In May 1998, seven Democrats battled for Central Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District seat, including two state senators, two future mayors of Lexington, a former aide to President Bill Clinton and the Madison County attorney.
That was then. Now, Republicans dominate Kentucky politics. Only two Lexington Democrats filed to run in their party’s May 17 6th District primary: the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, a longtime social-justice lobbyist at the Kentucky General Assembly, and Geoff Young, a retired state energy official who failed in bids for state representative, congressman and governor.
Kemper and Young want the seat held by U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, a two-term incumbent who crushed his 2014 Democratic challenger by 20 points. Both say they can beat Barr, in part by hammering on his cozy relationship with the big banks that pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into his campaigns while he works to weaken the lending and investment rules in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.
“Mr. Barr has not really done anything that benefits the ordinary citizens of the 6th District,” Kemper said last week. “And in fact, he puts them in dire peril because he wants to roll back some of the financial restrictions in Dodd-Frank, which was an effort to really protect consumers with rules, to keep borrowers and lenders from abusing.”
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Said Young in a separate interview: “Andy Barr is basically worthless. He’s used his position on the House Financial Services Committee to rake in huge contributions from the banks and do favors for them. Otherwise, he’s just tinkering around the edges in Washington. He’s just taking up space.”
A spokesman for Barr dismissed those criticisms, accusing the Democrats of defending “a 2,300-page disaster which has imposed an avalanche of red tape and compliance costs, forced nearly 1,500 community banks to go out of business, made ‘too big to fail’ Wall Street firms even bigger, and resulted in less competition and fewer choices for consumers.”
The congressman “remains committed to helping Kentuckians by reversing the overreaches and unnecessary burdens of this law,” said Barr spokesman Rick VanMeter.
As of April 27, Kemper had raised $130,863 in campaign donations and had $71,589 on hand. Young had raised $12,497 and had $5,149 on hand. Dwarfing his challengers’ campaign fundraising, Barr had taken in $1.5 million — nearly half of it from political action committees — and kept $1.29 million on hand. That doesn’t count $178,375 separately collected this election cycle by Barr’s leadership PAC, from which he donates money to other Republican politicians.
While they agree about Barr, the Democrats disagree on primary campaign tactics. Kemper seldom says anything about Young. Young mentions her frequently, with a variety of insults. “My cowardly, unqualified, female opponent” is one of his favorites. Young says Kemper is “the chosen candidate of the Democratic Party establishment” that has surrendered most of the state’s political posts, including the Governor’s Mansion and nearly all of the congressional delegation.
“The party establishment is dumber than a bucket of rocks,” Young says in one radio ad now airing around Central Kentucky. “This year, I’m smart and tough enough to beat Andy Barr, but she simply can’t do it. Vote for a winner on primary election day.”
Kemper shrugs off Young’s attacks.
“It’s my practice to not make personally disparaging comments about anyone willing to offer themselves for public service,” she said.
Creating a choice
Kemper, 74, is pastor at New Union Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation on Old Frankfort Pike in Woodford County.
From 1991 until she retired in 2009, Kemper was executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches. In that role, she lobbied the state legislature on issues on which her group’s 11 denominations unanimously agreed — against the death penalty and casino gambling, in favor of tax reform and universal access to health care.
Kemper advocated for gun control and memorably declared that “Jesus would puke” in 1998 as Kentucky passed a law to allow preachers to pack pistols in church. Although she’s had recreational shooters in her own family, Kemper said she favors “common sense” gun-safety measures, such as hiring more federal agents to watchdog gun purchases and keep firearms out of the hands of people who legally should not have access to them.
Plus, there needs to be a national push for safer gun storage, she said.
Almost two toddlers a week for the last month or more have been involved in a gun-related incident, whether it was shooting their mothers or killing themselves.
“Almost two toddlers a week for the last month or more have been involved in a gun-related incident, whether it was shooting their mothers or killing themselves,” Kemper said. “There are things we can do — just like we put seat belts in cars — to reduce the number of deadly accidents involving these weapons.”
