Calipari cancels Beshear fund-raiser at home

Decision follows outrage expressed online

jbrammer@herald-leader.comJuly 22, 2010 

In May 2009, new UK John Calipari, right, joked with Gov. Steve Beshear, center, and Agriculture Secretary Richie Farmer about the 2011 governor's race.

JACK BRAMMER | STAFF

FRANKFORT — Within hours after the media began reporting Wednesday that University of Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari would host a $1,000-a-person fund-raiser at his Lexington home for Gov. Steve Beshear, Calipari changed his mind.

"I hope by now you all realize that I don't take my position as your basketball coach lightly," Calipari said on his Facebook page about 9:40 p.m. "I know how politically charged this state is and I recognize that the Big Blue Nation comes from both sides of the aisle. I appreciate every elected official who supports the University of Kentucky, regardless of party.

"That said, the governor's event planned for August 11 — along with other charitable functions scheduled for our home — have been canceled after realizing the full plate of both professional and pressing, personal matters I will be tending to in the next couple of months. Ellen and I do hope this discussion will lead you to exercise your right to vote in the upcoming elections."

Beshear spokesman Matt Osborne e-mailed a statement from Beshear that the governor and his wife "have always believed that family comes first. With that said, we fully understand the decision by our good friends — the Caliparis — to focus on family issues rather than politics and charitable endeavors. We appreciate their support of our efforts and offer our continued support for them and all they do on behalf of the Big Blue Nation."

Soon after the Herald-Leader posted the story on Kentucky.com Wednesday, commenters began expressing outrage that Calipari was taking a partisan political stance.

The Caliparis had planned to host a cocktail reception fund-raiser from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 11 for Beshear and his running mate, Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson.

Osborne said in a statement before the cancellation that Beshear and Abramson "are pleased to have the support of Coach and Mrs. Calipari, along with the support of thousands of others across Kentucky."

Osborne said invitations were sent to "friends of the Caliparis." He declined to say how many invitations went out.

The July 19 invitation letter from Calipari, who could not be reached for comment, called Beshear "a strong and informed leader."

But, beyond that, the letter didn't read like a strong partisan testimonial for Beshear. Calipari wrote that he supports "the people in office because they were put there by their constituents."

"I learned early on in my first year as Kentucky head coach that the Big Blue Nation is united in its love of the Wildcats. Politics, I quickly understood, does not have such a consensus," Calipari wrote.

Calipari might have been referring to a political move he made in September at UK that was not welcomed by all of his fans.

At the time, Calipari said on his Facebook page that he intended to send a Kentucky jersey to President Barack Obama, causing some to respond with comments laced with profanity that led to the post being deleted.

The coach offered an explanation on Facebook, saying there was "NOTHING political about it — it was simply a way of spreading the word of Big Blue Nation into the White House."

Calipari offered an apology if he offended anyone.

Dave Scott, who co-wrote the book Bounce Back: Overcoming Setbacks to Succeed in Business and in Life with Calipari, said last March of the brouhaha: "Some things you don't touch, and politics is probably one of them."

Calipari isn't the only Kentucky coach to have been stung by brushes with politics. In 1996, then-UK coach Rick Pitino irritated some fans by appearing onstage with President Bill Clinton during his re-election campaign.

Pitino later said U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Republican from Kentucky, wrote in a letter to him that he was no longer a UK basketball fan because Pitino introduced Clinton, a Democrat, at an election eve campaign rally at UK.

Pitino said his distaste for politics was intensified by Bunning's letter.

In the invitation letter to the Beshear fund-raiser, Calipari said Beshear and his wife, Jane, "have welcomed our family to the commonwealth with open arms and this opportunity will be one for Ellen and me to both thank Governor Beshear and the first lady and also to continue the robust discussion he has led on economic development — despite these difficult times."

The Democratic governor held a reception for Calipari at the Governor's Mansion in May 2009.

During the reception, reporters asked about Calipari's prediction at his first news conference as UK coach that state Agriculture Commissioner and UK basketball fan favorite Richie Farmer would be governor someday.

Beshear laughed and said Farmer would have to wait until he was finished. Farmer, a Republican, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor next year.

Calipari's invitation letter said "the vulnerability of incumbents during economic uncertainty is no secret and ... the governor needs to gird for a competitive and costly campaign ahead."

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