On Whitney Westerfield's first day in the Kentucky Senate, in 2013, his colleagues made him chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It might have seemed an odd choice. Westerfield was a baby-faced senator with just six years of experience as a lawyer. The judiciary committee considers piles of complex bills each winter concerning every facet of the legal system. The prior chairman left the Senate for a circuit judgeship.
But Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, went on to win plaudits. Negotiating between House Democrats and his own Senate Republican caucus, he helped craft some of the legislature's biggest bipartisan compromises of recent years — bills to address heroin addiction and trafficking; to allow medical use of hemp oil; to expand civil protective orders to dating partners; and to reform the juvenile justice system to keep children out of jail.
"He's been an absolute workhorse," said Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown. "I've never seen a freshman legislator achieve as much in as little time as Whitney Westerfield has in the state Senate."
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Westerfield, now 34 and several years into his legislative career, is the Republican nominee for Kentucky attorney general on Nov. 3.
He campaigns as a social conservative. He pledges, if elected, to "challenge President Obama's job-killing policies" and work to end abortion, oppose gun control and promote religious liberties. When a federal judge jailed Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis this summer for refusing to issue marriage licenses following the U.S. Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling, Westerfield posted on Twitter: "Jailed for her religious beliefs. Unbelievable."
However, Westerfield also likes to point out the times he's set aside his ideology. For example, he convinced skeptical Republican colleagues to allow a local option for needle exchanges in this year's heroin law, telling them it would prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases among addicts. After studying data on cost and recidivism, he argued for treatment, rather than incarceration, for juvenile and non-violent drug offenders.
Westerfield said it helps that he's a friend of Democratic House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley, a fellow Hopkinsville lawyer. The men have commuted to Frankfort together, discussing along the way the legislation before their committees. On some measures, such as the heroin law, they have lobbied their respective chambers to swallow compromises necessary for a bill's survival.
"I work very hard to build trust and to find common ground with people on both sides in order to get things done," Westerfield said recently. "It's easy for everyone to fall back into their partisan positions. But then you don't accomplish anything. You haven't done anyone any good."
At home in Hopkinsville, Westerfield is employed by a small law firm that handles a bit of everything — personal injury, criminal defense and disability benefits.
His Democratic opponent, Andy Beshear, criticizes Westerfield for two past items on his résumé, starting with his work as a lawyer for payday lenders Action Cash and Easy Money Exchange and a debt collection company called Pennyrile Collection Inc.
"What my opponent doesn't tell you is, he's primarily a debt collector," Beshear said on KET's Kentucky Tonight last Monday. "You know, I was named the Consumer Lawyer of the Year in 2013 for this entire country by Lawyer Monthly. Debt collection is something we absolutely have to better regulate. We have to make sure that those who have the least aren't being taken advantage of."
On that show, Westerfield countered that his representation of those financial companies was legitimate. He described them as "hometown people that gave a starving lawyer the opportunity to do some private practice work."
"My clients haven't been exposed to the attorney general's office, and they're not being investigated. And I haven't actively represented either of them for a couple of years now," Westerfield said.
Democrats also mock Westerfield for a negative work evaluation he received in August 2007 as an assistant prosecutor under Christian Commonwealth's Attorney Lynn Pryor. Eight months after Westerfield joined the office, Pryor complimented his knowledge of the law and trial procedure but instructed him to improve his punctuality and preparation and to act less arrogantly toward others, according to his personnel file.
Pryor cited examples of Westerfield's "personal interests" taking too much of his professional time, such as "teeth cleaning vs. jury trial" and "pedicure vs. arraignments." An accompanying handwritten note stated: "Whitney was disturbed (crying) that he couldn't believe that he is being portrayed this way. Lynn gave advice to help him as a young lawyer to work as a team player and to not be on the defensive."
Pryor, a Democrat, last week said she regrets that the work evaluation has become a major issue in this year's attorney general's race. It spawned a television commercial by a Democratic group featuring a bathrobe-clad actor — supposedly Westerfield — getting a pedicure at a spa with cucumber slices covering his eyes.
Over the five years following the rebuke, Westerfield matured and became "a really good prosecutor," Pryor said. He quit the prosecutor's office in 2012 to run for the Senate.
"Mr. Westerfield was a brand-new attorney, so it was a learning experience for him, as well as for me. There were some bumps along the way. But in the end, he learned from it, he gained important experience and he ended up one of the most prosecution-oriented people I've ever worked with," Pryor said.
Pryor said the Democratic group's ad is factually incorrect when it states that "Whitney even got caught skipping court to get a pedicure." On the occasion mentioned in the work evaluation, she said, Westerfield ran "a little late" for a Wednesday afternoon arraignment docket. But another prosecutor stepped in for a few minutes, and no cases were affected.
"He has never missed a court appearance, not to my knowledge, not while he worked for me," Pryor said.
Fuming about the Democrats' bathrobe ad, Westerfield also said its assertions are untrue. "If I was skipping trials, believe me, I would have been punished for that," Westerfield said. "I can't say I never was late, 10 or 15 minutes late for anything, running behind schedule. But I've never missed court a day in my life. This was all petty stuff they hope to make into something scandalous from my first six months or year on the job."
The senator noted his endorsement in September by the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police. The police group crossed party lines by endorsing Democrat Jack Conway for governor and the Republican Westerfield for attorney general.
"Whitney's experience working with law enforcement as a prosecutor and as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee made it an easy choice," said Clark County Sheriff Berl Perdue, who is president of the Kentucky FOP. "We really appreciated Whitney's outreach to law enforcement, regardless of political affiliation. We're sure he will be a strong advocate for law enforcement around the commonwealth."