listed in the Kentucky Atlas, my book of place names in KY. The Atlas does contain "Cloverlick Junction" in Harlan County, apparently the home of the Mr. Disney in Grimes' ad. His daughter refers to her Dad’s home place, in her comment posted below, as "the Cloverlick area." Also, you say that neither the KY Atlas or Mr. Rennick's Kentucky Place Names book contain a listing of the "Germantown" neighborhood in Jefferson County, not far from where you grew up. The KY Atlas does not list neighborhoods or creeks; it lists only cities, towns and places with actual names, including wide spots in the road ... 6,500 of them. Members of the media and political campaigns ought to have a copy of the KY Atlas in their library. Check it out:"

May 14, 2014

Judge-executive job would spike pension

Two members of the state legislature — Sen. Walter Blevins and Rep. Bob Damron — are on the ballot May 20, running for county judge-executive, Blevins in Rowan County and Damron in Jessamine County. The annual salary of the judge-executive in Rowan County is $86,695, and in Jessamine County it’s $98,255.

Blevins and Damron can use their judge-executive salary, instead of their legislative salary, in the formula to calculate their legislative pension, courtesy of a change in the pension law in 2005 (HB 299) — which Blevins voted for, and Damron voted against. If Blevins is elected judge-executive, and serves at least three years in office, it will more than double his legislative pension from $41,019 a year to $86,695, an estimated lifetime gain of $734,449.

 Blevins’ pension as a legislator, a part-time job, will be 100% of his pay, because he has enough years of service (32 at the end of this year) and a service credit rating of 3.5%. He “maxed out,” reached the 100% threshold, on July 31, 2008, at which time he was automatically enrolled in the state employees’ pension plan (KERS), starting a second legislative pension. Under the 2005 amendment, Blevins can replace his legislative pay with the judge-executive pay in the 3-factor formula used to calculate his legislative pension.

 If Damron is elected judge-executive his legislative pension would increase from $30,735 a year to $59,444, an estimated lifetime gain of $545,197. Damron has one opponent in the Democratic primary, Blevins has five. Former Senate President John “Eck” Rose favors one of Blevins’ opponent in a letter to the Morehead News

Editor's Note: This story was published May 12, 2014 in Kentucky Roll Call

April 22, 2014

Who decides what news is?

I tweeted recently about a Lexington TV station’s airing of a story about a UK fan who tattooed Willie Cauley-Stein’s face on his leg (fulfilling a promise that he would do that if Cauley-Stein committed to play at UK next year, which he did). I said the story had “No news value, promotes primitive behavior.”

On reflection, that a major news outlet would devote substantial airtime – not a snippet – to such triviality and promote the permanent disfigurement of young people is a good segue to larger question: Who decides what’s news? 

A few years ago, I had the honor as then-publisher of The Kentucky Gazette to serve on a three-member panel with the editorial page editors of The Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader to discuss the role of the media in making public policy.

The panel was part of a two-day retreat for governmental affairs managers and lobbyists at Lake Cumberland State Park near Jamestown, sponsored by Kentucky Forward, then an affiliate of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

The panel discussed whether the media is the Fourth Branch of government? Should members of the media be required to register as lobbyists? And should the media interfere with the news or simply reflect it?

I expressed my view that the most noble purpose of a newspaper is to report the news, not create it; as it is the most noble purpose of government to advance the standard of living of its citizens, not redistribute their earnings.

Well, that was not the way The Courier-Journal’s liberal editor, David Hawpe, saw the world. He told the audience that his paper was proudly a player in the political process, bent on shaping the direction of the state. Not just reflecting the news, creating it. Hawpe said he believed “the purpose of government is to redistribute the wealth.”

Hawpe is an honorable person, whom I have always respected, because he is sincere and consistent in his principles. As editor, he was not content with telling the news, he wanted to tell it and fix it all at once. His vision was as crooked as a pig’s tail.

He told the audience something even more astonishing, an extension of the media wanting to shape the news. He said (I paraphrase), “Nothing is news until his newspaper (or others in the media) decide it’s news!”

And that takes us back to the UK fan given his “15 minutes of fame” by the TV station for disfiguring himself with a large tattoo of a basketball player on his leg: Someone at the station made a decision on what news is.

Woe, the power of the press! — Lowell Reese

March 24, 2014

Twenty years after the Republican Revolution

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” aka The Republican Revolution, and also the emergence of a competitive two-party system in Kentucky politics.

Between 1994-2014, the evolution of the Republican Party in Kentucky at the state and federal levels has been nothing less than dramatic. In 1994, western Kentucky, the so-called Rock of Gibraltar in political circles because it was the state’s largest enclave of Democrats, fell to Republicans in congressional races, producing U.S. Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, and Ron Lewis, R-Cecilia. Those CDs have stayed R, and the Rock of Gibraltar moved to Jefferson County.

