State Senate race draws lots of attention

jbrammer@herald-leader.comAugust 22, 2009 

  • Robin Webb

    Party: Democrat

    Residence: Grayson

    Born: Sept. 6, 1960

    Occupation: Attorney

    Education: Law degree from Chase College of Law and bachelor's degree from Morehead State University

    Family: Two children.

    Public office: Member of state House since 1999

    Campaign Web site:

    Jack Ditty

    Party: Republican

    Residence: Greenup County

    Born: April 29, 1949

    Occupation: Dermatologist

    Education: Bachelor's degree from University of Kentucky, medical degree from University of Louisville.

    Family: Wife, Juanita; six children

    Public office: None

    Campaign Web site:

MOUNT OLIVET — Volunteer Doug Wright, 74, distributed crayons to each child in the old school's third-floor library as he told the visiting politician why Robertson County needs a new schoolhouse.

There are no fire sprinklers. There is no handicap access. Students haul buckets of water from the bathroom when they learn about pottery, ceramics and water colors in art class.

Wright's remarks underscore the statewide interest in Tuesday's special election between Democrat Robin Webb and Republican Jack Ditty for a vacant state Senate seat in northeastern Kentucky.

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and his party's leaders are hopeful the election in Robertson, Bracken, Mason, Lewis, Carter and Greenup counties will chip away at Republican control of the Senate, where the GOP now holds a 20-16 majority under the leadership of President David Williams.

They view Williams as the biggest obstacle to passage of expanded gambling, which Beshear has pushed to help the state's horse industry — and perhaps fund dozens of new school buildings.

Wright told Webb that the Deming School, which has about 350 students in kindergarten through grade 12, was built in 1927. It's the only school in Robertson County.

The county needs about $21 million for a new school building, but local officials say it doesn't have the tax base to pay for the project.

"It's bad," said Wright, smiling but not laughing when he mentioned the Deming School stairwell that shakes when kids use it.

"I tried to help," said Webb, referring to her vote in June for a bill that would have funded new schools with revenue from slot machines at racetracks.

The bill called for issuing bonds to pay for $1.3 billion in school and university construction projects with more than $190 million a year the state was projected to collect from taxes on slot machines.

The Democratic-controlled House approved the bill but it died in the Senate budget committee, which was led at the time by Republican Charlie Borders of Grayson, whom Webb and Ditty are now vying to replace.

Borders left the General Assembly in July to take a $150,000-a-year state appointment from Beshear to the Public Service Commission.

In the mad dash to control Borders' seat, numerous political heavyweights such as Beshear and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Louisville have visited the district to campaign for their party's candidates. Six former Democratic governors are to be in Raceland Saturday afternoon on behalf of Webb, a state representative since 1999.

Although the monthlong campaign has featured several attack ads from supporters of both candidates on a variety of issues, the issue of expanded gambling looms large in voters' minds.

Wright, who graduated from Deming High in 1954, and arts teacher Linda Ishmael say they are not major proponents of expanded gambling, but other states have it and they need a new school building.

Webb, in an interview, said she voted for slots at tracks but is "not for geographical expansion of gaming.

"It's not going to come to my district," she said. "However, these are venues where gambling is going on now and the bill had funding to help addicted gamblers."

Webb said she's against full-blown casinos and opposed the state lottery.

Ditty, a dermatologist, said while campaigning at the recent St. Augustine Church Festival in Augusta, that he opposes any expanded gambling and would not vote for slots at tracks.

The state should use its revenues more wisely to fix dilapidated schools like Deming, he said.

Webb is "being sponsored by gambling interests," Ditty said, noting campaign contributions to her from horse owners and the independent political committee formed by leaders in the horse industry that has run a TV ad critical of Ditty.

Webb "would not represent the people of this district," he said. "She would represent gambling interests. She's already sold her soul to gambling interests."

The Family Foundation, a conservative group in Lexington that says expanded gambling would create more societal ills, has also popped up in the Senate race.

The group's executive director, Kent Ostrander, said Webb's campaign has used The Family Foundation's name in various ads to convey an endorsement.

"We are an issue organization only and have never endorsed any candidate or party," he said.

The Family Foundation has held recent "informational meetings" in churches in Maysville, Greenup, Grayson and Garrison about expanded gambling. Ditty attended the Maysville meeting.

"The churches invited us, and the meetings had nothing to do with politics," Ostrander said. "We have held similar meetings across the state."

Former Gov. Julian Carroll, who now is a Democratic state senator, wrote a letter to area pastors expressing his concern about the meeting at Maysville's Seddon United Methodist Church.

Carroll said he shares most of the views expressed by The Family Foundation, but does "not support their Republican Party-directed effort to use the churches to spread the word for political purposes to elect the Republican candidate."

In a letter to the editor in The Ledger Independent in Maysville, the Rev. Charles Shoemaker of Seddon Church said the meeting was educational and not political.

"Perhaps some will want the church to be relegated to the fringes of society, but I have an obligation to speak the truth," Shoemaker said. "The truth is, casino gambling will corrupt good government" and "will eventually harm our children and destroy our community."

He added that Ditty, Webb and Borders were invited to the meeting as private citizens.

Despite the heated campaign, which has drawn statewide attention, area officials are predicting low turnout.

Only 10 to 15 percent of registered voters in the district will go to the polls, officials predict. The largely rural district has 45,473 registered Democrats, 26,924 Republicans and 3,993 others.

Guy E. Gibbons Jr., a retired construction worker and former Flatwoods city council member, is running a limited campaign in the race as an independent. On his campaign Web site, Gibbons said he is against casino gambling, but "we must let the people decide the issue."

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