Sen. Jim Bunning (R)
Elected: 1998, term expires 2010, 2nd term.
Born: Oct. 23, 1931, Campbell Cnty. .
Education: Xavier U., B.S. 1953.
Family: Married (Mary); 9 children.
Elected office: Ft. Thomas City Cncl., 1977–79; KY Senate, 1979–83; U.S. House of Reps., 1986-98.
Professional Career: Pro baseball player, 1950–71; Investment broker & agent, 1960–86.
The state’s junior senator is Jim Bunning, a Republican elected in 1998 who has the distinction of being the first Baseball Hall of Fame player to serve in Congress. Bunning grew up in Northern Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. He started his sports career in baseball’s minor leagues in 1950, but at his father’s insistence, he finished college, getting a degree in economics from Xavier University. He made the majors in 1956, and the next year became the only pitcher to strike out Ted Williams three times in one game. Bunning threw a no-hitter for the Detroit Tigers in 1958 and pitched a perfect game for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1964, the first in the National League since 1880. Bunning also played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He retired in 1971 with a 224-184 record, a 3.24 ERA and 2,855 strikeouts; he was the second pitcher (Cy Young was the first) to achieve 1,000 strikeouts and 100 wins in both the American and the National Leagues. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996. Autograph signings account for more than half of the money his Jim Bunning Foundation raises each year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Jim Bunning and fellow pitcher Robin Roberts established the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966, when the minimum player salary was $6,000. In recent years, he has criticized the sport’s players for not accepting a salary cap, the big metro-area teams for not accepting revenue sharing and the team owners for not opening their books. Bunning has a large family; he and his wife have nine children (two sets of twins) and at last count 35 grandchildren. His son David Bunning, after 10 years as a federal prosecutor, was confirmed as a federal judge in 2002.
|Jim Bunning (R)||873,507||(51%)||($6,075,399)|
|Daniel Mongiardo (D)||850,855||(49%)||($3,104,981)|
|Jim Bunning (R)||96,545||(84%)|
|Barry Metcalf (R)||18,395||(16%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 1998 (50%), 1996 House (68%), 1994 House (74%), 1992 House (62%), 1990 House (69%), 1988 House (74%), 1986 House (55%)
As a baseball player, Bunning was known for his skill and aggressiveness—he registered one of the highest totals in baseball history for hitting batters—and he’s tried to apply those attributes to his second career in politics. He was elected to the Fort Thomas City Council in 1977 and to the state Senate in 1979, and he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1983, though he posted a respectable 44% of the vote against Democratic Lt. Gov. Martha Layne Collins. When 4th District Rep. Gene Snyder retired in 1986, Bunning won the seat with 55% of the vote. In the House, Bunning spent six years on the ethics committee, leading the charge in 1992 against lawmakers who had multiple overdrafts at the House bank, which blossomed into a major scandal. He was one of the brash House conservatives of that decade who could scarcely conceal their contempt for President Clinton. In 1993, Bunning memorably called Clinton “the most corrupt, the most amoral, the most despicable person I’ve ever seen in the presidency.”
When Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford announced in February 1997 that he would retire the following year, Bunning launched a campaign for the seat. The Democrats nominated U.S. Rep. Scotty Baesler, who represented the Lexington metro area in the 6th District and who was well known locally as a 1960s-era University of Kentucky basketball star. Baesler started out ahead of Bunning in the polls, but he was low on money. Bunning had no worries in that department; he had extensive help from Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who chaired the Republicans’ Senate election efforts that year. Bunning invested some of his considerable money in devastating negative advertising against Baesler, including one television ad that depicted actors thanking Baesler, in Spanish and in Chinese, for voting for the North American Free Trade Agreement and for normal trade relations with China. This was the country’s closest Senate race for months. Late in the evening on Election Day, Bunning was declared the winner, 49.7% to 49.2%, or by 6,766 votes. In 2006, after Republicans elected McConnell minority leader in 2006, Bunning inherited from McConnell the Senate desk used by Henry Clay, the legendary 19th-century statesman from Kentucky.
