LOUISVILLE — The top popped off the pepper mill, and black peppercorns spilled all over Bobbie Holsclaw's chicken salad.
The Jefferson County clerk, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor, scraped off as many peppercorns as she could, dug into her salad and turned her attention to the speakers at the Women In Networking meeting at a Louisville restaurant in April.
But the pepper was too strong. Holsclaw's eyes began to water and she began to cough.
When it was time for her to speak to the local businesswomen's club, Holsclaw confessed she had just lost a battle with a pepper mill. The confession drew laughs, and in one sentence Holsclaw became less a politician and more a person to the crowd.
She's banking on making a similar personal connection with voters across the state in her underdog, under-funded race for governor.
Holsclaw told the 30 women she was a fiscal conservative who put people over politics. Before she became a public servant, she was a stay-at-home mom to four boys, she said. She said she was running for governor in part to be a role model to her grandchildren — seven of the nine are girls. (A 10th grandchild is expected in June).
More women should be at the table when important policies are crafted, she said.
"I think you belong at the table with me," Holsclaw told the women, who responded with loud applause.
Holsclaw is well-known and well-liked in Jefferson County. She is now in her fourth term as Jefferson County clerk, which oversees deeds, car titles, voting and other county business. Holsclaw got more votes in 2010 than any other Jefferson County official, a notable achievement in the heavily Democratic county.
Her peers in the Jefferson County courthouse give her high marks.
Tony Lindauer, the Jefferson County PVA, said Holsclaw's office is "very professionally run."
"She keeps the politics and the office separated more so than I've ever seen before," said Lindauer, a Democrat.
Holsclaw has made it easy for the clerk and the PVA offices to work together, making for better customer service, Lindauer said.
Despite her cross-party appeal, ease on the political stump and solid support in the state's most populated county, Holsclaw is still considered a long shot for the Republican nomination for governor.
Holsclaw and running mate Bill Vermillion Jr., a Navy veteran and teacher, lag in fund-raising and name recognition.
Senate President David Williams and his lieutenant governor pick, Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, have raised more than $1 million. Holsclaw and Vermillion have raised a little more than $20,000, according to the latest campaign finance reports.
In April, a Bluegrass Poll by The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV showed the Williams-Farmer ticket with nearly 50 percent of the Republican vote. Louisville businessman Phil Moffett and running mate Rep. Mike Harmon garnered about 14 percent with Holsclaw and Vermillion at about 12 percent.
Ted Jackson, a political consultant based in Jefferson County, said he has known Holsclaw since 1979, when she was a paid staffer for former Gov. Louie B. Nunn's unsuccessful second run for governor.
"There is not a more lovely person you'll ever meet," Jackson said. But without money, Holsclaw's chances of winning the May 17 primary are slim, Jackson said.
"It just makes it virtually impossible to win outside of Jefferson County," Jackson said. "You can't do it without money."
Still, Holsclaw remains adamant that she will have enough money to spread the word that she is the only candidate in the campaign with a proven record as a good manager.
"I've been a long shot before," Holsclaw said.
Holsclaw touts that she has given back $7 million to the Jefferson County taxpayers in her 12 years as clerk by returning money she doesn't use to the urban county government. She's been able to save money and still provide raises to her nearly 300 employees.
"What has Phil Moffett done?" Holsclaw said, noting Moffett has never held public office. Williams has been in office for more than 20 years, yet state government is mired in debt and the state has no rainy day funds, Holsclaw said.
Holsclaw wants the state to overhaul its tax code and move from income taxes to sales and other consumption-based taxes. Holsclaw said she wants to see fewer taxes for small businesses.
Seven out of 10 people in Kentucky work for a small business and "they are being taxed right out of business," Holsclaw said.
Holsclaw also believes Kentuckians should vote on whether to add casino-style slots at the state's racetracks, an issue that has dogged Kentucky for more than 20 years.
She is open to the idea of building a nuclear power plant to diversify the state's energy portfolio, although she is quick to note she also supports the state's coal industry.
She was first elected to public office in 1998, when she beat a well-known Democrat to replace her mentor, Rebecca Jackson, the former Jefferson County clerk. Jackson went on to become the Jefferson County judge-executive. Before winning in 1998, Holsclaw ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat against Democratic Sen. Tim Shaughnessy in 1996.
Politics was a second career for Holsclaw.
After she graduated from high school, she got married and was a full-time mom to her four boys. When her younger sons were in high school, Holsclaw became friends with a woman who was working for Nunn's campaign in 1979. (Nunn lost to Democrat John Y. Brown.)
Holsclaw became a paid staffer in the Nunn campaign, which led to a job in Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. She then took a job doing clerical work for the U.S. attorney for the Western District for several years before landing a job as a legislative scheduler for U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, who was then the Senate minority leader.
Holsclaw's Louisville campaign office is dotted with pictures of her time in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. There's a photo of Holsclaw meeting then-Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev outside Dole's Senate office. Another photo shows her at the top of the White House steps watching as President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan left the White House for the last time.
Holsclaw, has the demeanor and looks of television chef Paula Deen, bristles when her opponents say she lacks fundamental knowledge about state government.
"They say I don't have experience," Holsclaw said. "But I do have legislative experience. I know how to get legislation through."
On Joe Elliott's radio show on WGTK in Louisville in April, Holsclaw told Elliott she does not plan to get out of the race, despite rumors that her opponents had asked her to do so.
"I believe in my record," Holsclaw said. "I am the best candidate for the job. This is about choice. ... I am not getting out of this race."
Holsclaw has been married for 48 years to Edward Holsclaw, a retired trucking company owner whose former company had financial problems.
Bobbie Holsclaw said she files her income taxes separately from her husband and that his business is separate from her personal finances.
In 2001, CitiFinancial Mortgage Company filed a notice that it was going to foreclose on the Holsclaws' Louisville home, a lawsuit that Holsclaw said she was unaware of until she was contacted about it last week by the media. The lawsuit was settled in June 2002, and it appears no action was ever taken against the Holsclaws.
"This is the first I've heard of it," Holsclaw said.
Edward Holsclaw said he, too, had never seen the complaint.
"I think it must have been a mistake," he said.
He said he and his wife had refinanced their home and the mortgage was sold several times to different companies.
"I don't know if it had something to do with that," Ed Holsclaw said.
Lawyers for the mortgage company were not available for comment.
According to Jefferson Circuit Court records, Edward Holsclaw has been sued several times in relation to his trucking business. For example, in 2003 he was sued for failing to make payments on tractor-trailers he had bought for the company.
Ed Holsclaw, in an interview, said he fell behind on payments after a major client went bankrupt and owed him more than $100,000.
Holsclaw said he ultimately decided to sell all of his equipment, pay off his debts and get out of the business.
"The trucking business is a very tough business," he said.