Kentucky: Sixth District|
Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R)
Last Updated June 1, 1999
With its white picket fences, horse farms and Georgian brick house-filled small towns, the Bluegrass country almost plumb in the middle of Kentucky is the part of interior America longest settled by English speakers: Lexington was founded in 1775; the town of Hopewell was renamed Paris in 1789 out of gratitude for French help during our Revolution and in a salute to theirs (though the county name remained Bourbon even after Louis XVI was guillotined). Tobacco farming started here in the 1770s, horse racing in 1787, and the first whiskey distillery, in Bourbon County, was built in 1790. Tobacco, whiskey and race horses remained the staples of the Bluegrass economy for six generations until 1956, when IBM built its typewriter plant and headquarters in Lexington. IBM's arrival ''really was the beginning of Lexington's industrial revolution,'' as University of Kentucky historian Carl Cone put it. You imagine a Kentucky colonel sitting on the porch, dressed in a white suit and string tie sipping a mint julep, as IBM engineers in their dark suits and white shirts file into their offices. But capitalism, as Joseph Schumpeter wrote, is a process of creative destruction. The typewriter was eventually outclassed by the PC, and the IBM plant put on the block. Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Toyota, lured by generous subsidies, built a $2 billion assembly plant in Georgetown, a town with early 19th Century houses and lush countryside, just one county north of Lexington and west of Paris. Some of the most famous horse farms--Spendthrift, Calumet--went bankrupt or were sold; Toyota doubled the size of its plant. From IBM to Toyota, Lexington seems to be a focus of innovation and certainly of economic growth.
Lexington was the home base of the Whig Party's great leader Henry Clay, but in the 150 years since his death, the Bluegrass country has been mostly Democratic. Bush edged out Clinton here in 1992 (there was a strong Perot vote), but Clinton picked up the 6th in 1996. He bought more time on Lexington TV than in just about any other media market in America, and raised his percentages 2% to 8% in Lexington and Bluegrass counties; the last day of the campaign he came here and appeared with University of Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino. All of which was just enough to give him a 46%-45% victory over Bob Dole in the 6th and in Kentucky, despite the president's proposal that the FDA regulate tobacco as a drug.
The 6th Congressional District includes Lexington and the counties all around--a natural unit, unlike some other Kentucky districts. Lexington casts about one-third of the votes. It is closely divided between the parties in national and statewide elections and, in 1998, the congressional race as well.
The congressman from the 6th District is Ernie Fletcher, a Republican elected in a close race in 1998. Fletcher grew up in Mount Sterling, got an engineering degree from the University of Kentucky, was an Air Force pilot for five years, intercepting Soviet aircraft; then he went to medical school, practiced medicine, and was CEO of a company that managed medical practices. He did volunteer medical work in India and was a lay minister. In 1994 he was elected to the Kentucky House. In 1996 he won the Republican primary, by exactly four votes, and ran against Democratic Congressman Scott Baesler, a tobacco farmer and onetime University of Kentucky basketball star. With help from national Republicans, Fletcher raised and spent nearly as much as the incumbent and ran a spirited campaign. He lost 56%-44%, but kept his taste for campaigning. When Baesler announced he was running for the Senate in spring 1997, Fletcher decided to run for the House again, and this time had no serious primary competition.
Seven candidates entered the Democratic primary, which attracted 111,000 voters, compared to 25,000 in the Republican contest--a reminder of the district's ancestral allegiance. The best-known candidate was state Senator John ''Eck'' Rose, contender in the 1995 governor primary and president of the state Senate until his ouster by a Republican-Democrat coup in January 1997. Rose was described by backers as ''pro-business, pro-gun, pro-choice.'' But he startled voters by running ads featuring his young, very pregnant third wife, and he had competition from several candidates based in small counties. One, Bobby Russell, ran ads attacking Ken Starr; another, Jim Newberry, attacked the eventual winner, Ernesto Scorsone, for defending drug dealers. Scorsone, a criminal defense lawyer, had represented Lexington in the legislature since 1984; he was born in Sicily, the son of professors, and moved to Lexington as a teenager in 1965. Scorsone claimed credit for managing Governor Paul Patton's tough anti-crime bill and he supported the partial-birth abortion ban; but overall his record was liberal, including a vote against a ban on same-sex marriages and sponsorship of living wills. Scorsone took 41% of the vote in Lexington and overall led Rose 24%-21%; Lexington Vice Mayor Teresa Isaac had 16%, Russell 15%, Newberry 12% and former Al Gore aide Jonathan Miller 11%.
Kentucky politics often features races between two moderates; this one was a contest between a liberal criminal lawyer and a culturally conservative doctor. Fletcher called for a ''flatter, fairer'' tax, Scorsone for more progressiveness. On health care, which turned out to be a major issue, Scorsone said that Fletcher was carrying water for insurance companies; Fletcher said Scorsone played a key role in the health care reform that drove companies from the state and increased insurance premiums and favored trial lawyers, and said that as a physician he could better handle the issue. In TV ads in late September and October, Scorsone talked of the Patton crime bill, his safe schools law and his endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police. Fletcher ran one ad showing a woman whose breast cancer he had treated and another featuring a rape victim who said Scorsone represented her assailant and helped him avoid prison time. When Scorsone, who is single, ran an ad showing him with his sister and her children, Fletcher on the stump took to introducing his ''real wife.'' Fletcher backed the Republicans' managed care bill and said Scorsone was backing the trial lawyers' bill.
Fletcher spent about $1.3 million to Scorsone's $1 million: much more than was spent in the 6th in 1996. Given Scorsone's liberal record, this was long expected to be a Republican pickup. But Fletcher won by just 53%-46%; he won Lexington 50%-49% and carried all but two counties in the rest of the district. Despite the wide differences between the candidates, Fletcher interpreted his victory to moderation: ''Most of us ran on some very centrist themes--mainstream issues that will engender bipartisanship,'' such as education and Social Security reform. He was named a freshman representative to the party leadership and won seats on the Agriculture, Budget and Education committees. In early 1999, Baesler said he might run for his old seat; given the close margin of the 1998 race and the plethora of Democratic politicians in the Bluegrass, this could be a seriously contested district in 2000.
Highly Competitive. This marginal, but conservative district is never going to be a slam-dunk for either party. But Fletcher may have his hands full here in 2000 if Baesler decides to run for his old seat, which would make this race one of the most hotly contested (and potentially nasty) races in the country.
- Pop. 1990: 614,901
- 37% rural;
12.1% age 65+;
- 90.8% White,
0.2% Amer. Indian,
0.7% Hispanic origin;
56.7% married couple families;
27.8% married couple fams. w. children;
40.7% college educ.;
median household income: $25,364;
per capita income: $12,413;
median gross rent: $293;
median house value: $61,900.
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