TOMPKINSVILLE — Agriculture Commissioner James Comer stood before about 1,000 supporters on the Monroe County Courthouse lawn Tuesday morning and declared that he is running for governor of Kentucky in 2015.
Many Kentuckians knew that long before Tuesday, but Teena Steen might have been the first.
Steen, whom Comer found on the crowded rope line after his announcement, was the commissioner's kindergarten teacher.
"I knew back then," Steen said. "You can tell, and I could tell."
Steen said Comer's speech brought tears to her eyes, but when it was over, she and a couple of Comer's other teachers said they hope he wins by a landslide.
"We're going to win," Comer told her. "It won't be by a landslide, but we're going to win."
The community pride espoused by Steen was rampant through this tiny town at what appeared to be the largest political campaign kick-off in recent Kentucky history.
"It's the best governor's-race launch I've ever seen in Kentucky since 1991," said Riggs Lewis, a Comer supporter who once ran a Louisville council campaign for Republican opponent Hal Heiner. "Everybody from everywhere came to celebrate, and now we go to work."
Comer is the third candidate to enter the race for governor. He will compete against Heiner, a businessman and former Louisville Metro councilman, in the Republican primary. Attorney General Jack Conway, also of Louisville, is the only Democrat to enter the race so far.
Standing beside running mate Chris McDaniel, a state senator from Latonia who warned to "never underestimate a Kentucky farmer," Comer told the crowd he was anticipating a "14-month marathon."
"Today, Sept. 9, history will show that Kentuckians from all corners of this state gathered on the court lawn here in Tompkinsville to begin the journey to move Kentucky forward and make Kentucky competitive again," Comer said.
He promised to be "humble enough to listen, tough enough to lead and strong enough to achieve."
The hometown crowd waved American flags and wildly applauded Comer, who climbed the stage to the John Mellencamp song Small Town as a drone whirred overhead, taping footage for a future campaign ad.
"I'm very proud of where I'm from, who my friends are, where I went to school and the lessons I learned," Comer said.
State House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, who emceed the event, said, "For weeks and for months, this day has been discussed."
Coal magnate Joe Craft and his fiancée, Kelly Knight, introduced Comer. Craft described Comer as a "young leader who will connect with and care about every Kentuckian, giving them a shot at being the best in life that they can be."
"Kentucky's future can be bright with the right leader," Craft said. "Jamie is the right man at the right place at the right time for all Kentuckians."
As Comer's event concluded, Heiner welcomed Comer and McDaniel to the race on his Facebook page, saying that "for the next nine months, we will continue to discuss our plan for creating good-paying jobs and transforming Kentucky into an economic powerhouse."
"We believe that someone with experienced leadership from outside Frankfort is best suited to fix the structural problems with state government — not members of the Frankfort political establishment," Heiner wrote.
In a wide-ranging news conference after the event, Comer weighed in on the state's expansion of Medicaid eligibility and the possibility of raising the minimum wage, among other issues.
On Medicaid, Comer left open the option of reversing Gov. Steve Beshear's decision to expand eligibility for the program under the federal health care law. The federal government has paid for the entire cost of the expansion so far, but that support will dial back in coming years.
"Everything's on the table to try to save taxpayer money," Comer said.
As of July 31, more than 521,000 Kentuckians had enrolled in coverage through Kynect.com, the health insurance exchange created by Beshear under the federal law. The majority of those enrolled received Medicaid, the government-financed insurance program for the poor and disabled.
The percentage of adults without health insurance in Kentucky has dropped from 20.4 percent last year to less than 12 percent, the second-largest decline among the states since the federal law took effect in January, according to a Gallup poll released last month.
"We're going to have to see what happens with the new Congress," Comer said. "If Congress doesn't repeal the Affordable Care Act, then it's the law of the land, and we're going to have to do the best we can to make it work."
On raising the minimum wage, Comer said he is "compassionate for low-wage working middle-class people," but he opposes raising the minimum wage.
"Nobody can live on $7.50 an hour," he said, referring to the minimum hourly wage of $7.25, but he said the best way to raise wages is to create more jobs and examine state tax incentives to make sure that businesses getting tax breaks are paying employees a living wage.
"We have to look at everything, but right now it's my ideology that the market sets the wage rate for the state," he said.
As excited as Comer and his team were to finally kick off a campaign that was informally announced Aug. 2 at Fancy Farm, the people who came to see him Tuesday were equally enthused.
"We're looking for a good, strong leader, and we're excited that he has stepped up to the plate and decided to run," said Lori Beth Stephens of Glasgow.
Comer said he wanted those who traveled from outside the area to see what a strong grass-roots organization he has developed since winning statewide office in 2011.
"Those weren't staged actors," Comer said. "Those were real people. People who've known me my whole life."
Comer said he doesn't anticipate a race that pits rural voters against urban voters, because economically challenged people in both areas feel "forgotten" by Frankfort.
"Inner-city Louisville's not much different than Tompkinsville other than the population," Comer said. "We have a lot of people below the poverty level. We have a lot of people struggling to make ends meet."
Comer never mentioned Heiner at his news conference, but he did take a couple of indirect digs that seemed to refer to the $4.2 million Heiner has put in his campaign out of his own pocket.
"We're tickled about how we're coming out of the gate," Comer said. "You saw the momentum and excitement out there, and that's something that all the money in the world can't buy."