When Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway announced this week a series of debates and forums between himself and Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin, neither he nor Bevin mentioned that they've already faced off behind closed doors.
Conway, the Democratic nominee for governor, and Bevin participated this month in a debate at a retreat for the coal industry in Bristol, Va., which the media were not notified about or permitted to attend.
Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, confirmed to the Herald-Leader that he moderated the event between Bevin and Conway in front of 100 to 120 representatives of the coal industry and other energy businesses.
The debate was part of a golf and fly-fishing retreat at The Olde Farm golf club, featuring speakers such as 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush and political analyst Larry Sabato.
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Neither campaign alerted the media to their candidate's participation in the event, which was attended by coal industry leaders including Lexington's Joe Craft, the head of Alliance Resource Partners.
Bissett disagreed with the characterization of the event as a debate, saying he "would consider it more of a discussion than a debate."
Bissett said he posed questions to each candidate, allowing them to rebut each other, and took questions from the audience.
While the future of the coal industry was the main topic, Bissett said the candidates also discussed Kentucky's pension problems and laws regarding union membership and the prevailing wage.
Bissett described the event as "professional and polite and informative," telling the Herald-Leader it allowed the candidates to "get a better understanding of the industry, but also for people of influence from within our industry to get to know them."
Bissett said he did not have any concerns about the perception of secrecy created by holding a debate at a retreat that was off-limits to the media, noting that the future of coal has been a central part of Kentucky's political debate in each of the past several major elections.
The meeting was less of a closed-door debate, Bissett said, "as much as a free exchange of what these two gentlemen believe."
"I think both of them are very concerned with the current state of our industry and what it does to our economy in Kentucky," Bissett said.
Conway and Bevin were largely in agreement as they spoke about the importance of the coal industry to the future economic well-being of Kentucky, but Bissett said the similarities ended there.
"I think there's some common ground between these two candidates, maybe more than I expected to hear, but also some distinct differ ences," Bissett said.
Bevin campaign manager Ben Hartman said in an email Wednesday that "the event was not ours, and controlling the publicity of it was not our decision."
"As often as we are able we will accept invitations to share Matt's Blueprint for a Better Kentucky," Hartman said. "This particular event included a number of Kentucky voters, and Matt appreciated the opportunity to speak with them about his plans to increase jobs and economic opportunity in Kentucky."
The event appeared to be a departure for Bevin, who continues to keep the media apprised of his campaign schedule, just as he did in the primary election.
"We have already accepted a number of public debates, and will continue to accept every opportunity to debate Jack Conway on the issues," Hartman said. "Additionally, we will continue to publicize Matt's schedule as often as we are able, something that Jack Conway avoids at all costs."
This week, for example, Bevin's campaign alerted media to a number of events he plans to attend, including a Thursday meeting of the Bowling Green Tea Party that is open to the press.
Conway and his staff have been less transparent about the movements of Conway or his running mate, state Rep. Sannie Overly. They have followed the strategy of 2014 U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, notifying local media in advance about appearances and then informing the rest of the state media after the event.
During the primary season, Conway declined to appear at forums where the four Republican candidates debated, telling the Herald-Leader in February that while he looked forward to debating the GOP nominee, he didn't want to get trapped in a turkey shoot.
"What I'm not going to do is show up and get myself in a one-versus-four debate where I'm getting ganged up on by four different candidates for governor and I get one-fifth of the time," Conway said. "That doesn't behoove our campaign. I don't think it behooves the groups that are sponsoring it. I don't think it behooves the people of Kentucky."
Campaign spokesman Daniel Kemp said in an email Wednesday that "we received an invitation from the Kentucky Coal Association to attend a meeting and speak about the issues important to Kentucky's coal communities, and we gladly accepted."
"Jack has a strong record as attorney general of standing up for Kentucky's coal economy, and welcomes the opportunity to have a conversation about protecting coal jobs and making certain coal is an important part of our state's energy future," Kemp said, noting the list of six public debates and forums Conway and Overly have committed to attend before the Nov. 3 election.
The candidates' first joint appearance in public is scheduled June 19 during a statewide gathering of county judge-executives and magistrates at the Galt House in Louisville.