The three candidates hoping to replace Kathy Stein in the state's 13th Senate District kept their elbows in Sunday, sticking to the issues instead of attacks that have framed the race in recent days.
Democrat Reggie Thomas and independent Richard Moloney, a former Democrat, varied little on the issues put before them at Operation Turnout's candidate forum at Greater Liberty Baptist Church. Only Republican Michael Johnson, a former Democrat, broke sharply from the field, especially on charter schools and "stand your ground" laws.
Thomas and Moloney have been trading barbs in the days leading up to the Dec. 10 special election to replace Stein, who was appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear to a Fayette Circuit Court judgeship in October.
The most recent exchange came after Thomas' camp accused Moloney, a Democrat until about six weeks ago, of being a Republican, a potentially dangerous label in a district that leans left.
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Moloney contended Thomas' campaign made the accusation in a mailer while neglecting to note the 34 years Moloney said he was a Democrat, or that Moloney served as Beshear's housing, buildings and construction commissioner for three years.
On Sunday, moderator Patrice Muhammad sought clarity on the matter as she noted that all three men have been Democrats and asked them to "please explain your current party affiliation or non-affiliation and which party you intend to caucus with if elected."
Thomas, who enjoys the backing of Beshear, was the first to respond, telling the audience of more than 50 that he was "glad to go first because I am a Democrat," emphasizing his status as the Democratic candidate in what seemed to be a decidedly Democratic crowd.
Said Johnson: "When I go to the Senate every year, they don't see me as a Republican or Democrat. They just see Big Mike."
Moloney, a seven-term member of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council, promised to caucus as an independent, telling the crowd, "the only people who will be my boss will be the people who elected me."
On the issues of restoring felons' voting rights, there was little daylight between Moloney and Thomas, both supporting Rep. Jesse Crenshaw's legislation that would allow felons to vote after serving their time except in certain circumstances.
While Johnson came out in favor of charter schools and defended the "stand your ground" law, a hot-button and controversial issue since the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida last year, Moloney and Thomas said the law needed to go or be changed, with Moloney going as far as to describe the Martin shooting as "murder."
Moloney added that he supported the law as it pertains to home protection but said it should end outside the home.
Despite the intensity the race has developed in its closing days, all three candidates largely avoided attacks on one another, answering the moderator's questions in turn, adhering to the forum's ground rules that they not engage one another.
Muhammad also asked the candidates about their fundraising and who had contributed to their campaigns. She noted that, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, Thomas leads the field with about $82,100, Moloney has raised $52,355 and Johnson has raised about $2,540.
Moloney was quick to note that among his donors was former University of Kentucky men's basketball coach Joe B. Hall.
Thomas, who decried the emphasis on money in modern campaigns, pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that gutted federal campaign finance reform laws.
"Unfortunately, fundraising has become the name of the game," he said.
The candidates are scheduled to meet again at 7 p.m. Monday for a forum at Woodland Christian Church.