Kemper wants Congress to spend less on the military — “fewer airplanes that don’t fly, fewer submarines that roll over and aren’t functional” — and spend more to educate, train and employ Americans at home. As part of that agenda, the government should make college more affordable, she said.
She also wants greater attention paid to the nation’s infrastructure. A recent road trip from Lexington to Maine saddened her. The interstate highway system, once the pride of the nation, has fallen into such disrepair that potholes kept threatening to wreck her car along the way, she said.
Kemper said she decided to file for the House seat in January because Central Kentucky otherwise wouldn’t have a choice between Barr and “someone that represented a progressive Democratic position, the values of the Democratic Party that say we care about the poor, about the safety net, that says we’ll protect Social Security and Medicare from privatization.”
“I think I can much more authentically represent the 6th Congressional District than Congressman Barr has,” Kemper said. “I know what it’s like to be a single mother raising two daughters, I know what it’s like to be a grandmother. As an activist, I know what it’s like to be a bridge-builder in the community and to try to heal wounds among different groups.”
Young, 59, came of age politically in the anti-war movement of the 1970s.
“I have opposed every use of U.S. military force from Vietnam to the present day because every use of force has been unjust, unnecessary, pernicious, harmful to our national security and harmful to our standing in the world,” Young said last week.
I have opposed every use of U.S. military force from Vietnam to the present day because every use of force has been unjust, unnecessary, pernicious, harmful to our national security and harmful to our standing in the world.
American politicians who authorize military strikes, like President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are “war criminals,” he said. When Vice President Dick Cheney visited Lexington for a political fundraiser in 2008, Young and a dozen other war protesters tried to issue him a “citizens indictment and arrest warrant” for Cheny’s role in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Secret Service kept the group a block away.
To Young, the top priority for Congress should be dismantling the military-industrial complex and ignoring the neo-conservative “hawks” who constantly demand that America rush into other countries. Young said he would move to cut military and intelligence spending in half, freeing up $400 billion a year to invest in energy efficiency, renewable energy and infrastructure repair, all of which would create good jobs.
For all his talk of peace, Young often finds himself warring with others. Acting as his own lawyer, he sued the Kentucky Democratic Party for what he calls “election fraud,” citing the party’s public support last spring of Jack Conway in the gubernatorial primary. Young was running for governor as a Democrat against Conway and wanted party bosses to keep out of the primary contest. His lawsuit was dismissed, but he’s appealing.
Young also sued the Lexington Division of Police and Good Foods Co-Op over his two arrests in 2014 for trespassing at the Lexington organic grocery. (A jury convicted him and imposed $750 in fines.) The background of Young’s long-running feud with the Good Foods Co-Op board filled his 34-page, single-spaced lawsuit, but it boiled down to a vehement disagreement, on his part, over a proposed bylaw amendment. That suit was likewise dismissed, though he periodically continues to file motions in the case.
In his demand for monetary damages, Young said negative publicity about the arrests hurt his chances in the Democratic congressional primary in 2014, in which rival Elisabeth Jensen defeated him. As a congressman, Barr has collected millions of dollars in campaign donations, Young noted in his lawsuit.
“He has been able to rake in this quantity of loot without having to do anything in particular except get on the phone to a lot of potential corporate and PAC donors and meet with them and/or their lobbyists in places such as Cancun, Mexico,” Young wrote, again acting as his own attorney. “I submit that if I were to be elected 6th District congressperson in November 2014, I would have similar opportunities.”
Nancy Jo Kemper
Born: May 6, 1942
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English and history, Transylvania University; master’s of divinity in theology, Yale University
Occupation: Pastor, New Union Christian Church
Family: Divorced, two daughters
Geoffrey Marc Young
Born: June 25, 1956
Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; master’s degree in mechanical engineering, University of Massachusetts at Amherst; master’s degree in agricultural economics, University of Kentucky
Occupation: Retired administrator, Kentucky Department for Energy Development and Independence
Family: Wife Claire Carpenter