FRANKFORT — Moments into a conversation with House Speaker Greg Stumbo in his Capitol Annex office, Stumbo's cell phone exploded with the familiar tune of the University of Kentucky fight song.
It was Attorney General Jack Conway calling. Stumbo quieted the phone.
According to Stumbo, Conway and other Democrats considering a run for governor in 2015 should all be put on hold.
The speaker, a fixture in Kentucky Democratic politics almost since the time he won speaker of the house in the 1964 Kentucky Youth Assembly as a seventh-grader from Prestonsburg, might best be described as a rascal, eager to say or do whatever it takes to strengthen his party. Even when that means firing warning shots at some of the Kentucky Democratic Party's more well-known members.
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A devilishly charming smile and flashy, loud neckties distract from — or call attention to — the scars of having fought and survived some of Kentucky's fiercest political battles and scandals of his own making. Through it all, Stumbo, 62, is the one still standing.
Throwing his head back in laughter, Stumbo was clearly pleased to hear himself described as a politician with a Teflon coating.
"Well, I don't know about that," he said. "Maybe my hide's just thicker than most. They've toughened me up through the years."
Perhaps that's a favor Stumbo is trying to pass on to the short-list of Democrats considering announcing a run for governor this spring, throwing some harsh words as he broke down their chances of winning, while not ruling out a bid of his own.
"I'm not saying yes, but I'm not saying no," Stumbo said of whether he will consider a run for governor. "The time for me to make that decision is not now, and I don't think it's time for anybody in our party to make that decision."
Democrats, Stumbo said, should be focused on nothing other than keeping the state House in Democratic hands and helping Alison Lundergan Grimes win the U.S. Senate race.
Rattling off his long history in state Democratic politics, Stumbo revealed just how personally he takes the idea of losing control of the House to Republicans, who are bullish about their prospects despite almost a century as the minority party.
"I don't want to be the person who sits in this seat when we lose the majority of this chamber," Stumbo said. "We're not going to let that happen. ... because if we lose this House there ain't going to be no Democratic governor. Period."
Beyond that, Stumbo either isn't sure or isn't saying.
"My job right now is to make sure we get a majority of our Democrats elected," he said. "Now, when that's over, then we'll see what we see."
When to run?
What he doesn't want to see is other Democrats starting gubernatorial bids while he's working to preserve the majority, a request that is likely to go unheeded by the majority of potential candidates.
Conway, state Auditor Adam Edelen and, to a lesser degree, former state Auditor Crit Luallen have all indicated that if they go ahead with gubernatorial bids of their own, they are likely to launch campaigns this year and, in some cases, this spring.
After Luallen said recently there is "no rush" for candidates to get in the race despite the entrance of Republican Hal Heiner, Stumbo said he doesn't agree with Luallen "on a lot of things, but we do agree on this."
"They don't need to be doing that," Stumbo said of Democrats pondering an early entrance. "People will not like that. The party will not like that."
But does Edelen, who sees a long campaign as the only way possible to increase his name identification, have the luxury of waiting for the November elections to conclude?
"Do you have the luxury of getting out there and letting everybody criticize you for abandoning your party?" Stumbo replied. "I think people will see that as self-serving and hold it against them. If I were him I would not do that."
When told of Stumbo's remarks, Edelen was brief: "I've hunted with Speaker Stumbo for years and know him to be a straight shooter."
Stumbo had a lot of nice things to say about Edelen, who he said is gifted but young. The speaker teases the auditor, who also made his first political run at the Kentucky Youth Assembly, running and winning the mock legislature's race for governor as a kid.
"I always tell people he ain't made it yet," Stumbo jokes about Edelen not yet following in his footsteps in winning their respective offices as kids and adults.
Stumbo is also complimentary of Conway, crediting both him and Gov. Steve Beshear for doing what they thought was right in their recent decisions to not appeal and appeal, respectively, a federal judge's decision requiring Kentucky to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed elsewhere.
But he warns that the attorney general will face the same headwinds as previous candidates from Louisville, adding that Conway "doesn't run well out in the state most of the time."
Conway responded that "while I have the utmost respect for Speaker Stumbo and consider him a friend, I think my record of being elected twice statewide, including leading the Democratic ticket in vote percentage in the 2007 General Election, speaks for itself."
"We are all Kentuckians, regardless of our home counties, and I think folks want us focused on people, not politics," Conway said. "They want us working every day to improve education, jobs, and public safety. I have a record of putting people first and I'm proud of that."
Conway also pushed back on the idea that no Democrat should get in the race early, saying "it's important for Democrats to have a strong candidate for governor who has enough time to raise the funds needed to win the race, and I think a strong gubernatorial ticket is an asset to Alison Lundergan Grimes' campaign."
Can Luallen win?
Of the candidates mentioned during the interview, Stumbo saved his harshest assessment for Luallen, the former two-term state auditor who lives in Frankfort.
"Crit Luallen can't win that race," Stumbo said. "There's no way in the world Crit Luallen's going to win that race."
To many on both sides of the aisle, Luallen, while not well-known statewide, would be a formidable candidate if she decides to run. But to Stumbo, Luallen is a "professional bureaucrat," and Kentucky has "never elected anybody who's been a Frankfort insider."
He, Edelen, Conway, Heiner and even Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, Stumbo said, are not Frankfort insiders.
"They don't have to wear that tag," he said, explaining that they're elected to work in Frankfort, but they return to their homes outside the capital. "Being a Frankfort insider is not very popular."
Luallen responded by email, saying she has "a proven record of success" in statewide elections.
If "being an insider means helping to create jobs, improve education and clean up waste and abuse of taxpayers' dollars, then that's a label I proudly wear because that is my record," she said. "I think voters are looking for candidates with a proven record of integrity and accomplishment."
Although frank in his assessments of others considering a run for governor, Stumbo appeared pensive when asked if he would really want the job.
"I've had a great, great political career; if it ended today or if it ended tomorrow, I could truthfully look back and say I don't have any regrets," he said. "So it's not something that I have to do. It's something that I may want to do. I don't know the answer to that yet. I want to see what happens. I like being speaker if you want to know the truth about it."