BARBOURVILLE — One sings at unexpected times. One promises to be out of the U.S. Senate before his 103rd birthday. And another says he's been waterboarded.
This off-beat trio of Republican U.S. Senate candidates, who haven't had luck raising millions of dollars for their campaigns, struggled until a forum earlier this month in Knox County to even get on the same stage with the front-runners.
Gurley L. Martin, an 86-year-old World War II veteran, made such a fuss at being excluded from participating in a February candidates' forum in Paducah that he was escorted out by a sheriff's deputy.
John Stephenson still complains about the Louisville Tea Party and Bluegrass Institute forum on March 13. After Rand Paul, the Bowling Green eye surgeon, spent nearly an hour fielding questions from a panel, Stephenson was given three minutes to speak before organizers cut him off and took the microphone.
"All fixed — the whole thing was," Stephenson said during the April 5 GOP forum in Barbourville.
The other candidate, Jon J. Scribner, also has been left off several debate invitation lists.
So far, Paul and Secretary of State Trey Grayson have attracted most of the attention, as they've battled each other on the campaign trail and on the airwaves with commercials bought by each of their $2.4 million war chests.
Martin, Stephenson and Scribner — all retired — have been travelling around Kentucky on shoestring campaign budgets to speak at whatever Lincoln Day dinner will let them, shake hands with as many voters they can find and speak to whoever will listen before the May 18 primary.
John Stephenson's name might sound familiar to longtime Kentucky political observers. He was the last person to serve as Kentucky's superintendent of public instruction, which was an elected position before it was stripped of its powers by the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act and eliminated by a 1992 constitutional amendment.
Stephenson, 66, spent most of his time in public service as a Democrat, starting as an aide to the late congressman John B. Breckinridge in the 1970s and most recently running unsuccessfully for state Senate in his home area of Northern Kentucky in 2000. After garnering less than 26 percent of the vote against then-Republican Sen. Dick Roeding, Stephenson switched parties.
Stephenson, who is built like W.C. Fields, features his baritone voice frequently on the campaign trail. At any moment he can burst into song, sometimes I'd Rather Have Jesus, or My Old Kentucky Home and even the occasional Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.
Stephenson often blends Christian religion with his politics. His favorite campaign slogan is "we don't need to make a left turn, we don't need to make a right turn, we need to make a U-turn to God."
And he said leaders in Washington need to take better stock of federal programs and agencies, but unlike several of his GOP opponents, Stephenson said whole agencies should not automatically be shuttered.
"We need to have a sunset law on all government agencies where they need to show what they're doing," Stephenson said. "But government is not the enemy."
Stephenson is the only GOP candidate in the race who voiced support for the health care bill Congress passed last month. His wife, June, has struggled with health problems, he explained.
The Only Gurley
When a panel of journalists at the Barbourville forum asked Martin what sets him apart from the others, Martin cracked up the audience with his two-word reply: "Pretty visible."
He is, after all, the only 86-year-old candidate in the race. And, as he pointed out, he has a memorable name.
"I am the one and the only Gurley L. Martin in the United States of America. Search the Web," he invited the audience.
Still, to serve as proof, Martin posted on his campaign Web site a copy of his birth certificate as well as a three-page manifesto that he carried with him to the state Capitol on Nov. 16 to file his candidacy papers and $500 fee.
Martin has pledged to serve no more than two six-year terms, if elected.
He has framed his campaign platform around his frustration with the federal government, which he says has failed to stay within the guidelines of the U.S. Constitution.
Among the major offenders, he said, are the federal reserve, environmental regulators and liberals.
"The people in our national government hate the people of the United States of America ... Their actions prove their hate," he said, referring to the passage of the health care bill. He said he specifically took issue with Congress passing the bill "without the support of the American public."
Martin, who lives in Owensboro, served as a U.S. Army sergeant in World War II.
He said he disagreed with the policies that led to United States' military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan without Congress declaring war, and added that, as a result, the detention center for accused terrorists at Guantánamo Bay should be shut down.
"It shouldn't have been open in the first place," he said. "It's the result of an illegal, unconstitutional war."
From Arizona to Gray
After retiring from the Arizona Department of Corrections in 2006, Jon J. Scribner moved with his wife to Gray in Knox County, near where she grew up.
Scribner, like several of the GOP candidates, said he's upset with out-of-control spending and the process in Washington.
"The lobbyists are — I hate to say it but — a vermin, as far as I'm concerned," he said at the Barbourville forum. "They'll take everybody out to dinner and they'll do this and they'll do that to get your vote just to put pork into legislation. Pork needs to stop."
In response to a question about combating terrorism, he told the audience that he didn't consider it too harsh to subject prisoners to repeated dunking under water while strapped to a plank, known as waterboarding.
"I've been waterboarded," he said. "It's not torture. It scares the heck out of you, but it's not torture."
He said in an interview that, while living in Arizona, he asked one of his friends with military training to put him through that "to see what it was like."
Born in Kingston, N.Y., Scribner, 54, moved around frequently, eventually settling in Seattle as a young man. He worked there as a grocery store cashier, Sears clerk and in construction, where he said he once fell off the roof of a four-story building only to have his fall broken by a plumber's van.
He didn't have insurance.
Still, he said he strongly opposes the recently-passed health care bill that requires individuals to have coverage and provides new avenues to do so. "The government should not be forcing anyone to buy anything," he said.
That's one of the reasons he said he's making his first run for public office.
"I went into this knowing I'm not a known person; I'm not a politician," Scribner said. "The odds are I won't be elected, but at least I can travel around Kentucky and get my word heard."