FRANKFORT — This fall's race for Kentucky agriculture commissioner, to borrow a line from an old Johnny Cash song, is getting "hotter than a pepper sprout."
In a recent complaint filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, the state Republican Party charged that Democratic nominee Jean-Marie Lawson Spann and her father, Sam Lawson, have violated campaign finance law.
The complaint contends they used her farm radio show and their corporate funds to illegally promote her campaign.
Lawson and Spann deny the accusation. He is president of Lawson Marketing, and she is vice president.
"We are confident we have complied with all laws, and after KREF looks into the matter, they will say the same," Spann said in a statement.
She accused Republican opponent Ryan Quarles of launching "a superficial political attack" to "distract voters from his lack of qualifications."
She claimed he lacks agribusiness experience, is a lawyer with no clients and doesn't think a woman can do the job.
Not true, said Quarles, a state representative from Georgetown. "I don't know why she is saying such things when she knows they are false."
Spann and Quarles are battling to replace Republican James Comer as the state's farm chief. Comer did not seek re-election; instead he ran for governor, narrowly losing a bid in May for the GOP nomination.
The race for agriculture commissioner, to be decided in the Nov. 3 general election, is in a statistical dead heat, according to the latest Bluegrass Poll.
The poll, conducted late last month, showed Quarles holding a slight lead over Spann, 34 percent to 31 percent. It also showed that 29 percent of likely voters were undecided.
Both candidates say they will have adequate funding to finish their campaigns.
The latest campaign finance reports filed with the state this month showed Quarles with about $200,000 in receipts and Spann with about $143,000.
Quarles had spent about $42,000 and Spann about $200,000. Quarles had about $159,000 on hand, compared with Spann's $111,000.
The race started to heat up in late August, when Quarles claimed Spann's father, who often accompanies her on the campaign trail, texted answers to her during a forum for the candidates.
Spann and Lawson denied the accusation.
Quarles' campaign showed photos of Sam Lawson texting on a phone and of his daughter looking at a phone during a candidate forum.
Lawson dismissed the charge as "the silly season" and said he often texts his wife, Beverly Lawson, about their daughter's campaign appearances.
Quarles said Lawson's texting during debates has stopped since the media reported his accusation.
Spann responded by saying her father has never been sued by farmers, an apparent reference to Quarles' father, Roger Quarles, being sued as a board member of the Burley Tobacco Cooperative.
Ryan Quarles said the lawsuit was directed at the board regarding federal tobacco buyouts and wasn't directed solely at his father.
Spann and Quarles said they wouldn't give state jobs to their fathers if elected.
Spann has used Quarles' accusation as a basis of her claim that Quarles doesn't think a woman can do the job of agriculture commissioner. She acknowledged during a recent interview, however, that she hasn't heard Quarles make such a statement.
Quarles said the accusation against him is "totally, absolutely false. I would never ever say anything like that, and her campaign is coming up with that to try to find some way to discredit me."
He said two of his four campaign co-chairs are women.
No woman has ever been elected state agriculture commissioner.
Quarles said that the campaign complaint against the Lawsons was filed by the Republican Party and that he thinks it should be considered by the registry.
"Jean-Marie Lawson Spann and her dad have spent the summer blatantly disregarding Kentucky campaign finance laws and using their radio show to illegally promote her corporate-sponsored campaign," said Mike Biagi, the state GOP's executive director.
The eight-page complaint provides transcripts from episodes of the Jean-Marie Ag Show from July 13 through Sept. 21 that indicate Sam Lawson read recaps of his daughter's campaign activities from the previous week and reported support she has received in her campaign.
For example, the complaint states that, on the Aug. 3 show, Sam Lawson said attendees at a meet-and-greet in Graves County "all pledged their support for your campaign."
On the Aug. 31 show, Lawson said he and his daughter "headed to Lexington to speak to the United Mine Workers of America, who have endorsed your campaign."
The complaint stated that Lawson Marketing was incorporated in 2012 and that Kentucky law bans corporations from contributing to political campaigns.
Spann and her father said they have never used the show to tell anyone how to vote.
John Rogers, a Glasgow attorney who formerly was chairman of the election finance registry, said he thought the GOP complaint as political.
"If they had problems with the radio show, why did they wait a few weeks before the election to file a complaint?" he asked. "They also know that the registry can't deal with it until after the election."
Campaign finance reports show Rogers gave Spann's campaign $500 in March.
Biagi said he knows "the wheels of justice turn slowly," but "it's important that the voters of Kentucky know about Mrs. Lawson Spann's actions that should disqualify her from office."
Quarles also dismisses Spann's accusations that only she has agribusiness experience and that he is a lawyer with no clients.
Quarles said he has helped his father farm since he was a boy and put aside his law practice last year to run for agriculture commissioner.
Spann and Quarles agree on several issues, such as reducing federal regulations on farmers, the need to expand sales of Kentucky farm products and the promotion of industrial hemp.
Two major issues on which they disagree are medical marijuana and labeling of genetically modified foods.
Spann supports allowing physicians to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes, saying many ill Kentuckians would benefit.
Quarles said medical professionals should determine the benefits of marijuana, and "it should go through all the processes like any other drug."
He also said immediate implementation of medical marijuana could "cloud Kentucky's bold role in producing and processing industrial hemp."
On labeling of genetically modified foods, such as seedless watermelons, Quarles said any mandate for that should come from federal legislation.
"It should be a strenuous national process and not 50 different states doing 50 different things," he said.
Spann said labeling was needed so Kentucky consumers know what they are buying.