Bunning has compiled one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate. He has made headlines from his seat on the Banking Committee, which he has used to wage a campaign against the Federal Reserve. Bunning cast the Senate’s lone dissenting vote against President Bush’s nomination of Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman in 2006. He criticized Bernanke for not being more independent of outgoing Chairman Alan Greenspan and for stating he would continue the policy of raising interest rates to keep inflation in check. During the 2008 government rescue of mortgage lenders, he turned his sights on Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, accusing him of “acting like the minister of finance in China” for bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and he called for Paulson’s resignation. He was one of two Republican senators to oppose Robert Gates as successor to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, saying Gates lacked solutions for Iraq and Afghanistan. He also unsuccessfully opposed efforts to increase the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s coverage limits from $100,000 to $250,000.
Bunning is the first Kentucky senator in nearly 40 years to serve on the powerful Finance Committee. In 2007, he opposed expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program—which was to be financed by a tobacco tax hike—because “it taxes the poorest of our country that do most of the smoking.” He is also immensely interested in any legislation dealing with baseball. Bunning has made steroid use in baseball a leading issue and has threatened to propose legislation against professional baseball’s anti-trust exemption if the league did not impose tougher penalties requiring abusers to sit out more games. Bunning maintains that athletes accused of steroid use should be stripped of their records and barred from entry into the Hall of Fame. He called former Sen. George Mitchell’s 2007 report on steroid use “the saddest day in my life for baseball.” His focus on baseball issues has prompted occasional portrayals of Bunning as a Senate lightweight. Time magazine in 2006 named Bunning the “Underperformer,” saying that he “shows little interest in policy unless it involves baseball.” In 2008, Bunning objected to the Senate extending a vote for the delayed Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, which prompted long-serving Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia to scoff, “Who are you?” other than a “great baseball man.”
But Bunning has also devoted himself to several Kentucky issues, including legislation promoting clean coal technologies. He has also criticized the Energy Department’s cleanup of the USEC uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, ongoing since 1988. Particularly critical of the department’s failure to compensate workers stricken with radiation-related diseases, he held several hearings on the issue and blocked the nomination of one of the agency’s top officials to call attention to the problem. In 2004, Congress enacted his legislation to move the compensation process from DOE to the Labor Department and to have the government rather than private contractors compensate workers. The first claimants got their checks late in 2004.
When Bunning came up for re-election in 2004, it looked as though he would face a tough challenge from Democratic Gov. Paul Patton. But Patton declined to run after admitting to a sexual affair with a nursing-home operator who later sued him for sexual harassment. The Democratic nominee turned out to be state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, a physician from the eastern mountains who had no statewide name recognition but who put up a surprisingly strong fight. Bunning raised and spent $6 million; the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee came to Mongiardo’s aid in July, and he also gave his campaign $168,000 of his own money. He ran as a conservative Democrat, opposed to abortion rights and same-sex marriage. And he promised to reduce the cost of health care, while running ads attacking Bunning for accepting $75,000 from pharmaceutical company political action committees. Bunning ran ads calling his opponent a “Medicaid millionaire” and attacking him on national security and tax policy. Mongiardo got some help from Bunning’s unusual campaign behavior. He refused to give the media covering him advance notice of his appearances, and he traveled with a security guard, citing “classified briefings that I have received in the U.S. Senate.” In one campaign gaffe, Bunning said that Mongiardo looked like one of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s sons. Mongiardo accused Bunning of behavior “unbecoming of a Kentucky gentleman.” And the senator later apologized for an “inappropriate comment.”
Mongiardo closed the gap in the polls as the election neared, but Bunning squeaked to victory, 51%-49%, even as President Bush carried the state 60%-40%. Mongiardo ran well in his home area in the eastern mountains and in the ring of counties around Lexington. Bunning was rescued, as he had been in 1998, by his strong showing in his home area, the three counties of northern Kentucky, where he won 66.5% of the vote and which he carried by 48,000 votes, more than double his statewide margin of 22,000. Bunning, asked whether he had made mistakes, said, “Sure we made mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. The only time I’ve ever been perfect was for about two hours and 10 minutes on June 21, 1964” (the date of his perfect game against the Phillies).
Bunning said he plans to run for re-election in 2010, when he will be 79 years old. But top Republicans, including McConnell, were worried about Bunning’s re-election prospects. In spring 2009, Republicans Trey Grayson, the Kentucky secretary of state, and Rand Paul, the son of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, were considering running against him in the primary. Democrat Mongiardo announced he would seek a rematch, and Attorney General Jack Conway also planned to seek the Democratic nomination. Bunning raised only $375,000 in the first quarter of 2009.