Kentucky’s U.S. House delegation flipped in 1994. That year it went from 4-2 Democratic to 4-2 Republican. Today it is 5-1 Republican. The U.S. Senate was 1-1 in 1994, with Democrat Wendell Ford and Republican Mitch McConnell, and now both seats are red.

While the fall of western Kentucky to Republicans in the 1994 federal elections was the most telling that Kentucky might be emerging as a competitive two-party state, the competitiveness was also starting to show up in the state Senate.

Going into the 1994 elections, the Democrats ruled the state Senate 25-13. That year, the Republicans picked up four seats, reducing the Democrats’ margin to 21-17. In the 2000 session, Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in the state’s history and now dominate the upper chamber 23-14, with one Independent who caucuses with the Republicans. The past twenty years have brought a virtual flip of the Senate, and that has produced a dynamic shift in the political apparatus and power structure in Frankfort.

A similar trend, apparently stemming also from the 1994 period, has been evolving in the state House of Representatives. For the first time in more than 90 years, the Republicans in 2014 have an even chance to capture control of the House. The makeup now is 54-46, advantage Democrats. Going into the 1994 elections, the Democrats ruled the state House 72-28. That year, the Republicans picked up nine seats, reducing the Democrats’ margin to 63-37.

Voter registration is another indicator of the political evolution in Kentucky during the past twenty years. During the twenty-year period, the number of registered Democrats statewide grew from 1,401,893 to 1,667,605, an increase of 19.1 percent; and the number of registered Republicans statewide grew from 635,531 to 1,187,553, an increase of 86.9 percent.  

Said another way, the Democrats’ advantage in voter registration over the Republicans from 1994 to 2014 slipped from 2.2:1 to 1.4:1.

February 25, 2014

Not ‘Slick Willie,’ it’s ‘Sick Willie’

Note: The following is an editorial I wrote for The Kentucky Gazette. It ran in that paper on Jan. 27, 1998. — Lowell Reese 

Not ‘Slick Willie,’ it’s ‘Sick Willie’ 
It is awful tempting to bash Bill Clinton: because he’s a despicable draft-dodger, a crude and lascivious womanizer, the king of double talk and (after not inhaling and Gennifer Flowers) a confirmed habitual liar. One helluva role model for the children of America. It’s just as tempting to blame the American people for electing a soap-opera president ... albeit under 50 percent both times. 

The fact is, we tend to vote for and then defend those who think like us.
But now is not a time to ridicule this president; the man is sick. How else can you explain why he would subject his wife and daughter to repeated public humiliation; hired help being just the most recent in a string of paramours — followed by a pattern of lies and disrespect for the laws of the land and the family life of the nation. 

The commander-in-chief’s latest romance-novel escapade may lead to proceedings of impeachment. Here we have the president of the United States of America, after a reported affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, allegedly encouraging her to lie about their relationship under oath during a deposition involving sexual harassment charges against him by Paula Jones, who claims that Clinton exposed himself in an Arkansas hotel room.

Nonetheless, a majority of the American people — until now at least — have admired Clinton, rationalizing his faults. It’s common to hear that “his personal life is a private matter.” Well, his private life if not the main point. William Jefferson Clinton is the leader of the free world, commander-in-chief of the nation’s Armed Forces (which has had its share of sex scandals recently), and above all: he’s a role model for the youth of America. 

One of the most powerful forces in the whole animal kingdom is emulation. Mankind is no exception. It is said that the nightingale cannot perform unless it first hears a few notes from another nightingale. Bill Clinton sings the nightingale’s song of America, and it’s not pretty. He’s one sick bird. 

The message this president sends, by example, to the children of America is: lying to people can be an alternative way to get through life; deceit and double-talk are manipulative skills to be nurtured; both moral and man-made laws are for timid souls; and Abe Lincoln was a stooge — honesty isn’t the best policy.

Sometimes it takes awhile for vindication to work; it took more than five years for Gennifer Flowers; it may take another year or two for those of us who served in Vietnam. But I still have faith — however tested at times — that deep down the early American values that made this nation great will endure. I’m betting on the iron laws of nature; that truth in the long-term prevails. Always. This nation was founded on truth, not lies; on duty, not draft-dodging; and on honesty; not double-speak. Let the proceedings begin. — Lowell Reese, publisher

January 23, 2014

Oh! Kentucky Tea Party folks nix outside guru

The following press release came in e-mail this afternoon from Scott Hofstra, spokesman for The United Kentucky Tea Party. — Lowell Reese

Earlier this week, the Huffington Post published an article in which they erroneously quoted Mr. Greg Fettig as a leader of "The Unbridled Liberty Tour" in Kentucky. In order to correct the erroneous information published by the Huffington post, we need to make you aware that The United Kentucky Tea Party owns and operates "The Unbridled Liberty Tour.”

