Bates' ride from driver to gatekeeper

October 22, 2006 

Hunter Bates and wife Jennifer listened in April 2003 as Ernie Fletcher named Steve Pence as his new running mate, replacing Bates, who was ruled ineligible.

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

WASHINGTON - Sen. Mitch McConnell is famously close-lipped, but not with Gordon Hunter Bates.

Barbara Kucera, a University of Kentucky researcher, occasionally talks to Bates about millions of federal dollars McConnell is steering toward a project she shares with Louisville company eCavern.

But until a reporter told her, Kucera had no idea Bates is a lobbyist and eCavern is his client. Based on his inside reports, she said, "I thought he was on the senator's staff."

He once was. Bates, 38, started as McConnell's driver and ended as his chief of staff. Now a lobbyist, he is perceived as a gatekeeper to McConnell, who recently called Bates "one of the finest young men I've ever known." It's a relationship so strong that some compare it to blood.

Bates a decade ago was exactly the type of bright, clean-cut young man whom McConnell likes to have serve him in a variety of positions.

A native of Williamsburg in southeastern Kentucky, Bates attended Eastern Kentucky University before making the leap to Harvard Law School.

"Not many people from Williamsburg go on to Harvard, so that gets your attention. He's a top-notch young man, very smart," said Senior Judge Eugene Siler Jr. of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, for whom Bates spent a year clerking.

Bates went to Capitol Hill detailed as one of McConnell's "Men of the Wheel" -- the nickname the senator's drivers gave themselves.

From 1997 to 2002, he rose from being McConnell's legal counsel to chief of staff. He helped McConnell write speeches, newspaper columns and legislation. He served as counsel to the Senate Rules Committee while McConnell was chairman. Together, they blocked campaign-finance reform.

In 2002, as a reform bill finally passed over their protests, the senator declared in a Senate floor speech: "Hunter Bates ... has been a tower of strength on this issue."

Bates left the Senate that year to successfully manage McConnell's re-election campaign. Afterward, he decided to enter Kentucky politics for himself.

But try as he might, McConnell couldn't get his protŽgŽ into elected office.

In late 2002, Republicans in Northern Kentucky rebuffed McConnell's aggressive efforts to make Bates their man for a congressional seat. Instead they chose a local favorite, Geoff Davis.

In 2003, McConnell arranged for Bates to run for lieutenant governor under Rep. Ernie Fletcher, R-Ky., whom he persuaded to seek the Republican gubernatorial nomination. But Bates was forced to abandon the ticket when a court ruled him ineligible because he had lived in Virginia, not Kentucky, while working for McConnell.

After two rejections, Bates entered the world of lobbying and political fund-raising, asking politicians for public money by day, raising private money for them at night.

His friendship with McConnell is key -- he and his wife have given the senator $13,000 in recent years -- but he is branching out. He has given tens of thousands of dollars to other Republicans and nearly $25,000 to state and national Republican parties.

And he's getting noticed.

He hosts Republican fund-raisers across Kentucky. President Bush's 2004 campaign named him statewide grassroots chairman. He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in New York that year, one of two Kentuckians to sit on the platform committee.

Fletcher, his onetime running mate, gave Bates a seat on the Eastern Kentucky University board of regents. Fletcher appointed Bates' step-father -- Paul Steely, owner of a Ford auto dealership in Williamsburg -- as Kentucky's aviation commissioner, a $93,000-a-year job.

In March, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao -- who is McConnell's wife -- organized a two-day summit of government and business leaders to discuss private retirement accounts. Vice President Dick Cheney and members of Congress mixed with executives from major corporations such as Charles Schwab and Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Bates was invited to network as a delegate, though his expertise on the topic is unclear.

Bates tells people he might run for office again. His name is floated as a future candidate for governor or congressman.

But for the moment, he's doing well collecting lobbying fees -- several million dollars during his first three years.

He went from being an apartment-dwelling Senate staffer, paying off student loans, to flying weekly between one office in Louisville and another blocks from the White House. He owns a $370,000 home in Oldham County and a $1 million brick, four-story townhouse in Arlington, Va., right across the Potomac River from Washington.

As he told a business publication last year, "I'm thoroughly enjoying my court-ordered trip to the private sector."

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