Keeling: Dad's turn to right may bring Andy Beshear challenger from left

Herald-Leader ColumnistMarch 9, 2014 

— During the 2007 gubernatorial campaign, then-candidate Steve Beshear said he would veto any legislation prohibiting public universities from offering domestic partnership benefits to their employees.

In early June 2008, just a little more than six months into his first term, Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order restoring a ban on discrimination against state workers on the basis of their sexual orientation. Former Gov. Paul Patton initially instituted anti-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender state employees in 2003. But former Gov. Ernie Fletcher rescinded them in 2006.

Just this past November, Beshear accepted Adjutant General Edward Tonini's recommendation that Kentucky follow Defense Department policy by allowing spouses of gay Kentucky National Guard members to apply for federal marriage benefits.

But on Tuesday, after state Attorney General Jack Conway rightly decided his office would not spend any more of its resources fighting what will ultimately be a losing battle in defense of discrimination, Beshear said the state will hire private-sector lawyers to appeal U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II's recent ruling requiring Kentucky to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Beshear justified his decision by saying, "The people of this country need to know what the rules will be going forward. Kentucky should be a part of this process."

He got the first part right, but he was dead wrong on the second part.

We'll all know, sooner rather than later, what the rules are going forward because federal judges all over the country are rejecting state bans on same-sex marriage and/or recognition of such marriages. The dominos are falling so rapidly one or more of these cases will reach the U.S. Supreme Court in the not too distant future.

But it doesn't have to be Kentucky's case, particularly since other cases are a few months further along on the road to SCOTUS. And particularly since a state with a budget so strapped it denied financial aid to 86,000 qualified college students in 2013 has no business wasting $125 an hour on each lawyer it hires to defend the indefensible through months and/or years of appeals. Kentucky's ban on same-sex marriage and the recognition of same-sex marriages performed elsewhere ultimately will go down, no matter how many tax dollars Beshear wastes defending it.

So, how could a governor who got it right on domestic partnership benefits for public university employees, who got it right on discrimination against state employees on the basis of sexual orientation and who got it right on allowing spouses of gay National Guard members to apply for federal marriage benefits get it so wrong on appealing Judge Heyburn's ruling?

On Wednesday, the governor called a press conference on about 15 minutes' notice to try to dispel any notion his son Andy Beshear's campaign to be the state's next attorney general factored into his decision to appeal. Big mistake. Because the funny thing about such denials is they shine an even brighter spotlight on whatever is being denied.

Before the press conference, there were mutterings, particularly among disappointed progressive Democrats, about Beshear pursuing this appeal so federal judges somewhere along the line become the bad guys and Andy Beshear can avoid being attacked as the son of a governor who stood up for same-sex marriage. After the press conference, Andy Beshear became the main topic in the public conversation about the governor's decision. And those progressive Democrats may well be looking around for a viable candidate to run against him in the 2015 primary.

Sometimes, it really does pay to keep your mouth shut and let the mutterings go unanswered instead of issuing denials that turn the mutterings into widely accepted belief.

Conway took a principled stand that could hurt him politically if he chooses to run for governor in 2015. Maybe not in the Democratic primary since the two other most prominently mentioned possible candidates, state Auditor Adam Edelen and his predecessor Crit Luallen, both support same-sex marriage. But if Conway wins the nomination, it's a mortal lock Republicans will attack him for his refusal to appeal Heyburn's ruling.

Gov. Beshear, who had taken principled stands on this issue in the past, dodged the opportunity to do so again. And if those angry progressive Democrats come up with a candidate, Andy Beshear could pay the price for it.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at lkeeling at herald-leader.com.

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