This is the first of three profiles of Kentucky's Republican gubernatorial candidates.
LOUISVILLE — Phil Moffett wants to be governor because he doesn't trust the government.
Moffett entered civic life in 1998 when he co-founded a nonprofit group that helps poor children in Jefferson County pay private school tuition. Moffett, who attended a private school himself, views public schools as "failing."
The more he thought about it, Moffett tells campaign audiences, the less he liked any aspect of government: Crippling taxes. Cumbersome regulations. Politicians lining their own pockets and public-sector unions protecting bumbling bureaucrats.
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He concluded that it all needs to go, and he needs to be the guy sweeping the broom.
"The government has just tramped all over us. I could no longer sit on the couch and watch Fox News and scream at the TV anymore. I had to get up and do something about it," Moffett told potential campaign donors at a Lexington cocktail party last month.
Moffett, 48, co-owner of a wireless technology company, is one of three candidates in the May 17 Republican gubernatorial primary. The winner will challenge Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear this fall.
Moffett says he's the Tea Party movement candidate. He wants to replace the state income tax with a sales tax on everything, including groceries and medicine that currently are exempt. He says he would privatize or close much of the state government. He calls for Kentucky to "nullify" the authority of some federal agencies inside the state, such as the Food and Drug Administration.
"This is about liberty, folks. We've been driven to the edge of the world," Moffett declared at a Tea Party rally in Frankfort last September. "We have to stand up as a state. We have to fight back against the federal government."
Although Moffett is collecting local Tea Party endorsements, so far he doesn't appear to share the popularity of last year's Tea Party favorite, Rand Paul, who handily won a U.S. Senate seat. In polls and fund-raising, Moffett lags far behind his chief rival, state Senate President David Williams.
Williams' lead frustrates Moffett and his campaign manager, conservative political operative David Adams, who worked for the Paul campaign and introduced Moffett to Paul supporters. Adams' salary — nearly $50,000 since August — has consumed roughly half of what Moffett's campaign has spent, according to campaign-finance records.
Moffett says Kentuckians share his outrage over a state government that faces billions of dollars in unfunded public pension liability and debt for legislators' pet projects. They should realize that Williams led the Senate under the last three governors, Moffett said.
"He is a big part of the problem that we're in now," Moffett said in a recent interview. "He signed off on every single one of the budgets we've passed since 2001."
Moffett supporters also note the conundrum.
They prefer Moffett because he's a businessman, not a politician. His Louisville company, CCS Partners, helps businesses manage their employees' wireless devices. Moffett seldom even gave campaign donations until last year, when he declared his own candidacy. Then he contributed $3,600 to Paul and $1,200 to the Kentucky Republican Party.
But inside connections can sway elections. Williams' three decades in Frankfort give him clout with interested donors who write big checks and committed voters who decide sparsely attended primaries. Public buildings bear Williams' name.
"I like the fact that (Moffett) is a business owner, he's a capitalist, and he wants to do things that expand business opportunities in Kentucky," said Sarah Cornette, a Lexington retiree who is active in the Tea Party. Cornette and her husband hosted a March fund-raiser for Moffett.
"The career politicians often times are in it for themselves rather than wanting to help the people," Cornette said. "But I think it's going to be very difficult to beat David Williams because of his name recognition. Williams has been around such a long time."
Moffett says he's accustomed to long odds.
He had an inauspicious start. His father was a bank robber now serving life in a Florida prison. His mother was a young high school dropout who worked in factories to support her children. Days after Moffett was born in New Jersey, she left his father and took the family to Louisville, her hometown.
Moffett never knew his father, but he doesn't expect sympathy.
"I think I dodged a bullet," Moffett, a cherubic man with preternaturally white hair, said in a recent interview. "I could have grown up with a career criminal for a role model."
Moffett said education lifted part of his family out of poverty. He and his sister graduated from high school, went to college and consequently enjoy middle-class lives, he said. His two brothers dropped out of school and since have struggled.
As a teenager in the 1970s, Moffett feared he would be lost in the "chaotic" Jefferson County public schools. He wanted more structure. So he approached a Catholic boys school, St. Francis DeSales High School, and arranged to perform menial work on campus in exchange for his tuition.
Moffett remains grateful today. He serves on DeSales' fund-raising foundation. He also drew on this experience in 1998 when he and several others founded School Choice Scholarships, which has helped more than 3,600 Jefferson County children attend private schools. School Choice raised nearly $4 million in donations from 2004 to 2008, according to its most recently available tax returns.