Mr. Fettig was consulted on strategy due to his successful efforts in Indiana.  He is not a leader or organizer of the Unbridled Liberty Tour and he will not be participating in organizing the grassroots efforts in Kentucky.

Please direct all further inquiries to Scott Hofstra, the Spokesman of The United Kentucky Tea Party. #

January 14, 2014

Pension crisis not "resolved"

The cost of public employee pensions is smothering out essential government services, especially funds for education. Consequently, a substantial tax increase is necessary — and it’s coming.

Attached is a copy of my op-ed on the pension issue, which ran Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in The Courier-Journal

Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014
 The Courier-Journal 

Written by Lowell Reese
Special to The Courier-Journal

The pension crisis will only persist
Benefit creep, lack of transparency hurt KY

The six state-operated pension systems for Kentucky’s public employees had unfunded liabilities of $33.7 billion last year. New figures that will be available in the next few weeks are expected to show the red ink is rising. A recent actuarial report reveals that the Kentucky Employees Retirement System has only 23.2 percent of the funds needed to cover its pension liabilities. Red lights flash when the funding level dips below 60 percent. 

The financial straits of KERS, unfortunately, are similar to Illinois’ pension system; they’re the worst in the nation. So, the Kentucky General Assembly’s first priority is to keep KERS afloat, and secondly to pay down the massive debt in all the systems. This is important because pensions are promises made to public servants that must — and will be — paid, and also because funding for education and essential government services is being diverted to pay for pensions.

Between 2008-2014, base state funding for K-12 education is down 1 percent, and the funding for higher education is down 14 percent, while funding for public pensions is up 63.5 percent. As educators beg the General Assembly to restore their funding, the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System announced it will ask legislators for an additional $800 million in the next two-year budget, and the pension reform bill (Senate Bill 2) enacted earlier this year calls for about $450 million more during the biennium from the General Fund and other employer funds. 

Pensions are dipping into the budget of the commonwealth as never before. Pensions are crowding out education. They are crowding out infrastructure. They are crowding out programs that affect the lives of all Kentuckians. 

The pension reform bill was promoted as a measure to solve the pension crisis. But it was purposely limited to doing what was politically “feasible.” Which meant, no heavy lifting, and don’t mention expenditures, or what caused the crisis. The primary cause, benefit creep, was off limits because it's the other third rail in politics, and, in part, because it would draw attention to the legislators’ role in creating the crisis. 

The reform goes in effect Jan. 1, 2014. But it affects only new hires and excludes teachers. In time, we shall see how it works. What we do know now, however, is that the contribution rate for state agencies and non-government entities, like Seven Counties Services, will increase from 26.79 percent of payroll to 38.77 percent next year — a spike of 44 percent. The rates are projected to stay slightly above that level (rising to 40.1 percent) for at least the next 20 years. What business in the private sector can survive paying 40 percent of payroll for pensions?

So the reform will make things worse over the next four years, then savings kick in. Actuarially, proponents are quick to say, the reform will save $10 billion over two decades. But there are a couple a major problems: the projections are based on no changes in the actuarial assumptions, and zero benefit improvements for state employees for 20 years — which defies logic. 

Given the nature of politicians and the culture in which they operate in Frankfort, a culture of double and triple government pensions, benefit enhancements are bound to continue. The reform does nothing to prevent benefit creep, nor was it designed to. Each new benefit will reduce the savings, and that is the fallacy of SB 2. 

Of all the public pensions systems in Frankfort, the richest is the legislators’. In 2005, they sneaked through a bill (HB 299) to greatly enhance their pensions in a variety of ways. The most offensive of which, they can now switch salaries in the pension formula and calculate their legislative pensions using their salary in a full-time government job before or after leaving the legislature. As a result, a growing number of former legislators are, or will, draw a legislative pension exceeding $100,000 a year — for doing a part-time job. One former House member has a legislative pension of at least $168,686 a year by using his salary as a vice president of a regional university to calculate his legislative pension. It’s called reciprocity. 

Politicians created the pension crisis and only they can fix it, which, of course, they’re not likely to do without transparency. Kentucky’s pension records are not subject to the open records law. They are shrouded in secrecy.

Lowell Reese is editor and publisher of Kentucky Roll Call, a political newsletter in Frankfort. See