FRANKFORT — Attorney General Jack Conway is piling up endorsements and campaign cash in an effort to keep other Democrats out of the 2015 gubernatorial fight, but at least one potential challenger says he won't be scared off.
Daniel Mongiardo, the former lieutenant governor and 2010 challenger to Conway for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, said in a wide-ranging interview with the Herald-Leader late last month that he is considering a run for the governor's mansion.
"If I get in this race, I will be a late entrant," Mongiardo said. "I know the roads to every county. And I've traveled them, and I've driven them personally. So I know how to get there, and I know who to call when I get there. And if they've committed to somebody else, so be it. I'll take those chances."
Like other Democrats who have been mentioned as possible candidates, Mongiardo is adamant that he would not announce a run before November "because we have to have a friend who's going to help us with these kinds of ideas in Washington."
In a follow-up email Tuesday, after Conway announced he had raised more than $750,000 in his first seven weeks as a candidate, Mongiardo accused Conway of hurting Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes' efforts to defeat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"Alison deserves better," Mongiardo said. "Our party deserves better. Should I decide to run for governor, it will not only be a campaign for our commonwealth's future, it will be a campaign for the soul of our Democratic Party."
Former State Auditor Crit Luallen, who considered her own bid for the governor's mansion, said it's "inappropriate" and "disingenuous" to attack Conway over fundraising because he has raised significant amounts for Grimes and House Democrats.
"I would challenge anyone who's criticizing Jack to detail how much they've done for those fall races," Luallen said.
Mongiardo, like a handful of other Democrats, said he saw an uptick in the number of supporters urging him to get in the race after State Auditor Adam Edelen announced last month that he will seek re-election rather than run for governor.
Mongiardo has a reputation as a tireless campaigner, but he concedes that most of his time on the road came before he got married and had two children (a third is on the way this year).
"That's going to be a tough decision," he said. "And it will come down to deciding whether I am willing to sacrifice the time away from my children versus my desire to make where they live the ultimate better place."
A medical doctor, Mongiardo is focusing his efforts on diagnosing sleep disorders, something he said causes far more health problems than most people realize.
He grows animated when discussing the ills facing Kentucky, calling for the next governor to be a "disruptor," someone who will offer outside-the-box solutions for problems that have plagued the state for decades.
"Let's shake it up, baby," he said with a laugh. "That's the type of leader Kentucky can have. Whether it's Daniel Mongiardo or Jack Conway or Adam Edelen or Greg Stumbo or whoever else may come out, that's the kind of leadership I think the people of Kentucky will get behind ... but they have to put those ideas out there."
Citing Kentucky's troubled pension system and an expected Medicaid budget shortfall, Mongiardo said that "the next governor is going to have the compilation of the can being kicked down the road for the past several years."
"At some point that can is going to come up against the wall, and I think it's going to be very, very soon," he said. "And whoever the next governor is is going to have to think differently."
Once infamously compared to Saddam Hussein's sons by former U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning (at the time, Mongiardo responded by noting that he was born in Hazard on the Fourth of July), Mongiardo lamented the negativity of modern politics, noting that it has left his wife undecided about whether he should even attend the annual Fancy Farm picnic in early August.
"Let me put it to you this way: She does not like the dirtiness of politics," he said. "I asked her if she would like to take the kids to a picnic later in the summer and she said 'the last time I was at that picnic, I got spit on.' It has become extremely nasty, and quite frankly, I don't like it either."
Others believe the world of Kentucky politics has evolved beyond Mongiardo, who was lieutenant governor from 2007 to 2011.
Former U.S. Rep. Mike Ward, who first met Mongiardo in 2003 but is backing Conway, said that "Daniel's time has passed."
"He's not in a position to win this race or he'd be running," Ward said. "That's what surprises me the most is that he just keeps talking to political reporters about running but never seems to talk to any people."
Mongiardo's first opponent in a governor's race would be the last man he faced in the 2010 U.S. Senate race. Four years ago, Conway bested Mongiardo by 4,173 votes out of 521,663 cast.
Conway, who declined to comment for this article, has moved swiftly since entering the race in early May to consolidate Democratic support. In addition to his $750,000 fundraising tally, the attorney general has unveiled key endorsements from Luallen, the Teamsters union, former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth.
When the endorsements were pointed out, Mongiardo responded that he has "always been the underdog."
"Nothing's been easy, but I do know one thing: hard work," he said. "And sometimes hard work can overcome a lot of shortfalls in other areas."
Still, Mongiardo acknowledged that Conway is a "very tough candidate."
"He understands how to prosecute an election and how to prosecute information so that the jury hears what he wants them to hear," Mongiardo said. "And isn't that what a good prosecuting attorney does?"
Sherman Brown, a Democratic consultant who worked for Gov. Steve Beshear's campaigns in 2007 and 2011, said Mongiardo has a "following" in rural parts of the state, and he has given Conway all he could handle in the past.
The question for Mongiardo, Brown said, is can he raise the resources to compete?
"Jack will have a huge fundraising headstart," Brown said.
Kim Geveden, a Democratic consultant and Mongiardo ally, said he thinks Mongiardo can raise $3 million for the Democratic primary, "and $3 million will beat Jack Conway's $5 million."
"Daniel's work ethic, populism, anti-establishment streak and his ability to connect with voters is far superior to any other candidate — Democrat or Republican — who is seriously considering this race," Geveden said. "Were he to announce in November, on day one, Daniel will have a larger, more energized statewide organization than Conway."
Despite the air of inevitability that is beginning to surround Conway, Mongiardo said he expects at least two or three more Democrats to get in the race.
As for whether he will be one of them, Mongiardo said: "I will certainly pray about it, and I will go where I am led."