"He feels very strongly about the opportunities that were afforded to him because of his access to a private education," said Diane Cowne, School Choice's executive director.
'Apples to oranges'
Moffett says public schools are unruly and fail to educate. For years he has promoted charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently managed by parents and teachers. Kentucky legislators won't authorize charter schools because, he said, they are scared to confront their school districts and teachers unions, both of which control votes back home.
The best he can do for now is help other youths to escape the "failing public school system," as he did.
"Let me tell you, the kids who come into our program, we test them at the beginning and end of each year in reading and math," Moffett told a Marshall County crowd last August.
"On average, the kid who comes out of public school and into our program, 40 percent of them can read at grade level," he said. "After three years in the school that they choose, 96 percent of them can read at grade level. When you look at math, you have similar returns."
Moffett "is comparing apples to oranges," said Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association.
Private schools have more money — some of them charge higher tuition than universities — and the right to select which students they want from families committed to education, McKim said. Public schools legally are required to teach whoever walks in the door using whatever funds are available.
"We certainly have schools with challenges, but we don't agree they're 'failed,' " McKim said. "No Child Left Behind made a lot of schools look bad because if any one subgroup of students has a bad testing year — like special education or English as a second language — then the entire school is poorly graded. But we don't turn any of those groups away."
After high school, Moffett restlessly roamed the 1980s.
He studied business at the University of Kentucky, quit, but returned four years later for a bachelor's degree. He moved to Atlanta to run a gas station. He moved back to Louisville to process checks at a bank. He tried being a stockbroker at Hilliard Lyons but "hated the business."
Eventually, he found his niche as a computer salesman. In 1997, he married one of his co-workers at a computer company, Christi Kay Millea. Today they have four children.
Moffett was a successful salesman, although on two occasions he ended up in litigation with employers over money he said they owed him.
In a 1993 deposition in one of those lawsuits, a former boss complained about Moffett's behavior and said he "would yell at me, you know. He yelled at some of our inventory people. He would yell at basically anybody who was around him. ... People actually came to me afraid to work with him."
In his own deposition in that case, Moffett denied that his colleagues were scared of him. Speaking more recently, he said his career was shaped by the tumultuous nature of the computer industry in the 1990s. Computers shrank, prices fell and companies failed.
"That's the tech sector for you," Moffett said. "The industry was new and there were a lot of people in business who shouldn't have been in business. Sometimes they folded out from under you."
Moffett and a former colleague, William Harris, in 2002 started their own company, CCS Partners. The company employs 18 full-time and part-time workers, Moffett said.
On the campaign trail, Moffett frequently criticizes government interference in the marketplace. He favors elimination of agencies, such as the state Economic Development Cabinet, that offer taxpayer money to companies.
"We are free, intelligent, prosperous people that can handle our own business," Moffett said in a February speech to the American Family Association of Kentucky. "We don't need the federal government showing us how to do it."
However, he acknowledges that CCS Partners uses a $75,000 revolving line of credit that it received in 2009 from the U.S. Small Business Administration. He sees no contradiction.
"I don't have a problem with the SBA, per se," he said. "But at the state level, we don't have the money to pay our own bills, much less extend any to businesses."
Moffett takes strong stands on some campaign issues.
He wants Kentucky to legalize the growth and industrial production of hemp, which he says could create thousands of jobs. Hemp comes from one type of the plant that also produces marijuana, although it does not have sufficient levels of the chemical that creates marijuana's buzz.
He wants to scrap campaign-finance limits, merit-system protections for state workers and the existing tax code. Elected positions are temporary and shouldn't come with public pensions, he said.
Kentucky should reject federal money when possible — reducing Medicaid, for instance — and send it back to Washington, he said. At present, Kentucky collects far more federal money than it contributes in federal taxes. The flip side to wanting more freedom is accepting more responsibility, he said.
"We can't continue to be a welfare state," Moffett said in a recent interview. "There are a lot of people who, if they can sign up for a government check, they'll sign up for a government check and won't try to work. We have way too much of that in our state."
As governor, Moffett said, he would interview the 138 state legislators to determine their level of support for his agenda and post his findings online so voters can respond.
Lacking the money of a political heavyweight, Moffett seems determined to get the public's attention with bold ideas, said University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss.
"Moffett makes this race interesting, anyway" Voss said. "He's using a strategy that you don't often see for a challenger, for a dark horse candidate. He takes unusual policy positions rather than spending all of his time attacking David Williams, the guy in the lead."