Gov. Steve Beshear (D)
Elected: 2007, term expires Jan. 2012, 1st term.
Born: Sept. 21, 1944, Dawson Springs .
Education: U. of KY, B.A., 1966, U. of KY, J.D., 1968.
Family: Married (Jane); 2 children.
Military career: U.S. Army Reserves, 1969-75.
Elected office: KY Gen. Assembly, 1974-79, KY atty. gen., 1980-84, Lt. gov., 1984-88.
Professional Career: Attorney, 1968-71, 1989-2006.
Kentucky’s governor is Democrat Steve Beshear, elected in November 2007. The governor wields extraordinary authority in Kentucky, including broad appointment powers. Until the passage of a constitutional amendment in 2000, the Legislature met in regular session for only 60 days in even-numbered years. Beginning in 2001, it began meeting for 30 days in odd-numbered years as well. But the governor retains the power to shift around line items in the state budget and to call special sessions. Beshear defeated Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, whose administration was mired in a political hiring scandal.
|Steve Beshear (D)||619,552||(59%)|
|Ernie Fletcher (R)||435,773||(41%)|
|Steve Beshear (D)||142,838||(41%)|
|Bruce Lunsford (D)||74,578||(21%)|
|Steve Henry (D)||60,893||(18%)|
|Jody Richards (D)||45,433||(13%)|
|Gatewood Galbraith (D)||20,704||(6%)|
The son and grandson of Baptist ministers, Beshear grew up in Dawson Springs, a small western Kentucky town with a population of less than 3,000. He has strong ties to the city—his father was also a funeral director and served as mayor. Valedictorian of his high school class, Beshear was able to attend the University of Kentucky thanks to a second mortgage on the family’s home. He was elected student body president in his junior year and went on to earn a law degree from the school, graduating with honors. In a moot court national competition in New York City, Beshear impressed the judges with a skillful performance, and he was invited to interview with two international law firms. Offered a job by both, Beshear accepted a position with the Wall Street firm White & Case, and during that time, he joined an Army Reserve unit in the Bronx, serving as an intelligence analyst. But after three years in the Big Apple, Beshear was ready to return home to the Bluegrass State. He and his wife, Jane, whom he had met in college, settled in Lexington, where he took a job with a smaller firm. In 1973, he launched his first campaign for state representative to succeed a retiring member. Winning easily, Beshear went on to serve three terms in Frankfort, where he gained a reputation for supporting proposals to stimulate job growth and attract businesses to the state. But he was also in the minority among his peers for his support of abortion rights and his opposition to measures to stop school integration.
In 1979, Beshear made his first successful bid for statewide office, winning a race for attorney general at age 34. During his term, he took several stands that were unpopular in the conservative state. In 1982, he declared that a state law restricting abortion was unconstitutional. Then he announced that his interpretation of a U.S. Supreme Court decision meant that copies of the Ten Commandments had to be removed from Kentucky classrooms. His decision prompted thousands of calls to the governor’s office and letters to newspapers. A billboard that said “Keep The 10 Commandments, Remove Steve Beshear” appeared in Lexington. In 1983, then-Lt. Gov. Martha Layne Collins captured the Democratic nomination for governor and selected Beshear as her running mate. The two defeated the Republican challenger, Jim Bunning (now a U.S. senator), by 10 points and more than 100,000 votes, making Collins the first and only female governor in the commonwealth’s history. As the state’s second-highest official, Beshear was responsible for overseeing the Kentucky Tomorrow Commission, which the Louisville Courier-Journal described as “an expansive, think-tank-style study of the state’s direction” that brought together business, academic, and civic leaders.
In 1987, Beshear sought his party’s nomination for governor. But the primary drew two other high-profile choices: KFC millionaire and former Gov. John Brown and wealthy bookstore businessman Wallace Wilkinson. Dwarfed by their ability to self-fund their campaigns, Beshear began attacking Brown, the better known of the two, for his high-stakes gambling. The strategy backfired, however, and the attacks ended up benefiting Wilkinson, who won the primary with 35% of the vote. Brown came in second with 25%, and Beshear finished a distant third with 18%. In 1996, Beshear challenged Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, who was seeking a third term. McConnell had more than a 2-to-1 fundraising advantage and won handily, 55%-43%. Following his second loss, Beshear left public life and went back to private law practice in Lexington, working with business and community banking interests. While Democrats had once been the majority party in the state, by the mid-1990s, the congressional delegation and state offices were shifting toward Republicans, helped by the aggressive efforts of McConnell.
But in 2006, a different wave of change had begun, both across the Bluegrass State and across the nation. In the Democratic takeover of Congress, John Yarmuth had defeated GOP Rep. Anne Northup, a perennial Democratic target, in the state’s 3rd District. In the 2nd District, GOP Rep. Ron Lewis also faced a credible Democratic challenger in conservative state Rep. Mike Weaver, though Lewis eventually won by a 10-point margin. In the race for the Governor’s Mansion, always held in odd-numbered years, the time seemed ripe for Democrats to defeat Fletcher. His administration was tainted by a 15-month investigation into political patronage, and he faced possible indictment. A former Fletcher supporter and state Cabinet official turned over to investigators copies of e-mails and documents that included a list of civil service workers to be fired or transferred. The investigation also revealed the existence of a dozen officials called the “Disciples,” who were tasked with replacing Democrats in state government. In May 2006, a grand jury indicted Fletcher on misdemeanor charges of criminal conspiracy, official misconduct, and political discrimination. But in August 2006, before the case went to trial, a judge ruled that Fletcher had immunity from prosecution for official acts and could not be tried unless he was out of office or impeached, which was unlikely even though Democrats controlled the Legislature. The case was settled, and Fletcher was cleared of the charges. But politically, he was still in deep trouble. His approval ratings had sunk below 30%, and a majority of voters supported his resignation. Republicans tried to use the scandal as evidence that Fletcher was unelectable, but he beat back primary challenges from Northup and his former finance chairman, Billy Harper, to win by 13 points.
In seeking the Democratic nomination to take on Fletcher, Beshear called for expanded gambling in the state, supporting a constitutional amendment that would bring casinos to Kentucky. Citing the huge sums Kentuckians were already spending at casinos across the border in Illinois, Indiana, and West Virginia, Beshear argued that legalized gambling could provide money for education reform and expanded health care. He won the May 2007 primary relatively easily, 41%-21%, beating hospital executive Bruce Lunsford and narrowly avoiding a runoff. In the five months leading up to the general election, Fletcher condemned Beshear’s gambling proposal in an attempt to rally social conservatives to his side. He also emphasized Beshear’s past support of abortion rights and his position on displaying the Ten Commandments in schools. But he was shadowed by the ethics controversy, and Beshear won, 59%-41%.
As governor, Beshear pressed to put his casino proposal before the voters, but the Legislature was slow to move. He also made waves among lawmakers for vetoing their $3.8 billion, two-year highway-improvement plan. Senate President David Williams, a Republican, said that the bill would fund needed road projects and bridges throughout the state and that Beshear’s veto was unconstitutional because it was executed the day after the last legal day for issuing vetoes in the legislative session. Beshear argued that the Legislature’s bill limited the Transportation Department’s authority. In May 2008, Williams filed a lawsuit against Beshear, alleging that his veto was invalid and challenging the governor’s alternative infrastructure plan. Beshear hired his former law firm, Stites & Harbison, to represent him.