By John David Dyche
November 2013 is a big month for American political anniversaries. Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address 150 years ago. John F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago.
Closer to home and in time, this month also marks 10 years since Kentuckians elected Ernie Fletcher governor. Fletcher, who served a single, turbulent four-year term, is the only Republican occupant of that office since 1971.
A decade ago Kentucky’s electorate was disgusted by two-term Democratic Gov. Paul Patton’s sex scandal. Fletcher parlayed the public’s desire for change into a 10-point defeat of Democrat Ben Chandler.
With his impressive resume’ – fighter pilot, doctor, lay minister, congressman – Fletcher’s political future looked bright. But his administration got off to a rocky start.
The GOP had wandered a long time in the political wilderness while watching Democrats reward friends and punish enemies. As Republicans around the state clamored for patronage, a few used their newfound power to put the spoils of office ahead of doing a good job.
Fletcher’s talented and well-intentioned young team made multiple beginners’ mistakes. Some of them, like requiring reporters from one particular newspaper to put their questions in writing, made an already hostile media even more so.
After his initial attempt at budgeting and tax reform produced legislative deadlock, Fletcher invoked executive power to spend state funds anyway, just as Patton had done. Meanwhile, a malfunctioning state airplane caused an embarrassing panic in Washington as Fletcher flew there for former President Ronald Reagan’s funeral.
Fletcher’s job approval numbers sank. Despite initial resistance from Democrats in the state House of Representatives, however, there were some successes, too, especially after Republicans ran well in the 2004 elections and Fletcher upgraded his inner circle.
He reformed Medicaid and, after some missteps, the state health plans. With bipartisan backing he passed a budget, a tax reform plan, and more. Ridiculed at first, his “Unbridled Spirit” branding campaign proved popular and successful.
Then the walls came crashing down. Greg Stumbo, the de facto leader of state Democrats and perhaps the most partisan attorney general in state history, began prosecutions for political hiring. Fletcher’s initial team had committed errors that gave Stumbo an opening he used to try to destroy the administration.
Stumbo secured some indictments, but Fletcher issued a blanket pardon of everyone but himself. The investigation droned on, litigation over the pardons ensued, and Fletcher took the Fifth Amendment when called before a grand jury.
Fletcher fell seriously ill, as did his ambitious legislative agenda. Stumbo finally got Fletcher indicted and then struck a settlement with him in which the governor admitted “inappropriate” acts and evidence that “strongly indicates wrongdoing.”
Despite it all, Fletcher – who never apologized – sought reelection. His lieutenant governor, Steve Pence, declined to run with him and then refused to resign as Fletcher requested.
As the Republican presidential administration of George W. Bush foundered, Fletcher faced two formidable primary foes: businessman Billy Harper and recently defeated U.S. Rep. Anne Northup. He won the nomination, but with only 50.1 percent of the vote.
To the surprise of no one, the cynical Stumbo opportunistically hopped on a ticket topped by the wealthy Bruce Lunsford. To the surprise of Stumbo, they lost by 20 points.
The Democratic nominee, Steve Beshear, backed expanded gambling. Fletcher made his own opposition to casinos the big issue of the general election campaign. But voters were as eager to be rid of Fletcher as they had been of Patton four years before, and Beshear won big.
That election night 10 Novembers ago may be the happiest that this observer has ever seen Kentucky’s Republicans. The hellish four years that followed it should provide some sobering reminders and restraint to a GOP now starting to get giddy about its gubernatorial prospects again.
Ernie Fletcher was a good man who did some good things as governor despite making some big mistakes. A decade has passed since his election, however, and Republicans who want to be governor two years hence can benefit from the Fletcher experience.
One lesson Republicans must learn is that while the governorship is a good thing, the identity of the attorney general can also matter a lot. In 2003, the GOP nominated a very weak candidate for that important office and thus got the hyper-partisan Stumbo as the state’s top prosecutor.
Gov. Beshear’s ambitious son, Andy, already has announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 2015. Potential Republican gubernatorial contenders, such as Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and former Louisville Councilman Hal Heiner would be well-advised to start aggressively encouraging quality GOP lawyers to consider mounting an attorney general campaign.