LAWRENCEBURG — As the dinner crowd trickled into McDonald's on a recent April night, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo went to work wooing votes.
The Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate sat down with farmer Dwight Fannin to talk over foreign policy and advised Jasmin White about why her boyfriend couldn't seem to get on the Medicaid rolls.
Even though it was hard to hear over the drone of Triple Thick Shake preparation, the Hazard doctor explained to another couple why he was against President Barack Obama's health care bill — "it doesn't go far enough" — and had a spirited discussion with employee Bob Fletcher about helmets on the ATV trails Mongiardo champions.
By then it was about time for Mongiardo to leave for an event in Louisville, but the candidate kept getting asked to take pictures and then stopped to make a duck-hunting date with Harold Todd and his son, David. White and Fletcher raised their hands for yard signs.
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When Mongiardo finally walked out the door, one of his supporters, Bob Rorer, a World War II veteran and longtime Democrat who wears a gold donkey in his lapel, said the evening showed why Mongiardo is such a good campaigner.
"When I met him, it was just an instant thing," Rorer said. "He's sincere, and he talks about things I'm interested in."
Mongiardo is known as a tireless campaigner who has built a strong grass-roots organization around the state. But for all his energy, name recognition and strong grasp on complex policies, Mongiardo has never been pushed to the front by the Democratic Party power structure, said Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University.
"For whatever reason, there's a perceived weakness in Mongiardo," Lasley said. "If people had confidence in him, (Attorney General Jack) Conway wouldn't be in the race. But there's no doubt he excels in retail politics."
Party loyalty questioned
Some of the question marks that surround Mongiardo relate to his loyalty. Last fall, an audiotape was released anonymously on the Internet in which Mongiardo uses profanity and disparages his boss, Gov. Steve Beshear.
"Well, it wouldn't hurt me at all to see Steve go down," Mongiardo is heard saying. At one point, he describes his relationship with Beshear as like "being married to a whore."
When asked about the recording this week, Mongiardo replied: "The tapes were doctored. They were spliced. They had audio that was overlaid to hide things."
When asked to clarify what he said on the tape, Mongiardo said, "I don't recall."
Beshear has stood behind his endorsement of Mongiardo for the U.S. Senate race and wouldn't comment on the audiotape.
For his part, Mongiardo said he carries the outsider banner proudly, a Democrat who supports mountaintop-removal mining and opposes abortion and gay marriage.
"I've always stood outside the establishment," he said in a recent interview.
Mongiardo was born to Italian immigrants in Hazard. There was never any doubt he would be a doctor, he said, after his older brother Dominic died as a baby because of what Mongiardo believes was poor medical care.
Mongiardo attended Transylvania University and medical school at the University of Kentucky. He did a four-year residency at McGill University in Montreal before returning home to Hazard as an ear, nose and throat surgeon. As chief of staff at Hazard Appalachian Regional Medical Center, Mongiardo said, he became convinced that health care's problems had to be fixed in a more systematic way, which led him to politics.
In 2000, he beat incumbent Democratic state Sen. Glenn Freeman in a surprise victory in the primary, then won against his Republican opponent.
In Frankfort, Mongiardo became known for his expertise in health care, his outspokenness and his willingness to tangle with Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville. In 2002, his seat was redistricted more than 200 miles away from Hazard. He won re-election anyway and then won another election that returned him to Hazard.
Then, in 2004, Mongiardo decided to take on incumbent U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, who was seen as increasingly eccentric and out of touch. Bunning had to apologize for saying that Mongiardo looked like one of Saddam Hussein's sons, but the senator and other Republicans did not apologize for insinuating that Mongiardo was gay by calling him "limp-wristed" and a "switch hitter."
Bunning prevailed but by only one percentage point. Ironically, Mongiardo co-sponsored a ballot amendment to ban gay marriage in Kentucky, which Republicans say brought out more voters for their side in the 2004 race.
The closeness of the race, Mongiardo said, gave him the political capital to push a personal crusade that he was convinced would revolutionize health care in Kentucky and beyond by using technology to computerize health records, lower costs and reduce errors.
Senate Bill 2, which passed unanimously in 2005, created the Electronic Health Information Technology network. Mongiardo was initially on the board but said he was scheduled out by the Republican administration of Gov. Ernie Fletcher.
On the anonymously posted audiotape, Mongiardo blamed Beshear for taking the e-health initiative away from him and placing it with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. On Tuesday, the Beshear administration announced that the Kentucky Health Information Exchange would launch statewide at six pilot hospitals and one clinic, thanks to $10 million in federal funding.
Mongiardo also pushed adventure tourism, such as ATV trails in Eastern Kentucky, which Mongiardo says could revolutionize the region's struggling economy.
The U.S. Senate race also made him an attractive running mate for gubernatorial candidate Beshear, a Lexington lawyer who needed more support in rural areas. They won in 2007, but soon after, Mongiardo turned his eyes back to the U.S. Senate.
This time, Republicans would not be able to hold his bachelorhood against him; In 2008, he married 22-year-old Allison Patrick. They had their first child, Kathryn Allison, in December.
Health care and coal
Mongiardo has based this campaign on familiar issues: health care, the next generation of coal and adventure tourism. He says Kentucky could create jobs out of those issues, along with more early childhood education and a high speed rail system that could put Kentucky at the forefront of national transportation.
He opposed the federal health care bill, he says, because it doesn't do enough to attack the main problems of cost and quality.
"I could have voted for it only if I had assurances from the president that this was the first step in a more comprehensive bill," Mongiardo said, adding that Obama did give that assurance only after the bill passed. "This bill alone will fail. It expands access to 30 million patients in a system that continues to be broken."
Mongiardo said he appeals most to rural voters because he has more in common with them. He loves to hunt, for example, and has posted his yellow Labrador Gunner's pedigree on his campaign Web site. He supports mountaintop-removal mining because, he says, it has created more flat land in Eastern Kentucky.
"As a politician, he certainly takes on the issues that are important to our area, he supports Eastern Kentucky and our needs, he believes in coal," said Harlan County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop, who worked with Mongiardo to create the Black Mountain Recreational Park in Evarts, which has 7,000 acres of ATV trails.
But not everyone in Eastern Kentucky thinks Mongiardo has helped the region.
Pineville lawyer and former state Rep. Steve Cawood said Mongiardo hasn't lived up to his promise as an advocate. "I see him as failing to address health care, failing to speak out on mine safety, failing to support industrial development of any sort for Eastern Kentucky," Cawood said.
Mongiardo has stepped up his television advertising in recent weeks trying to defuse some negative headlines.
Stories about his travel expenses as lieutenant governor were followed by those on his housing allowance. The lieutenant governor is given $30,000 for housing because the official residence was closed in 2002. Mongiardo has said he used that money to help buy a $753,000 farm in Frankfort that is zoned for development, but he has been living with his in-laws instead.
He said he has no plans to develop the farm and hasn't had time to make the farmhouse habitable. He bought the farm from a Frankfort developer with whom he has been a partner in two other development-related companies.
Former state Senate Floor Leader David Karem, who is a Mongiardo supporter, said the stories don't amount to much.
"He cares an awful lot about the people of Kentucky," Karem said. "There's an unbridled spirit in him that's always charging forward."
Mongiardo is certainly passionate about what he believes are Kentucky's natural and underused assets. He outlines an out-of-the-box picture — without taking too many breaths — of a future Kentucky where health care information technology, a high-speed rail system and coal-to-liquid plants bring thousands of jobs, while West Coast high-tech entrepreneurs come to Kentucky to shoot elk and hike a statewide system of trails.
"We give them everything they can imagine doing outdoors, except saltwater of course — Kentucky: No Sharks!" he said with a straight face. "It's a vision that's attainable with the right leadership and the right fight and the right vision; that's why I'm running for U.S. Senate because I have the vision and I have the passion and I believe Kentucky can be all this."